Friday, August 14, 2009

Stephens’ “Cornerstone”

Alexander Hamilton Stephens

Alexander Hamilton Stephens, (1812-1883), Vice President of the Confederacy and all round politician was basically a moderate. His political record indicates on many matters that he was in no way a Southern extremist or a pro-slavery fanatic. In fact his moderation is abundantly indicated in much, if not all of his political record.1 It is that well attested and correct perception of Stephens as a moderate that makes his infamous Cornerstone speech both interesting and illuminating.

The Cornerstone speech was given by Stephens in a hall in the city of Savannah on March 21, 1861 and in it he discusses the principles and prospects of the new Confederate government and state.

Stephens mentions that although the new Confederate constitution is almost exactly the same as the older American constitution it as some changes that as you read Stephen’s states are for the better.

Some changes have been made. Some of these I should have preferred not to have seen made; but other important changes do meet my cordial approbation. They form great improvements upon the old constitution. So, taking the whole new constitution, I have no hesitancy in giving it as my judgment that it is decidedly better than the old.2

After this introduction Stephen’s then outlines the improvements all of which are those that were subject to sectional disputes. For example:

We allow the imposition of no duty with a view of giving advantage to one class of persons, in any trade or business, over those of another. All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. Honest labor and enterprise are left free and unrestricted in whatever pursuit they may be engaged. This old thorn of the tariff, which was the cause of so much irritation in the old body politic, is removed forever from the new.3

Thus the tariffs which sought by taxation to improve the prospects of American Business but which were considered an imposition by many Southerners, including cotton growers are deemed unconstitutional. This was of course largely opposed not simply because it was perceived to be against the interests of planters but because it was perceived to be interference in the day to day activities of planters and their economic prospects.

Again, the subject of internal improvements, under the power of Congress to regulate commerce, is put at rest under our system. The power, claimed by construction under the old constitution, was at least a doubtful one; it rested solely upon construction. We of the South, generally apart from considerations of constitutional principles, opposed its exercise upon grounds of its inexpediency and injustice.4

Here is another restriction upon the central government. It was believed that the power to finance and carry out internal improvements was unjust; in that monies collected at A should not go to pay improvements in B. further lurking behind this was the idea that the central government could use such leverage to interfere in “domestic institutions”, (slavery), and therefore the central government should be kept out. Only states should do internal improvements. Of course Stephens never explains how state taxation used to pay for improvements in county A as against county B were any different from a central government using tax money from state A to pay for improvements in state B.
Another feature to which I will allude is that the new constitution provides that cabinet ministers and heads of departments may have the privilege of seats upon the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives and may have the right to participate in the debates and discussions upon the various subjects of administration.5
This change is of course the adoption of a feature of the British system which has Cabinet Ministers defending their policies in Parliament and their seats. Stephens however feels that Cabinet Ministers should be only selected from the elected representatives of the Confederate Congress or Senate. So that the system is even more similar to the British system.

Another change in the constitution relates to the length of the tenure of the presidential office. In the new constitution it is six years instead of four, and the President rendered ineligible for a re-election. This is certainly a decidedly conservative change. It will remove from the incumbent all temptation to use his office or exert the powers confided to him for any objects of personal ambition.6

Another indication of Confederate fear that central authority could lead to the creation of system by which the central government is used for purposes that reward “spoils” men and ambition. It is of course interesting that there seems to be little concern that state central authority could be used in the same way. Of course it is mainly just another way of protecting the “local” authority from the central government’s power.

Stephens then comes to the central focus of the improvements in the new Confederate constitution.

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. 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."7

Now Stephens out of his own mouth utters the great central truth about Succession and the establishment of the Confederacy and the central “principle” on which it is based. He casts aside the Declaration of Independence’s statement “All men are created equal”, that they are endowed with certain “inalienable” rights. Stephens even admits that Jefferson and the founding fathers hoped Slavery would wither away eventually. Stephens further admits that slavery and the agitation around slavery were the cause of succession and hence the civil war that might come. Stephens further declares that the founders were wrong to think that slavery was wrong and should hopefully disappear. Thus in some respect the creation of the Confederacy was a revolution against the Declaration of Independence and the hopes of the Founders. All of this especially in light of what Stephens would say later and the established “correct” version created in the late 19th century, is most revealing. Here right at the beginning of the Civil War a prominent Southern Statesman, and a moderate to boot, was emphatically saying it was about slavery. Stephens is not finished however.

