February 11, 1812: Alexander Stephens is Born

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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.  A friend of Abraham Lincoln prior to the War, he had argued against secession until he realized that it was inevitable.  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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No Comment Needed

Hattip to commenter Nate Winchester.

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7 Comments

  1. My freshman Ancient History text on the fall of the (western) Roman Empire: There are as many theories as writers.

    Absolutely, Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Why was it the cause? Talk among yourselves.

    Personal connection: A great-great-great grandfather was KIA with the NY 69th at First Bull Run. We have his tintype picture in uniform with the family Bible.

  2. “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.”

    Just as today, you have people who consider themselves pro-choice, not because they genuinely hate babies or children, but because they believe the “right to choose” to be part of the fabric of American life and can’t imagine how women’s equality can exist without it?

  3. Perhaps. Although I would note that prior to the Civil War some whites were executed for killing slaves. Now in New York someone who destroys an unborn child in an assault on the mother will face no charges for ending the life of the unborn child:

    https://www.theepochtimes.com/accused-murderer-gets-abortion-charge-dropped-due-to-new-law_2795429.html

    The law has difficulty with a concept like: you are a human being when we feel like it. Howe many enormities throughout history are due to selfishness and a failure of imagination and empathy?

  4. “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.”
    Principles beget princes and princesses. Bishops of the Catholic Church are called Princes of the Church because they adhere to, embody, that is, personify eternal truths; eternal principles. All men personify eternal truths found “the
    Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” by their very being, their very existence. “…all men are created equal” not born equal. Impacted by genetics, culture, nurturing and experience beginning from the very first moment of their existence, all men are different, unique, individual; and they are still one race of men created equal by “their Creator”.
    The rational soul endowed by “their Creator” makes all sovereign persons the “same”. Indifference to color, sex, place of birth and capabilities is required by this “corner stone principle” laid down by God, when “their Creator” endowed the immortal human soul with “certain unalienable human rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. “The pursuit of Happiness” is often described as owning property. The pursuit of Happiness is man’s pursuit of the truth, eternal principles. Truths will set man free.
    Owning oneself in truth, personifying eternal principles is called sovereignty. The sovereignty of the person institutes the sovereign state. The state ought not to deny the sovereignty of any person, of any race, of any intelligence, of any maturity.
    It is the duty of the state to safeguard, in the words of Alexander H. Stephens “to guarantee” every person’s “pursuit of Happiness”.
    Thomas Jefferson knew exactly the principles of freedom in The Declaration of Independence without regard to man and mankind’s preferences. Article IV section 3: “…nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States and the consent of Congress.”
    The confederate states had ratified our Constitution to become part of the United States. To secede would be like breaking a marriage vow, to divorce itself from the family, to destroy the Union.
    Lincoln did in fact fight the Civil War to maintain the Union. The Civil War was fought to preserve the freedom of all men to pursue their Happiness.
    NB “men” and “mankind” represent every member of Homo Sapiens. Notice too, that when any man abandons eternal truth, in this case “that all men are created equal”, he abandons common sense and becomes a lost cause…sand.

  5. Stephens was a Unionist until Georgia’s secession was confirmed. Of course, with the evident fraud in Georgia (and elsewhere), it’s difficult to accept that it actually was confirmed….

    Be that as it may, no, his after-the-fact attempt to recast his justification for secession in terms more suitable for the Lost Cause project is unworthy of a man of his undoubted intellect.

    Stephens was a titan of his era, and Lincoln (as a fellow Whig) admired him greatly. Indeed, they were friends, another example of what made the sundering of the nation a tragedy.

    While their 1865 negotiations at City Point went nowhere, Lincoln ordered Stephens’ nephew to be released from a POW camp after “Alex” asked about his welfare. Stephens was grateful for that gesture, which went far beyond what he’d asked for.

    Here’s an interesting article about fraud and related chicanery in the Georgia secession vote.

    https://cenantua.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/on-georgias-secession-150-years-ago-yesterday/

  6. Elaine K et al, change a few words in the speech – eg do not speak of slavery but of abortion – and the implications for America today are eerie and frightening. Guy McClung, Texas

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