It is a common assertion nowadays that the Confederacy had no purpose or justification but perpetuating racist slavery.
That argument can be made intelligently, and has been made, but the lazy debater wants to treat it as a settled proposition above discussion. Any objection to it, or any suggestion of Southern legitimacy, is automatically dismissable because it amounts to a defense of the Confederacy, and even if someone who is not an outright racist or slavery-apologist would defend the Confederacy, the debater on the other side has the option to not be bothered with that distinction. Far easier to dismiss the opposition as crypto-racist.
It's the old fallacy of arguing in a circle. Yet people choose this tactic, perhaps in part because they find it frustratingly difficult to pin down American history or any part of it to such a simplistic idea as "it was all about slavery."
Naturally, some people do want to regard all this as settled before they plow into their opponents. The easy expedient is to go in search of one zinger of a quote that will seem to prove the case. In Internet debates, those willing to be convinced will look no further, and those who disagree will be required to build up the cathedral of context, a tedious process. By the time they finish, the audience will have wandered off with the zinger lodged in their heads.
So they pick through the sources. Any quote will do, by anyone remotely prominent in the Confederacy, saying, more or less, "it was all about slavery." Jeff. Davis's inaugural speech? No, it makes nary a mention of slaves or slavery. Robert Toombs' report to the Georgia legislature in 1860? No, that outlines how anti-slavery agitation in the North was exploited by political powers there to disguise economic motives.
The "Cornerstone Speech" by Alexander Stephens is the usual bludgeon of choice. Stephens, a Georgian who had served in Congress, was the new vice president of the CSA in the spring of 1861, and in this speech he explained the new Confederate constitution and the prospects of the new nation, as he saw them, to an audience in Savannah. Here is how one commentator cherry-picks the usual cherries from it:
Stephens said that the American Revolution had been based on a premise that was “fundamentally wrong.” That premise was, as Stephens defined it, “the assumption of equality of the races.” Stephens insisted that, instead, “our new [Confederate] government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea. Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man. 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 and moral truth.”Stephens's post-war writings downplayed the importance of slavery in the sectional conflict, and they formed much of the foundation of the first generation of defense of the Southern nation -- the so-called "Lost Cause" view of the war. That reasonably can be dismissed as a convenient revisionism.
The Savannah speech exists in transcripts. There is no original version of Stephens's speech, because he spoke extemporaneously. His words were jotted down and printed in the Savannah newspapers. Stephens sometimes complained of the inaccuracy of such reporting, and singled out Savannah reporters in at least one instance, "who very often make me say things which I never did" [speech to the Georgia Legislature, Nov. 14, 1860]. But I have not found that he said at any time after the Cornerstone Speech that they got any part of it fundamentally wrong.
Stephens was educating the people of his state and preparing them for a fight he had tried to keep them out of. In the state legislature in July 1860, he fought hard against Georgia's call for a secession convention, then at that convention Stephens spoke out against secession so vehemently that the North circulated copies of his speech as propaganda during the Civil War.
The "Cornerstone Speech," in its praise of slavery, is a personal justification of Stephens's career. His post-bellum history book that downplays slavery's role ("Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States") is another. They both are public, political rhetoric. Yet commentators tend to treat the one as an utter lie and the other as absolute truth. To see the offhand paragraph in the speech as some defining Genesis moment of the Confederacy, out of the mouth of the eternal spirit of the nation instead of one political man, is a gross exaggeration.
A brief glance at Stephens's life and career shows how far this remarkable man stood from being representative of the leaders, or the common citizens, of the Confederacy. Even his position as the Confederate vice president was a matter of old-fashioned ticket-balancing, not a proof of his centrality in the Southern cause. He was, in most ways, an eccentric.
Stephens was a small, sickly, prickly, brilliant man, perhaps impotent, in a time and place where leaders were expected to be strong, handsome and virile. He stood barely 5 feet tall and never reached 100 pounds weight in his life. He was a poor orphan in a time and place where wealth and family mattered.
From the start of his career, he identified himself with the Whig party, and their platform was his natural ideology. But this set him apart from most Southerners, who were Democrats. By nature and necessity he partook of the values of the people in his community, and he had to wrestle his broad ideology into alignment with the local realities.
Yet as far and as long as he was capable of it, he kept his political convictions. Stephens "defended slavery apologetically where it already existed, in much the same manner as [Henry] Clay" [Daniel Walker Howe, "Political Culture of the American Whigs," p.244]. Clay was Lincoln's ideal, too, and they shared the same view of American slavery. Stephens also vehemently opposed the war on Mexico, which most Southern slavery-advocates supported, and denounced it as illegal and unjust.
