Alexander Stephens Reinforces The Cornerstone

We are all familiar with Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone Speech” which he delievered on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia.  In it he lays out the purpose of the new Confederate government and the proper status of black people:

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.” Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.

One of the things that makes this document essential for the classroom is the clear distinction that Stephens draws between slavery as a “necessary evil” as opposed to a “positive good.”  We see this shift beginning in the 1830s.  After the war, Stephens took the opportunity to clarify his thinking in this speech.

As for my Savannah speech, about which so much has been said and in regard to which I am represented as setting forth “slavery” as the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy, it is proper for me to state that that speech was extemporaneous, the reporter’s notes, which were very imperfect, were hastily corrected by me; and were published without further revision and with several glaring errors. The substance of what I said on slavery was, that on the points under the old Constitution out of which so much discussion, agitation, and strife between the States had arisen, no future contention could arise, as these had been put to rest by clear language. I did not say, nor do I think the reporter represented me as saying, that there was the slightest change in the new Constitution from the old regarding the status of the African race amongst us. (Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession; out of it rose the breach of compact, for instance, on the part of several Northern States in refusing to comply with Constitutional obligations as to rendition of fugitives from service, a course betraying total disregard for all constitutional barriers and guarantees.)

I admitted that the fathers, both of the North and the South, who framed the old Constitution, while recognizing existing slavery and guaranteeing its continuance under the Constitution so long as the States should severally see fit to tolerate it in their respective limits, were perhaps all opposed to the principle. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, all looked for its early extinction throughout the United States. But on the subject of slavery – so called – (which was with us, or should be, nothing but the proper subordination of the inferior African race to the superior white) great and radical changes had taken place in the realm of thought; many eminent latter-day statesmen, philosophers, and philanthropists held different views from the fathers.

The patriotism of the fathers was not questioned, nor their ability and wisdom, but it devolved on the public men and statesmen of each generation to grapple with and solve the problems of their own times.

The relation of the black to the white race, or the proper status of the coloured population amongst us, was a question now of vastly more importance than when the old Constitution was formed. The order of subordination was nature’s great law; philosophy taught that order as the normal condition of the African amongst European races. Upon this recognized principle of a proper subordination, let it be called slavery or what not, our State institutions were formed and rested. The new Confederation was entered into with this distinct understanding. This principle of the subordination of the inferior to the superior was the “corner-stone” on which it was formed. I used this metaphor merely to illustrate the firm convictions of the framers of the new Constitution that this relation of the black to the white race, which existed in 1787, was not wrong in itself, either morally or politically; that it was in conformity to nature and best for both races. I alluded not to the principles of the new Government on this subject, but to public sentiment in regard to these principles. The status of the African race in the new Constitution was left just where it was in the old; I affirmed and meant to affirm nothing else in this Savannah speech.

My own opinion of slavery, as often expressed, was that if the institution was not the best, or could not be made the best, for both races, looking to the advancement and progress of both, physically and morally, it ought to be abolished. It was far from being what it might and ought to have been. Education was denied. This was wrong. I ever condemned the wrong. Marriage was not recognized. This was a wrong that I condemned. Many things connected with it did not meet my approval but excited my disgust, abhorrence, and detestation. The same I may say of things connected with the best institutions in the best communities in which my lot has been cast. Great improvements were, however, going on in the condition of blacks in the South. Their general physical condition not only as to necessaries but as to comforts was better in my own neighbourhood in 1860, than was that of the whites when I can first recollect, say 1820. Much greater would have been made, I verily believe, but for outside agitation. I have but small doubt that education would have been allowed long ago in Georgia, except for outside pressure which stopped internal reform.

That final paragraph is fascinating and raises all sorts of questions about the intellectual and moral world of Southern slaveholders.  On the one hand it’s hard not to admire Stephens for not abandoning a position that viewed the defense of slavery as the catalyst for secession as opposed to shifting to a purely constitutional argument that does little more than raise further questions about what a defense of those principles was meant to protect.   At the same time we are left to ponder the moral profile of an individual who continued to view the denial of education and marriage as problematic, but not slavery itself.  Did he really still believe that African Americans stood their best chance of flourishing at the hands of the very people who could decided when and under what conditions it would be permitted?

If not for those outside agitators…

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

9 comments… add one

  • Mike Hawthorne Jan 23, 2013

    Translated into everyday parlance, Stephen’s attitude boils down to, “If anybody dares to suggest that I, a white man, dwarfish and wizened as I am, am not superior to any black man, he’s making the mistreatment of slaves more likely, as well as asking for a fight.”

