History is complex, messy, and unyielding to our dearest wishes for easy categorization. That Alexander Stephens understood the Confederacy through its cornerstone of slavery is plainly true and explained in his own words. But the “Cornerstone Speech” goes further, planting the other corners of the Confederate state in concerns over federalism and sovereignty.
Anxious onlookers packed the Savannah Athenaeum on the night of March 21, 1861 to hear the newly appointed Confederate States Vice President, Alexander Stephens. He had held the office a little over one month and played a central role in crafting the Montgomery Constitution, itself adopted only ten days previous. Few Southern politicians were as well placed as “Little Alec” to tell his fellow Georgians what the document contained and how it defined the new Confederate nation. Yet, as one biographer noted, “Stephens got caught up in his own eloquence” and devoted a portion of his speech elaborating on slavery and its central place in the creation of the C.S.A., calling it the “cornerstone” of the new Southern Republic. From that day, his speech became known simply as the “Cornerstone Speech” and continues to play a lead role in understanding the meaning of secession and the Civil War.
Of the Confederacy’s cornerstone, as described by Stephens, there can be no doubt. His language was straightforward and unequivocal. The “proper status of the negro… was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” The Founders struggled with the notion of equal rights, that slavery and the slave trade were “in violation of the laws of nature,” and that the peculiar institution would someday fade away. Stephens believed that Jefferson, Madison, and their ilk erred badly. “They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was in error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’” The new Southern Republic, therefore, aimed to rectify these errors, and he declared that “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.” Stephens based this “great truth” on the grounds of science (likely his reading of the French racial theorist Arthur de Gobineau) and the “social fabric” of the South.
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.
African slaves may someday improve, Stephens suggested, but only through the schooling in work and civilization that plantation slavery offered. Southern plantations would, in fact, offer the symbol of Southern nationality to the world. “In olden times the olive branch was considered the emblem of peace; we will send to the nations of the earth another and far more potential emblem of the same, the cotton plant.”
The speech did Stephens and Confederacy no favors. It complicated the Confederate cause in Europe, as England and France hesitated to jump to the defense of a new nation advertising its foundations in the preservation of slavery, and muddied the waters for Southern defenders who claimed their cause solely based in states’ rights. After the war, Stephens well knew the hostility toward his speech and fought a stubborn rear-guard historiographical battle to revise perceptions. He claimed the speech was “extemporaneous,” the reporters’ notes were “very imperfect” and necessitated his corrections, a sort of nineteenth-century “fake news.”
“Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession,” he admitted, and then attempted to walk back his assertion that the old Constitution was flawed compared to the C.S.A., an unconvincing revision considering his extended meditation on the Philadelphia Constitution’s “sandy foundation.” Several reporters from Savannah newspapers covered the speech and their recollections are nearly identical. The Savannah Republican printed a transcription of the address. The Savannah Daily Morning News merely provided a summary, but their editorial shorthand followed Stephens’ intent precisely: “A fundamental error in the old government had been corrected in the new. The old government was framed on the false theory of the equality of the races—that what God had made unequal was equal. Ours was based on the inequality of the races—on truth.”
The “Cornerstone Speech,” however, should have come as no surprise. Stephens had been discussing these themes for years. When he retired from the House of Representatives in 1859, he spoke the language of racialism, of “gradations in the races of men, from the highest to the lowest type.” Nine days before his Savannah speech, Stephens proclaimed to an Atlanta audience that the Confederate founders in Montgomery had “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.” Two days later in Augusta, he hit the same notes, claiming the new constitution’s protections of slavery “the principal and most important point of all” and “the prime cause of our separation from the United States,” and that the Philadelphia Constitution was flawed—“it was founded upon the idea that African slavery is wrong, and it looked forward to the ultimate extinction of that institution. But time has proved the error, and we have corrected it in the new Constitution.” The three speeches were thematically identical.
The metaphor of a cornerstone was also unoriginal. Stephens borrowed it from Justice Henry Baldwin’s decision in the 1833 Johnson v. Tompkins case over the retrieval of a fugitive slave. Baldwin wrote:
Thus you see that the foundations of the government are laid, and rest on the rights of property in slaves—the whole structure must fall by disturbing the corner stones—if federal numbers cease to be respected or held sacred in questions of property or government, the rights of the states disappear and the government and union dissolve by the prostration of its laws before the usurped authority of individuals.
