The so-called “Cornerstone Speech “delivered March 3, 1861, is one of the go-to documents of purveyors of the “Pious Cause Myth” in modern academia. This choice of title reveals their own deep-seated bias for a fabricated fashionable narrative popular among today’s academics. That narrative claims the War Against Southern independence was “all about slavery.” If you do not believe there is bias, just try to find the full text of Stephens’ speech online. You’ll have to weed through a mountain of sites that edit the speech to make it appear to be all about slavery to find that rare site that has the full text. Never mind that Stephen’s cornerstone analogy regarding slavery is buried in the middle of his speech. In the mind of modern academics, the speech must be titled in a way that emphasizes something that wasn’t a priority to Stephens when he spoke the words. A good speaker begins and ends a speech with what he considers the most important ideas he wants his audience to remember. And in the case of an impromptu speech, the speaker will usually begin with what is first and foremost on his mind. For Stephens, that was NOT slavery as a cornerstone.
Stephens’ self-proclaimed “misquoted” speech, begins with a lengthy examination of concerns regarding the old Constitution, and the correctives the Confederate Constitution provides: (1) the sectionalism of fostering certain classes to the prejudice against others is addressed; (2) the “old thorn of the tariff is forever removed from the new;” (3) sectional use of the general revenue for internal improvements is prohibited; (4) cabinet members granted input in the congressional bodies is added; (5) a one term presidency is added to prevent a reelection bid influencing crony capitalism.
Only after these priorities are covered do we come to the passage in the speech that sends a tingle down the leg of all Southern hating “pious causers.” It is the passage they lift out of all of Stephens’ previously listed contextual reasons the South seceded and attempt to make it appear to stand alone in importance. Never mind that it appears buried in the middle of the speech. Never mind that Stephens explicitly calls slavery the “immediate cause of the late rupture;” obviously meaning that while it was the most recent issue, it was certainly not the only or most important issue leading to secession. The definition of “immediate cause” is the final act in a series of provocations leading to an event. Stephens is explicitly stating that far more than just slavery was the cause of secession. Never mind that in using the cornerstone analogy, Stephens is quoting a Northern justice of the SCOTUS who used the same analogy calling slavery the cornerstone of the US Constitution (see Henry Baldwin, Assoc.SC Justice, in Johnson v. Tompkins, 1833). Never mind that Stephens’ ultimate meaning is that the Constitutional right to legal slave property was the same in both the US and CS Constitutions. Never mind all the above. What matters to pious causers is the tingle they get from a fabricated interpretation of Stephens’ speech. Somehow Stephens’ meaning must be spun to mean that the Confederacy was unique in the belief that blacks were inferior to whites and therefore subordination their natural condition. Let’s numb that tingle a bit.
Stephens’ purpose was to champion the Confederate Constitution as having been worded in such a way as to prevent attempts to circumvent its meaning. Such had been the unfortunate norm regarding the US Constitution. At the same time, he was indicating that the Confederate Constitution reflected the same principles of the old Constitution. Here is the “cornerstone” passage from Stephens’ speech:
“Our new government…Its cornerstone 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 is the “go to” quote for the purveyors of the pious cause myth. They claim this somehow sets the CSA apart from the USA. When actually it is an example of the racist attitudes that were commonly held by most all both North and South. Lincoln is an example:
“… while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Note Lincoln says, “while they (black and white) do remain together.” Obviously, he envisions a time when they will not “remain together.” Northern white supremacy was characterized by this vision and considered blacks an alien population. This is in stark contrast with the Southern vision which considered blacks as fellow Americans. There is in Stephens’ speech an oft overlooked passage portraying how white supremacy played out quite differently in the South compared to the North. That passage will be examined after some preliminary considerations that provide context.
In the North the inability to make slavery profitable had led to its end in most Northern States. Northern slaves were sold South, and because of Northern racism, the few remaining blacks were ostracized into segregated shanty towns; their freedom greatly restricted by Northern black codes. The lack of daily contact with blacks in the North led to an enhanced repulsion toward black flesh and a prevailing sentiment that just wanted them gone.
In the antebellum South white supremacy played out in a vastly different way, particularly given Southern slavery had evolved in a more humane manner into the 19th century. Though there was racial subordination, by sheer weight of numbers there was not segregation. The Southern people socialized, worked, worshiped, and as children played together regardless of race. This kind of human intimacy created bonds that weren’t broken but rather affirmed by abstract notions of natural rights. Those notions had led most in the South to, as Robert E. Lee said, consider slavery “a moral and political evil.” Lincoln himself admitted about Southern attitudes toward slavery that, “If it did not exist among them now, they would not introduce it.” Abolitionist societies in the South outnumbered those in the North by a four to one margin. This Southern ambition to end slavery contained two elements that Northern abolitionism lacked. Northern abolitionism called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation backed by terrorist threats. All this was motivated by an antagonism against the race of the slave and the economic/political power that slavery gave the South. Lacking was any real concern for the welfare of the slave or the Southern economy, as evidenced by the call for an immediate and unplanned emancipation. Lee saw such an “inhumane course” as doing the slaves ”great injustice in setting them free.” Northern sentiment was merely end slavery and by that end Southern power and concomitantly the presence of blacks in America. Blacks were to either “die out” having been cut off landless and penniless from the welfare of the master or be driven out of the country by a colonization that amounted to any godforsaken place but here. Were it not for the onslaught of Northern “anti-slavery,” Southern abolition sentiments would have had time to cultivate a plan for a gradual emancipation beneficial to Southern society, its economy, and the welfare of the freed slaves. But the onslaught of Northern anti-slavery propaganda, calling for slave revolts and terrorist tactics, destroyed any chance of success for Southern abolitionism. Instead, it caused the South to dig in its heels and defend slavery (as even Northern Senator Daniel Webster had admitted) to avoid economic disaster and a harmful displacing of the slaves. And it was the final determination for secession.
