Cornerstone Speech

 

Sometimes it is contended that the Civil War was not fought because of slavery.  That is a completely erroneous view.  The secession statements made by the Confederate states as they left the Union made clear that the defense of the Peculiar Institution was why they were leaving the Union.  Confederate leaders made innumberable speeches at the time citing slavery as the cause of the War.  It is only in retrospect that some partisans of the Confederacy attempted to claim that slavery was not the root cause of the conflict.

Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, was quite forthright in regard to slavery as the cause of the conflict between the North and the South, as he made clear in his Cornerstone Speech of March 21, 1861.  In reviewing his speech from a 21rst Century perspective, it would be easy to write him off as simply a racist monster.  Such was not the case.  As an attorney he volunteered to represent a black woman accused of murder and successfully defended her.  Known for his charity, he paid for the education of over a hundred students from poor families, black and white, male and female.  By the time of his death, Stephens had spent all of his funds on charity and died virtually penniless.  No, the Cornerstone speech was not the work of someone who hated blacks, but of someone who looked upon slavery as part of the fabric of Southern life, and could literally not imagine how the South could exist without it.  The passage of the Cornerstone speech that is most striking on the Civil War as caused by slavery is as follows:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst 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. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. 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 government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” the real “corner-stone” in our new edifice. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.

Thousands of people who begin to understand these truths are not yet completely out of the shell; they do not see them in their length and breadth. We hear much of the civilization and Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa. In my judgment, those ends will never be attained, but by first teaching them the lesson taught to Adam, that “in the sweat of his brow he should eat his bread,” and teaching them to work, and feed, and clothe themselves.

The full text of the speech may be read here.  After the War, Stephens attempted to back-pedal on his speech here.  I will leave to the readers of this post as to whether Stephens is convincing in the attempt.

 

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Published in: on July 6, 2010 at 5:35 am  Comments (17)  
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17 Comments

  1. I come from a family literally divided by the War between the States. We are from West Virginia, the state birthed by this war. There have been two McCutcheon reunions a mere county apart every since those days and neither family today as far as I can tell knows which family stood for North/South.
    I cannot properly cite the source (I apologize) but I have read a Charleston SC pastor’s letter to a friend written about the time of SC succession. His belief was that because the issue of slavery was the focus, that the south would be defeated in the coming conflict and that miserable years were ahead. And this was because God would not honor this stand for this particularly brutal institution. He was a prophet as we know.
    Yet you must agree that not all who fought for the south fought FOR slavery. Gen. Lee asked that black men be freed if they fought with the armies of the south. He emancipated the slaves in his possession before Lincoln made public the Emancipation Proclamation. There were freed blacks who in turn were slave owners in the south… so the issue is complex. Southerners are guilty of trying to clean up the issue making it one of States Rights, Northerners are guilty of making the South uniformly evil over the issue of slavery and both are guilty of oversimplifying the reality of that age.
    In my humble opinion based on the experience of living a divided life “in between”.
    In Christ
    Dennis McCutcheon

  2. General Lee opposed slavery Dennis and did support emancipation for blacks who fought for the Confederacy when the proposal came up at the end of the war. Most of the men who fought in the Confedrate ranks had no personal stake in slavery. Only the wealthy could afford slaves and most of the private soldiers were poor. However, their votes helped elect civilian leaders throughout the South who were ready to destroy the Union rather than compromise one iota on the question of slavery. Ironically the only way in which the Confederates could have guaranteed success was to free the slaves and then fight for independence.

  3. Just because slavery is mentioned in the articles of secession does not mean that the war was over “slavery”. They mentioned slavery as ONE of the reasons for SECEDING. But they fought a war because they were INVADED, pure and simple.Who can blame them for seceding? The South endured northern foot dragging on keeping a leash on the radical element within the larger abolitionist movement. MANY hundreds of southerners had been murdered over the years by these fanatics. So when a man from their party actually got elected, it was adding insult to injury.Not to mention that Lincoln’s views on the nature of the Union itself were a clear contradiction to those of the Founders.

  4. I think you will find this book of great interest.

    http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1338

    The Confederacy was all about white supremacy and slavery.