As one legal historian notes, Baldwin’s opinion “would no doubt have met with the approval of the most radical defenders of slavery.” In addition, all through the winter of 1861, Southern secession commissioners developed these themes repeatedly. Mississippi commissioner Jacob Thompson, for example, told the Florida secession convention in January, “Within this government two societies have become developed. The one is based on free labor, the other slave labor… The one embodies the social principle that equality is the right of man; the other, the social principle that equality is not the right of man, but the right of equals only.” There is also no hard evidence Jefferson Davis regretted Stephens’ speech, despite suggestions to the contrary. In fact, one month after Savannah, President Davis declared to the Confederate Congress that the war began over slavery, and that the institution intended to change “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and cultivated agricultural laborers.” In short, the Savannah speech was consistent with Stephens’ publicly elaborated ideas on slavery and Southern politicians’ explanations of their reasoning and conduct.
Yet Stephens’ speech was more than the cornerstone; his remarks on slavery occupied less than a quarter of the whole. A canny and intelligent public man, he chose his metaphor carefully and deliberately. Most buildings have four corners, and though the cornerstone attracts the eye, the other three corners are no less important to holding up the structure. Stephens dove into considerable detail on the Confederate Constitution recently shaped in Montgomery, Alabama, that it improved upon the U.S. Constitution, and in so doing planted all four corners of the Southern Republic. Slavery held up the Confederate States of America, but so did observations on the nature of power, be it the government’s public purse, the executive, or the basis of Confederate nationality.
The Montgomery Constitution made essential changes to the Old Constitution to protect “all our ancient rights, franchises, and liberties,” Stephens asserted, and in so doing “it is decidedly better than the old.” Many of these changes involved government revenue and expenditures, particularly the tariff. The tariff regimes of the 1820s and 1830s, perceived by many Southerners as biased toward Northern interests, almost caused “a rupture of the Old Union, under the lead of the gallant Palmetto State,” but the new constitution’s language provided for a revenue tariff. There would be no more “building up class interests, or fostering one branch of industry to the prejudice of another under the exercise of the revenue power.” In other words, as he expressed days earlier in Augusta, “the merchant, the mechanic, the businessman, and the laborer, are all placed upon the same footing in that respect—one interest has no more claim to the protection of the Government than another.” In consequence, tariff rates would fall and the new republic would therefore embrace free trade “as far as practicable,” a qualification a former Whig like Stephens was happy to insert.
In the past, revenues had been applied to the building of internal improvements in the states, but these projects too were injudiciously funded to the benefit of Northern states. “The Confederate framers were convinced that internal improvements should be a state function,” historian Marshall L. DeRosa notes. Stephens gloried in the change: “The true principle is to subject the commerce of every locality, to whatever burdens may be necessary to facilitate it. If Charleston harbor needs improvement, let the commerce of Charleston bear the burden.” The changes to the government’s revenue and spending powers signaled two major changes: a revenue tariff would prevent “the extravagance and profligacy of appropriations by the Congress,” and demonstrate the Confederacy better reflected the American revolutionary tradition, that “representation and taxation should go together.”
Stephens also mentioned executive branch power in the new Southern Republic and its contrast with that of the Philadelphia Constitution. He and fellow Georgian Robert Toombs admired the British system of filling the cabinet with parliamentary members, who sat in the Commons and defended their policies directly. Stephens called it “one of the wisest provisions of the British Constitution.” Had they succeeded in altering the Constitution to these ends, it would have modified the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
“[It] would give the legislature a closer check upon the executive,” historian Charles Robert Lee explained, “it would keep the Congress better informed as to administrative policy, and finally, it would place more direct responsibility upon the department heads.” At Montgomery, however, they met with only partial success. While cabinet members did not double as congressmen or senators, they would be given seats on the floor “to participate in the debates and discussions.”