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.8

Thus Stephens emphatically says that the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy is human inequality and the slavery that arises from such inequality. Further that slavery was natural, good and proper for Black people. That the notion of basic human equality was false and wrong and that inequality was the great principle of the Confederacy which would one day be recognized world wide.

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.9

Stephens again reiterates that inequality and hence slavery is the basis of the Confederate social system. I wonder what Jefferson would have thought?

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.10

So Black people are created to be subordinate; to be the foundation of the Confederate system. It is a “principle” that Blacks being inferior should be subordinate, indeed enslaved, and that the Confederate government is founded on this “natural” inferiority and subordination, which of course is “best” for Black people. The Confederate government is carrying out, according to Stephens, in practice the divinely ordained principle of the “natural” subordination of the “inferior” and further this is the foundation of the Confederate government and society. What Stephens said latter about this speech is most revealing but more of that later.

The rest of Stephens’ speech is an optimistic look at the prospects of the new Confederacy and how given its wealth, size, population the prospects were very bright for both survival and expansion.

Well we all now how the story turned out; the Confederacy was crushed in a 4 year civil war by the far more powerful Union. Slavery both collapsed and was destroyed. Blacks in the former Confederacy gained certain political rights which they exercised and then came the backlash in which, so-called, “Bourbon” governments regained power and instituted mass disenfranchisement, “Jim Crow” laws, massive violence against Blacks etc., etc. During all of this a re-writing of the Civil War and the conflicts that preceded it was done. Characterized by demonizing Abolitionists, down playing or in fact ignoring slavery, disregarding black people and any perspectives they might have, combined with a romantic nostalgic idea of the “Lost Cause” and the Confederacy. A prime example of that was the novel Gone with the Wind. In this atmosphere that emerged after the Civil War many former Confederate politicians had ample scope to get a sympathetic hearing for what the war and conflict was “really” about. In other words they either lied a lot or exercised extraordinary self deception. What was said before and after the Civil War could and did differ. It was simply unacceptable to state bluntly that the Confederacy was mainly created to safeguard slavery from real and perceived threats against it so history in hindsight was rewritten to say, over and over again, ad-nauseaum that succession and the Civil War was not about slavery at all that it was a mere incident to real causes that were more honourable and not disagreeable causes like retaining and safeguarding slavery. Added to this was a copious literature stating again ad-nauseaum that slavery was nothing much to get upset about anyway. So in this conducive atmosphere of self-deception and revisionism Stephens could toss out his “explanation” of his speech. Said speech stood out like a drunken groom at a wedding it had to be ignored as much as possible, and when impossible to ignore explained away.11

As for my Savanna speech, [The Cornerstone 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.12

First we hear that the Reporters notes were “inaccurate” a common tactic when a politician says something that turns out to be embarrassing later on. Of course it is rather interesting that Stephens was saying similar things at other meetings at the same time so I think it rather likely the reporter got the speech right.13

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.14

This is hemming and hawing it in my opinion amounts to I said something almost exactly like I was reported saying but I didn’t say exactly that. Finally it is very easy to demonstrate that Stephens’ view of the relationship that existed between Blacks and Whites in 1787 is simply wrong. Not only were all Blacks not subordinate to all Whites in 1787 some could vote and were recognized has state citizens by some states. Further it is easy to demonstrate that some free Blacks who lived in the Confederacy were not a subordinate class to all Whites. As for the rest of it that he was merely repeating that the “African race” was in the same position under the new constitution of the Confederacy as under the old U.S.A. constitution, a reading of the speech reveals this to be, shall we say “bogus”. Stephens in the recorded speech calls the subordination, slavery, of the Black person as a clear founding principle of the new Confederate government, and admits clearly that the founders, including Jefferson, thought all men were basically equal and looked forward to the eventual disappearance of slavery. Further he states that the Founders believed as a principle in essential human equality whereas the new Confederate government was founded on the principle of inequality and that this was a great truth which would soon be recognized world wide. In other words Stephens is lying. Whether or not he was consciously lying when he wrote the above is unknown but even if he believed his own lies he was still lying.15