  5. Jefferson Davis in his message to the Confederate Congress of April 29, 1861 was quite clear on what the war was about:

    “The climate and soil of the Northern States soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, whilst the converse was the case at the South. Under the unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections, the Northern States consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery within their limits. The South were willing purchasers of a property suitable to their wants, and paid the price of acquisition without harboring a suspicion that their quiet possession was to be disturbed by those who were inhibited not only by want of constitutional authority, but by good faith as vendors, from disquieting a title emanating from themselves. As soon, however, as the Northern States that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling voice in Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States was inaugurated and gradually extended. A continuous series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves. Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting amongst the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt; means were furnished for their escape from their owners, and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond; the constitutional provisions for their rendition to their owners was first evaded, then openly denounced as a violation of conscientious obligation and religious duty; men were taught that it was a merit to elude, disobey, and violently oppose the execution of the laws enacted to secure the performance of the promise contained in the constitutional compact; owners of slaves were mobbed and even murdered in open day solely for applying to a magistrate for the arrest of a fugitive slave; the dogmas of these voluntary organizations soon obtained control of the Legislatures of many of the Northern States, and laws were passed providing for the punishment, by ruinous fines and long-continued imprisonment in jails and penitentiaries, of citizens of the Southern States who should dare to ask aid of the officers of the law for the recovery of their property. Emboldened by success, the theater of agitation and aggression against the clearly expressed constitutional rights of the Southern States was transferred to the Congress; Senators and Representatives were sent to the common councils of the nation, whose chief title to this distinction consisted in the display of a spirit of ultra fanaticism, and whose business was not “to promote the general welfare or insure domestic tranquillity,” but to awaken the bitterest hatred against the citizens of sister States by violent denunciation of their institutions; the transaction of public affairs was impeded by repeated efforts to usurp powers not delegated by the Constitution, for the purpose of impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority. Finally a great party was organized for the purpose of obtaining the administration of the Government, with the avowed object of using its power for the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by all the States in common, whether by conquest or purchase; of surrounding them entirely by States in which slavery should be prohibited; of thus rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars. This party, thus organized, succeeded in the month of November last in the election of its candidate for the Presidency of the United States.”

    “In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the well-being and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented form about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced. With this view the Legislatures of the several States invited the people to select delegates to conventions to be held for the purpose of determining for themselves what measures were best adapted to meet so alarming a crisis in their history. ”

    http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/jdmess.html

    The Civil War was all about slavery from start to finish, neo-Confederate hogwash notwithstanding.

  6. “MANY hundreds of southerners had been murdered over the years by these fanatics.”

    That is fanciful in the extreme, unless one includes the fighting in “Bleeding Kansas” where pro-slavery forces did more than their share of the killing.

  7. Actually that statement would not be correct even if Bleeding Kansas is included. Approximately 50 persons died there over the issue of slavery:

    http://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1995summer_watts.pdf

  8. But they fought a war because they were INVADED,

    They weren’t invaded, they unconstitutionally seceded from the Union, and Lincoln merely stood up for the rule of law. Had he let the confederacy go without a fight, he would have established an awful precedent whereby any state could, in the future, simply walk away from the Union for whatever reason he deemed fit.

    he South endured northern foot dragging on keeping a leash on the radical element within the larger abolitionist movement.

    This is utter hogwash,. First of all, even if true, it would be akin to blue states seceding because the GOP hadn’t curtailed its “pro-life fringe.” Well, the abolitionists of the day were about as successful in actually changing the laws as the modern pro-lifers have been, so I have a hard time swallowing that as justification for secession.

    In actuality, in the decade that led up to the war, the south had won practically every major political battle. They won the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott decision went their way, they very nearly got a pro-slavery Constitution in Kansas despite the fact that a clear majority of its citizens opposed slavery, and they won most of the major elections until 1860. South Carolina voted to seceded barely a month after Lincoln was elected, and several months before he was inaugurated. In other words, there was hardly a long train of abuses that could possibly justify rebellion and secession. Unless of course someone you don’t like winning an election is some kind of justification for rebellion.

    Not to mention that Lincoln’s views on the nature of the Union itself were a clear contradiction to those of the Founders.

    Really? Care to actually explain this one, are you content to wallow in ignorance?

    • I believe even today in States Rights. If a state decides to no longer be a part of the Union, then it is their right to secede. States joined the Union voluntarily and should be able to leave the Union if they want to.

  9. “They weren’t invaded, they unconstitutionally seceded from the Union, and Lincoln merely stood up for the rule of law.”

    Okay. Let’s not overstate the case, and let’s not be guilty of doing what we so often decry and reading into the Constitution something that is plainly not there. While the neo-Confederates are wrong in saying that the Constitution permits secession, let’s not be equally guilty by claiming that the Constitution forbids it. The Constitution is wholly silent on the matter.