Southerners having grown up with black folk had no problem with the idea of living with them slave or free. The South had a larger free black population than did the North. Colonization sentiments were not near as prevalent in the South. Poems expressing familial bonds circulated decrying colonization. Jeff Davis and his brother wrote a manual teaching slave masters how to prep their slaves for eventual freedom and assimilation. Lee had rightly expressed how an immediate unplanned emancipation would cause more harm than good.
All this is the context in which we should read the often-overlooked last portion of Stephens’ Cornerstone passage:
“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…”
Here it can be seen that Stephens understands slavery will eventually end when the “tribes of Africa” are properly prepared. Antebellum whites often referred to blacks in America as “the tribes of Africa.” Union General Butler wrote, “I shall call on Africa to intervene” in his want of reinforcements to defend his Department of the Gulf. So, Stephens is talking about Southern slavery ending. But he realizes its end must be preceded by a preparation for living in a civilized Christian society. This is an example of the “positive good” doctrine that had long been developed in the South. As Jeff Davis had previously said, “Slavery is for its end the preparation of that race for civil liberty and social enjoyment… When the time shall arrive at which emancipation is proper, those most interested will be most anxious to effect it.”
Contrast that with Lincoln’s conviction that blacks could NEVER be assimilated into American society: “… there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality.” (Emphasis mine)
For the slaves to be able to feed and clothe themselves, they would need a place in which to do it. Stephens’ defense of slavery must be understood within this context that the Southern people found imposed on them by the North. The North was against emancipated slaves migrating North or West. How was the South to accommodate a suddenly freed, uneducated, landless, and penniless population equal to almost one half of the total population of the South, all within the limited borders of the South alone? There were vast territories to the West where, as Jefferson and Madison had prior suggested, freed slaves could be dispersed and given land. But the Republican party (as was the case in majority Northern sentiment) wanted those lands preserved for the white race alone. Those pushing for emancipation in the North wanted it to be immediate, unplanned, uncompensated, and kept within the South – the Southern economy and welfare of the blacks be damned. That is the context wherein slavery as a “positive good” can be understood. The institution served to protect blacks from Northern designs to end it. Otherwise, Southerners saw it as much a violation of natural rights as Northerners. Stephens had long believed in liberty for all. In a Texas Speech in 1845 he said:
“I am no defender of slavery in the abstract — liberty always had charms for me, and I would prefer to see all the sons and daughters of Adam’s family in the full enjoyment of all the rights set forth in the Declaration of American Independence…”
But in the antebellum South, slavery was not an abstraction. It was a problematic reality and ending it on Northern terms meant either the Darwinian “dying out” or deportation of the black folk Southerners often considered as close as family. Prior to Lincoln’s unplanned emancipation (except to the extent it could be leveraged as a “war measure”), there was no major political party that proposed emancipation simply because no one wanted to bear the economic or social cost it would demand if done with the welfare of the black folk in mind. Southerners had no choice but to defend slavery as the best of a bad historical situation given the corner they were backed into by Northern ambitions for Union-wide segregation.
The North was perfectly content to abide slavery if it was kept bottled up in the South. Northern support for the Corwin Amendment proves that to be the case. This attitude leads directly to Stephens next most poignant statement. All the North had to do if it wanted to cleanse itself of the repugnant stain of slavery was to let the South go its own way. Why was “the Union” so important that the North would go to war to keep the slave States in the Union? Stephens nails the reason, which again enlightens us as to why the South sought to secede. It was to free itself from being yoked to a section of the country that sought only to possess the Southern spoils:
“While it is a fixed principle with them (Republicans) never to allow the increase of a foot of slave territory, they seem to be equally determined not to part with an inch of the ‘accursed soil’… notwithstanding their professions of humanity, they are disinclined to give up the benefits they derive from slave labor…. The spoils is what they are after though they come from the labor of the slave…Why cannot the whole question be settled simply by…giving their consent to the separation, and a recognition of our independence?”
Stephens so called “Cornerstone Speech” is far more than merely his cornerstone analogy. The modern focus on the analogy belies Stephens’ meaning and purpose for the speech and ignores the historical context which defines the nuanced meaning of his analogy. He meant the Confederacy made explicit what was implicit in the old Constitution regarding slavery. It did so, not for the purpose of creating a “slavocracy” and “perpetuating and extending slavery’ as is so often claimed by pious causers. It did so to defend slavery as a temporary means of managing a mostly uneducated and destitute population; hoping for a day when they could be freed, dispersed, and assimilated into a Christian civilization. Until that day, slavery, in a seceded South, would protect the slaves (and the South’s socio/economic health) from the North’s inhumane ambitions to dispose of them.