  • Andy Hall (was AndyinTexas) Jan 23, 2013

    My own opinion of slavery, as often expressed, was that if the
    institution was not the best, or could not be made the best, for both
    races, looking to the advancement and progress of both, physically and
    morally, it ought to be abolished. It was far from being what it might
    and ought to have been. Education was denied. This was wrong. I ever
    condemned the wrong. Marriage was not recognized. This was a wrong that I
    condemned. Many things connected with it did not meet my approval but
    excited my disgust, abhorrence, and detestation.

    I’d be interested to know more about Stephens’ claim that he “often expressed” his condemnation of these things. Lee found aspects of slavery troubling, as well, but did not speak publicly against the institution, and privately was firm in his belief that it was a situation ordained by divine providence, not to be interfered with by men. How and when, exactly, did Stephens express these beliefs? It’s easy to say, later on, “I was always opposed to ___________,” when in fact few people speak up at the time, when it might actually cost them something.

  • Mary Ellen Maatman Jan 23, 2013

    Fascinating. It reveals his supremacism even more clearly than does the Cornerstone speech, I think. The essential wrongness of the simple fact of “ownership” of a person, no matter how “well treated,” not only eluded him, but actually seemed to him to have been a positive good, and a natural order of things.

  • Robert Baker Jan 23, 2013

    Stephens seems to fit the mold nicely for a paternalistic christian slave owner.

  • Jazzeum Jan 23, 2013

    Stephens comments is typical of what politicians in any age do: they try to explain away what they say. Nowadays, it would be some complaint that “my words were taken out of context,” “misinterpreted” or something like that.

    Brad

  • TFSmith1 Jan 23, 2013

    Given Stephen’s position that “the proper subordination of the inferior African race to the superior white” as the way of the world; I wonder how he reconciled that position with the reality of the existence of Haiti?

    • Andy Hall (was AndyinTexas) Jan 24, 2013

      Don’t know about Stephens, but slavery apologists James D. B. DeBow often cited Haiti explicitly as an example of the horrors and inevitable failure of a slave uprising and the resulting black rule. To them, Haiti was Nat Turner writ large.

      • TFSmith1 Jan 26, 2013

        True enough; my point was how did he explain away the reality that he “subordinates” had beaten the crap out of the “elite”…

  • bobhuddleston Jan 24, 2013

    Stephens appears to given the basic Cornerstone Speech at least two times: in Atlanta on
    March 12, 1861, and in Savannah on March 21. The first speech was reported in
    the Atlanta Southern Confederacy the following day and repeated in the Charleston
    Mercury on March 18 but appears to have not been noted in the Northern
    papers. However the second speech was copied from the Savannah Republican
    and made its way into the war-time Rebellion Record, edited by Frank
    Moore (Doc 48, vol. 1, 1861).

    While justifying his involvement in starting the Civil War, Stephens also forgot a
    third time when he used the “Cornerstone” as part of a speech. On April 23, 1861, Stephens addressed the Virginia Secession Convention, urging them to join with the other
    slave states in the new Confederacy. In addition to all but promising that Richmond would be the Confederacy’s capital, Stephens carefully laid out the consequences to the
    Particular Institution if Virginia did not join the Confederacy.

    What is not mentioned in any of the biographies of Robert E. Lee is that Stephens
    made his address right after Lee was appointed major general of the Virginia
    state army – and right after Lee had made his famous and taken out of context
    statement about never drawing his sword except to defend Virginia. Lee’s
    confirmation by the convention was an add-on for the day’s events, when the
    army officer arrived in Richmond after Stephens had already been invited. And Lee had to know that his sword was going to be drawn to defend Virginia as part of the Confederacy. Lee also conveniently forgot that he was still a United States Army officer, since his resignation had not yet been accepted by the Secretary of War.

    As for Stephens, his various declarations that he was misquoted and taken out of
    context is interesting since both the Savannah Republican version of the speech
    as well as the Virginia Convention speech appeared in his authorized biography
    and speech collection, Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in public and private.
    With Letters and Speeches Before, During, and Since the War. National Publishing Company: Philadelphia and Chicago, 1866, a book which was written with his full cooperation, including the use of letters written by president-elect Lincoln to Stephens and the inclusion of a letter from Stephens to Cleveland approving the page proofs.

Leave a Comment