Rod O’Barr’s recent blog “The So-Called ‘Cornerstone Speech’” The So-Called “Cornerstone Speech” – Abbeville Institute is really excellent.
Over the years, the so-called “Cornerstone Speech” by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens has been cited as proof positive that slavery was the cause of the Confederacy. Rod O’Barr did a good job of debunking that, but he omitted one other important source from Stephens, a diary which he kept while he was imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor immediately after the end of the War Between the States. This source also contradicts the “only slavery” narrative and should be read in conjunction with the “Cornerstone Speech”.
Of first note is the following observation which he made on June 5, 1865:
“As for my Savannah 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 the 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.”
Stephens stated that the point he was trying to make was that there was no change in the treatment of slavery in the Confederate Constitution from its treatment in the United States Constitution. He stated, “The only striking difference between the old Constitution and the new [in regard to slavery] was the immediate and perpetual prohibition of the African slave-trade in the latter, whereas continuance of this traffic for twenty years had been provided for in the former.”
He further stated:
“The substance of what I said on slavery was, than on the points under the old Constitution out of which so much discussion, agitation, and strife between the States had arisen, no future contention could arise, as these had been put to rest by clear language. I did not say, nor do I think the reporter represented me as saying, that there was the slightest change in the new Constitution from the old regarding the status of the African race among us. (Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession; out of it rose the breach of compact, for instance, on the part of several Northern States in refuling to comply with Constitutional obligations as to rendition of fugitives from service, a course betraying a total disregard for all constitutional barriers and guarantees.
I admitted that the fathers, both of the North and of the South, who framed the old Constitution, while recognizing existing slavery and guaranteeing its continuance under the Constitution so long as the States should severally see fit to tolerate it in their respective limits, were perhaps all opposed to the principle. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, all looked for its early extinction throughout the United States. But on the subject of slavery – so called – (which was with us, or should be, nothing the propere rsubordination of the inferior African race to the superior white) great and radical changes had taken place in the realm of thought; many eminent latter-day statesmen, philosophers, and philanthropists held different views from the fathers.
The patriotism of the fathers was not questioned, nor their ability and wisdom, but it devolved on the public men and statesmen of each generation to grapple with and solve the problems of their own times.”
As to the Confederate Constitution, Stephens opined:
“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. That status of the African race in the new Constitution was just where it was left in the old; I affirmed and meant to affirm nothing else in this Savannah speech.”
As Michael Martin pointed out in his previous essay on the “Cornerstone Speech” Revisiting the “Cornerstone Speech” – Abbeville Institute this view of the black race being subordinate to the white was common among whites in both the North and the South at that time. In his previous essay Historical Context Explains Secession – Abbeville Institute, O’Barr also proves that slavery was not the sole cause of secession. Indeed, that Stevens referred to the status of the races and not slavery is shown by the following statement:
“My own opinion on 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 neighborhood 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.”
This entry adds complexity to the discussion of secession, the War, and the Confederate government.
Myrta Lockett Avary, ed., Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens: His Diary Kept When A Prisoner at Fort Warren, Boston Harbour, 1865, Giving Incidents and Reflections of His Prison Life and Some Letters and Reminiscences. Library of Southern Civilization, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998 (1910), pp. 171-174.