    And, besides, the ONLY thing that makes secession, in ANY context, right or wrong is whether the seceding party happens to be successul or not in defending – by war if necessary – its decision to secede. Had the South successfully defended itself and its decision to secede, claims that secession was “unconstitutional” would be laughable (and even with the outcome going the other way, I still think the claim of “unconstitutionality” is wholly without merit).

    As Dr. Franklin states in one of Don’s favorite musicals, “A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as ‘our rebellion.’ It is only in the third person – ‘their rebellion’ – that it becomes illegal.”

  10. let’s not be equally guilty by claiming that the Constitution forbids it.

    The Constitution is silent on a lot of matters, but I do not know that silence means assent. Secession isn’t one of those case-by-case matters. Either states have a right to secede or they don’t. I don’t see how there can possibly be any middle ground on this.

    And, besides, the ONLY thing that makes secession, in ANY context, right or wrong is whether the seceding party happens to be successul or not in defending

    No, what determines whether it is right or wrong is looking at the Constitution, and the words of the Framers, and understanding whether or not there is a right to secede from the Union. Instead of exploring that in the comments here, I think I’ll just post about it.

  11. Again, if a party is successful in seceding, EVEN IF the Constitution says “Thou shalt not secede …”, it’s completely irrelevant. Who cares what the Constitution that no longer applies to the successful seceding party says? What? Is the losing party going to sue the successful party for breaching the Constitution?

    The ONLY thing that determines whether secession is permissible or not is whether one is successful. That’s applicable to any rebellion. If you succeed, it’s legal; if you don’t succeed, then you’re screwed.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that once one party has resolved to dissolve the ties that bind that party to another political entity, it all comes down to whether that party can successfully defend that resolve, and the words of the Constitution or any laws that previously bound that party are wholly irrelevant. They are nonbinding on the newly formed entity that has successfully defended its decision to sever those ties.

    It all comes down to who wins, so any determination of whether the rebellion was “illegal” is necessarily ex post facto.

  12. “I believe even today in States Rights. If a state decides to no longer be a part of the Union, then it is their right to secede. States joined the Union voluntarily and should be able to leave the Union if they want to.”

    The Country is more than the states Dan, it is the people. The only way that any part of the country could peacefully separate from the other parts is if a majority of the American people agreed to such a separation. This of course is even more true today than in 1861 since the population is far more mobile, and a large part of the population will live in several states during their lives, which was not the case prior to the Civil War.

  13. But they fought a war because they were INVADED,

    They weren’t invaded, they unconstitutionally seceded from the Union, and Lincoln merely stood up for the rule of law.

    It is hard to characterize an unarmed supply ship as an INVASION. But this is what provoked the secessionary states to fire on the flag. While I agree that the Union had a case to make even if the Union had fired first, the Union did not.

  14. I believe even today in States Rights. If a state decides to no longer be a part of the Union, then it is their right to secede. States joined the Union voluntarily and should be able to leave the Union if they want to.

    The American people long ago submitted the question to the God of Battles and he rendered his verdict.

  15. It all comes down to who wins, so any determination of whether the rebellion was “illegal” is necessarily ex post facto.

    Well, no. The extreme legal realist view that law is just what happens ignores the actual anthropology of how people think about and respond to law. If law were only the name we give to successful applications of force, we wouldn’t bother with law and legal argument in the first place.

    Your ex post facto argument is, of course, of absolutely no use to someone in 1860 who is trying to decide whether secession is legal or not, and therefore whether they should fight it.

    You also appear to be collapsing the distinction between secession and revolution, which nearly everyone in antebellum and Civil War America knew and recognized.

  16. “You also appear to be collapsing the distinction between secession and revolution, which nearly everyone in antebellum and Civil War America knew and recognized.”

    Quite right Adam. Certainly Robert E. Lee prior to the Civil War did:

    “The South, in my opinion, has been aggrieved by the acts of the North, as you say. I feel the aggression and am willing to take every proper step for redress . It is the principle I contend for, not individual or private benefit. As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and institutions, and would defend any state if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution. The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation, and surrounded it with so many guards and securities, if it was intended to be broken by every member of the Confederacy at will. It was intended for “perpetual union,” so expressed in the preamble, and for the establishment of a government, not a compact, which can only be dissolved by revolution or the consent of all the people in convention assembled. It is idle to talk of secession. Anarchy would have been established, and not a government, by Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the other patriots of the Revolution. . . . Still, a Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me. I shall mourn for my country and for the welfare and progress of mankind. If the Union is dissolved, and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people; and, save in defense, will draw my sword on none.”


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