How can I be so sure that Stephen’s was lying? It is easy. On March 13, 1861 in Atlanta Stephens gave a speech in which he said the following concerning the Confederate Constitution and aims of its creators; that they:

…solemnly discarded the pestilent heresy of fancy politicians, that all men, of all races, were equal, and we had made African inequality and subordination, and the equality of white men, the chief corner stone of the Southern Republic.16

It is easy to demonstrate how during the various Succession crises how central the survival of slavery was to believers in Succession, how concerned so many were with securing the survival of slavery. How during the actual crisis of the succession winter of 1860-61, how central was slavery to their demands for succession. The contemporary documents, newspaper accounts talk all about what a grave threat to slavery was the election of Abraham Lincoln. About how only succession would secure slavery from attack. After the war the contemporary documentary record was ignored and the losers spent enormous time and resources rewriting i.e., falsifying history and their own deeds and words.17 Stephens’ efforts resulted in his multi-volume book A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. The book alleged that the war was over the principle of constitutional liberty and the centralization and tyranny. That slavery was a mere question over which these two principles fought and that to call those who fought the efforts of those in the north to centralize and impose tyranny a pro-slavery party or group was utterly false.18 To describe this as untrue is to be evasive it is quite simply bold-face lies. Stephen’s cornerstone speech damns his post war apologia as simply false. In early 1861 Stephens’ could publicly state what the conflict was really about just as could other Southern politicians, Newspapers etc. After the war it was recognized that such honesty was unacceptable and it was too painful to accept in retrospect what the conflict had been mainly about so memory and history had to be “corrected” and a new improved version of reality banded about. Thus regarding the American Civil War what former Confederate politicians said about the causes of the conflict after the war should be discounted as self-serving and efforts concentrated on what they said and or did at the time. Stephens is an excellent example of this.

This last comment by Stephens illustrates to perfection the self serving nature of the post-war flood of ex-Confederate memoirs and apologia.
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.19
Interestingly it is not difficult to find that yes indeed Stephens is telling the truth when he indicates that prior to the war he had problems with certain aspects of slavery. However he does not mention that he expressed his doubts privately and even then only intermittently. As for his comment about slavery should be abolished if it wasn’t for the best for both Black and White. Well considering that he said repeatedly before the war, in public, that slavery was for the best for Black and White I doubt that this post war comment is entirely to be trusted. Also he became a wealthy slave owner which would certainly indicate that his doubts about the system were not very deep when combined with his public silence of the systems problems.

It is revealing that Stephens mentions that even the best institutions and communities have problems, rather indicating that slavery wasn’t so bad after all; it just needed to be twicked. This is made clear by Stephen’s assertion that “great improvements” were being made in the conditions of Blacks, that they were becoming comfortable and even getting “comforts” i.e., luxuries. This is self serving and not to be taken seriously. It is an established fact that the life expectancy of Black slaves was significantly worst than the White life expectancy in the south. The actual exact figure is unknown but it appears to have been as little as one half White life expectancy. In other words slavery produced conditions of life has bad as the worst city slum. I frankly doubt that conditions much improved between 1820-1860 for slaves.20

Then comes the required denunciation of the Abolitionists accusing them, by their “agitation” of retarding efforts to ameliorate the conditions of slaves. This is nonsense. Stephens is trying to excuse his own and other’s silence on the matter of slave conditions. The bottom line is that the improvement of slave conditions such as recognizing slave marriage, limiting the break up of families by sale, and allowing for slave education, would have limited the power of slave owners over their human chattels and so were opposed by the great majority of slave owners. After all the slave owner owned slaves for their own profit not to benefit their slaves and limits on the ownership of their slaves would potentially limit their profits. Certainly education had in the mind of most slave owners the potential of encouraging slaves to want to be free and questioning their subordination. Stephens should have read some Frederick Douglas.