One of the great virtues of this, Stephens believed, was that it allowed cabinet secretaries to trumpet their policies directly to Congress and the country, rather than indirectly through the newspapers. This brought one of the biggest ovations in his speech, as it alluded to the deep-seated corruption involved in the party press system, where lucrative government printing contracts purchased newspaper influence and the monies spread liberally to create a network of loyal papers in every state. In addition, the presidency would be limited to a six-year term with no allowance for reelection, which Stephens called “a decidedly conservative change.” As DeRosa describes it,
They aimed at establishing a custodial executive who would obstruct congressional excesses, would not pit the general government against the state governments, and would use the executive branch to secure the common interests of the states as collectively defined by the latter. Thus, the energy (i.e. power) of the general government would be kept in check by disrupting its stability (i.e. continuity).
For Stephens, this was a change in the interest of good government. “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.”
These changes and many others, however, depended on the C.S.A. protecting its recently declared sovereignty. In a dangerous world of a hostile Northern republic and European empires, Stephens believed the South had the makings of a “high national career.” It represented a sizeable extent of territory stretching from the Atlantic to the western frontier beyond the Mississippi, more than double the size of the original thirteen colonies when they declared their independence. It comprised five million people of both races, although Stephens jumped over the question of citizenship and rights for black Southerners. The South encompassed enormous wealth, income, and land (and slaves), with collective state debts a fraction of the Northern states. Such heralds, he hoped, would attract upper South states to the Confederate cause, and perhaps even beyond into amenable Northern states. “Should they do so, our doors are wide enough to receive them, but not until they are ready to assimilate with us in principle… this process will be upon no such principles of reconstruction as now spoken of, but upon reorganization and new assimilation.” If that occurred, reunion would be consummated under the Montgomery Constitution. Days earlier in Augusta, he explained:
To the North, there are North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri—all gravitating towards us. And we shall not stop here—even the great North-west is gravitating towards us; and, as the rot of disintegration progresses in the old Confederacy, States will be broken up, and may come in to us, when they see that we possess the best of government… But let me say here, that if any of those States desire to join with us, they must first prove that they are worthy to associate with us; that they have changed the erroneous principles which they now hold, and take upon themselves the true principles which we maintain.
Stephens warned that the foundations of the new Southern Republic were only as solid as the virtues and unity of the Southern people (“a people possessing the most conservative character,” he observed in Augusta). The Revolution of 1860 was not like the French Revolution: “France was a nation of philosophers. These philosophers become Jacobins. They lacked that virtue, that devotion to moral principle, and that patriotism which is essential to good government.” If divisions, partisanship, and selfishness emerged, however, “I have no good prophesy for you.”
History is complex, messy, and unyielding to our dearest wishes for easy categorization. That Alexander Stephens understood the Confederacy through its cornerstone of slavery is plainly true and explained in his own words at Savannah and elsewhere. It was a slave-holding republic. But the “Cornerstone Speech” goes further, planting the other corners of the Confederate state in concerns over federalism and sovereignty. His speech was an explanation of what Montgomery meant, about slavery and beyond. Although the document did not perfectly reflect his ideas, Alexander Stephens supported it vigorously in these weeks before the attack on Sumter, and it gives us a glimpse of the full nature of America’s Southern constitution.
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1 Thomas A. Schott. Alexander H. Stephens: A Biography (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1988) 334-335.
2 Don H. Doyle. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015) 36-37; the unabridged text of Stephens’ Cornerstone Address can be found at the State Historical Society of Iowa.
3 Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens. Ed. Myrta Lockett Avary (New York: Doubleday, 1910) 172-175.
4 Thomas E. Schneider. Lincoln’s Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006) 26-27; Charles B. Dew. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001)16; Atlanta Southern Confederacy, March 13, 1861; Albany Patriot, March 28, 1861.
5 Johnson v. Tompkins, 13 FED CAS. 54 (1833); Earl Maltz, “Majority, Concurrence, and Dissent: Prigg v. Pennsylvania and the Structure of Supreme Court Decisionmaking,” Rutgers Law Review, 31 (Winter 2000), 378; Dew, Apostles of Disunion, 14-15, 43.
6 Marshall L. DeRosa. The Confederate Constitution of 1861: An Inquiry into American Constitutionalism (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991) 94.
7 Charles Robert Lee. The Confederate Constitutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963) 97.
8 DeRosa, Confederate Constitution, 80-82.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.