Alexander H. Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech

When historians want to cite evidence of the Civil War being about slavery, they often make use of Alexander H. Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech. As Civil War Emancipation has demonstrated ad nauseum there is plenty of other evidence on this point.

So why the attention to Stephen’s speech, which he gave in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861? Well, for one thing, by then Alexander H. Stephens was Vice President of the Confederacy. He was never really active day-to-day in the Confederate government, but Stephens was still a high-ranking and influential figure. And since the speech was extemporaneous, Alexander Stephens was probably more candid than he might have been in a prepared address. Certainly, he was much more forthcoming on the connection between sectional conflict and slavery than Jefferson Davis ever would be, a man who already recognized the political need to distance the Confederacy from slavery in rhetoric if not in reality.

From Alexander H. Stephen’s rhetoric in the Cornerstone speech and the fact he clarified his remarks prior to publication with the journalist who took it down, Stephen’s clearly wanted to signal that the Confederate government need not soft pedal on slavery.  He stated concerning slavery in this address:

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.

Ultimately, of course, Alexander H. Stephens would be proven wrong. The races really were equal and black Union soldiers would prove it on the battlefield during the war. The Confederacy also ultimately could not withstand northern military force when their system was being undermined on a daily basis by the slaves whose labor kept it functioning. Yet Stephens was correct that the looming conflict was about slavery. Even as he tried to distance himself in later years from his Cornerstone Speech, Stephen’s still had to admit “Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession.”

Certainly, his congressional friend and fellow former Whig, Abraham Lincoln, agreed with him on that point, when he wrote Stephens just before Christmas 1860, offering reassurances his incoming administration had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed. Lincoln concluded his letter of December 22, 1860, writing, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.” No doubt Alexander H. Stephens would have agreed with his Lincoln’s characterization of the problem, even if he couldn’t believe his old friend’s reassurances of non-interference.

Source for the Cornerstone Speech: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?documentprint=76

Source for Alexander H. Stephen’s late clarification on the Cornerstone Speech: http://www.adena.com/adena/usa/cw/cw223.htm

Source for Abraham Lincoln’s leter to Alexander H. Stephens, dated December 20, 1861: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1073

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to Alexander H. Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech

  1. Mark says:

    Actually Davis gave a “cornerstone” speech too — declaring that slavery was “the cornerstone of a Western Republic”

    http://davisspeech.blogspot.com/

    Also see Davis address in “Black Confederates and African Americans” Appendix C.

    • Hi Mark. Many thanks for bringing this speech to my attention. I can make use of it in about two years. It fascinates me though in JD’s inaugural address as President of the Confederacy that he’s much more reticent about slavery, my guess was deliberately. Davis obviously wanted foreign recognition for the Confederacy, which emphasizing slavery would have made harder to get. So he soft pedals it in 1861. Two years later, with Lincoln embracing emancipation and two years of war behind him, things were very different and I could see why JD decided to emphasize slavery more.

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