Also it is quite clear that the movement to reform slavery in the south, manumission societies etc., had almost entirely died before the advent of Abolitionism simply because the institution had become very profitable and quite dynamic. There had emerged in the South a powerful constituency interested in perpetuating the institution and getting rid of by fair means or foul any effort to attack the system and this included efforts to reform it, which was seen, rightly in my opinion, as steps towards its eventual abolition.21

Abolitionism emerged as a response to the vitality and strength of the institution and the disappearance of efforts to reform it, along with the flat out disappointment of the founder’s hope that the institution would gradually wither away.22

As I said earlier Stephens was a moderate, even during the Succession winter of 1860-61 he suggested that Abraham Lincoln could be worked with, that his election was nothing to succeed over. He had strong Unionist beliefs and became a secessionist reluctantly. In fact he voted against succession at the Georgia Succession convention. Also he supported candidates like Stephen Douglas who were considered anathema in the South. And as indicated above he had doubts about slavery.23 So it is entirely illuminating to see that this moderate said emphatically that the main cause of all this turmoil was slavery and that the foundation of the new state was the enshrining of this “subordination”. Further he stated that the idea of basic human equality was wrong and that one of the principles of the new Confederate government was human inequality. Finally that He, Stephens, agreed with all the above. If this was the opinion of a moderate and a rather extreme moderate at that for the South at the time; it doesn’t take much to guess what the less moderate, let alone the extremists must have thought. It is ironic that after the war Stephens pictured the conflict as one of liberty against tyranny considering that what the new Confederate government wanted to make safe was the domestic tyranny / despotism of slavery and that is what ultimately Stephens when he threw his lot in with the Confederate government was fighting for and although he would candidly admit it before the war afterwards it became unmentionable and was denied.

In the end this counter revolution against the American Revolution failed but its poisonous fruit continue to mar politics right to the present day.

1. See Wikipedia, Alexander Stephens, Here

2. Cornerstone Speech from Teaching American History Here

3. IBID.

4. IBID.

5. IBID.

6. IBID.

7. IBID.

8. IBID.

9. IBID.

10. IBID.

11. Stampp, Kenneth M., The Irrepressible Conflict, The Imperiled Union, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980, pp. 191-245. For a look at the causes of the Civil War that puts slavery front and cener see, Ransom, Roger L., Conflict and Compromise, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

12. Stephens, Alexander Hamilton, Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, Sunny South Publishing Co., New York, 1910, pp. 172-175, the full work can be located at Internet Archive, Here, Just the actual apologia analyzed can be found at Adena Here.

13. Dew, Charles B., Apostles of Disunion, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 2001, pp. 15-16.

14. See Footnote 12.

15. For the position of free Blacks and the constitutional position of same see Fehrenbacher, Don E., The Dred Scott Case, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978, pp. 335-364. For the position of free Blacks in the South see Berlin, Ira, Slaves without Masters, The New Press, New York, 1974.

16. Quoted in Dew p. 16.

17. IBID. pp. 15-21, Stampp, pp. 191-245. For an account of the coming of the war that uses contemporary sources and emphasizes slavery see Klein, Maury, Days of Defiance, Vintage Books, New York, 1997.

18. Stephens, Alexander Hamilton, A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, 2 volumes, National Publishing Company, Philadelphia PA, 1868-1870, pp. vol. I 9-12, vol. II 534-537.

19. See Footnote 12.

20. See David, Paul A. et al, Reckoning with Slavery, Oxford University Press, New York, 1976 for a collection of essays on the living / working conditions of slaves. See especially Sutch, Richard, The Care and Feeding of Slaves, pp. 231-301. See also Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution, Vintage Books, New York, 1956, pp. 237-278, Blassingame, John W., The Slave Community, Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pp. 249-283. For a look on how slaves were controlled that is clear eyed and shocking see Jones, Norrece T., Born a Child of Freedom Yet a Slave, Wesleyan University Press, London, 1990.

21, See Stampp, 1980, Dew, Oakes, James, The Ruling Race, Vintage Books, New York, 1982, and Slavery and Freedom, Vintage Books, New York, 1991, Channing Steven A., Crisis of Fear, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 1974.

22. Stampp. 1980.

23. See Footnote 1.

Pierre Cloutier

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