In the 1850s, as North and South grew increasingly bitter toward each other, the bridges between Stephens's ideals and the South's realities stretched and broke. The Whigs fell apart over sectional issues, and many of Stephens's party friends from the North, including Lincoln, gravitated into the new, radical, sectional Republican Party. The Southern Whigs were hopeless, paralyzed by the limp, drifting quality that always seems to infect a party that has accepted its minoritarian status. Stephens refused to drift with them. He cast his lot with the Democrats.
One result of the sectional rift was that the South gradually hardened in its defense of slavery. Stephens followed it, and became, for a time, among the most strident proclaimers of slavery as ordained by nature and a "positive good" to both races. In this he outran the bulk of Southerners. This is the face he showed in the Savannah speech. And his digression into slavery apologetics there was the result of his need to reconcile his embrace of slavery with his essential Whig ideology.
That moral contortion required him to fit slavery into a social context based on order and philanthropy. The "cornerstone" passage is a reflection of his internal struggle to maintain consistency of social thought. He spoke extemporaneously, as the words flowed, and the tumult in the lecture hall must have been matched by inner turmoil. Here was a man who had publicly reversed most of his earlier political positions. He seemed to be talking of himself, primarily, when after justifying slavery he said, "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."
The "cornerstone" image is hardly original to Stephens. "Corner-stones" (as it generally was spelled then), are sprinkled like Greek ruins throughout slavery and anti-slavery rhetoric between 1835 and 1860. The National Anti-Slavery Society convention in Philadelphia on Dec. 4, 1833, declared: "More than fifty seven years have elapsed since a band of patriots convened in this place, to devise measures for the deliverance of this country from a foreign yoke. The corner-stone which they founded the TEMPLE OF FREEDOM was broadly this -- 'that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness.' "
But it was most common as a trope in defense-of-slavery rhetoric. New York lawyer and abolitionist Alvan Stewart called it the slavery defenders' "favorite maxim" in an 1838 speech to the Vermont Legislature. ["Writings and Speeches of Alvan Stewart on Slavery," 1860, p.167]. In 1845, James M. Hammond wrote, "I endorse without reserve the much abused sentiment of Governor M'Duffie, that 'Slavery is the corner-stone of our republican edifice' " ["Letter to an English Abolitionist"]. M'Duffie, governor of South Carolina, a true secessionist fire-eater in his day, had said in a message to his legislature in 1835:
"Domestic slavery, therefore, instead of being a political evil, is the corner-stone of our republican edifice.
Most of the printed references to slavery as a "corner-stone" between 1835 and 1860 directly cite M'Duffie, but he is forgotten today.
Of course, Hammond and M'Duffie, and the others who used the phrase between 1835 and 1860 meant the American republic.
They were writing and speaking in both economic and social terms; slavery was widely understood to be a necessary adjunct of a republican form of government, as it had been in Greece and Rome, because it freed a class of men from pursuit of money by labor or commerce and allowed them to devote time and energy to political life and, as Hammond put it, to "preserving a reasonable and well ordered government. ... Hence, Slavery is truly the 'corner-stone' and foundation of every well-designed and durable 'republican edifice.' " As appalling as that is now, Hammond, at the time, had the partial evidence of history on his side.
After the Revolution, one of the images foremost in the minds of the Founders was how republics die. All the classical republics, then knew, had come to an end in anarchy and then tyranny. Classical and modern writers had taken up the theme of the death of a republic so often and so minutely that by the 18th century the process could be described in almost clinical terms. The Founders knew it from their classical educations, and the common people knew it from the popular plays of the day, such as "Julius Caesar" and Addison's "Cato" (which Washington had ordered performed for the troops at Valley Forge, notwithstanding a Congressional ban on theaters).
The vital principle in keeping a republic alive was public virtue. This was virtue in the classical, not the Christian, definition. The Christian, seeking to be not of this world in Roman times, turned pagan virtue on its head. Classical virtue was not in the least bit meek, but it strove to be first in doing good for one's country and coveted the glory that comes with unrelenting devotion to the good of the people. It expressed itself in endurance, industry, frugality, and probity -- many of which were consistent with Christianity. Gertrude Himmelfarb has ably condensed the classical idea of virtue as "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private."
This was the pulse and ichor of a republic. Washington said it plainly in his Farewell Address, "It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government." His successor, John Adams, wrote, "There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty."
It was obvious to the Founders that public virtue could be the province of free men only. One who was bound by debt or loyalty to other men was not free to give himself totally to the good of the public. That accounts for the Founders' general horror of debts, banks, lenders, and mortgages. It accounts for the requirement in many states that voters or office-holders be men of a certain income or property. That was at heart a republican, not an aristocratic, principle.
But North and South diverged on how best to keep the tree of public virtue well-watered and flowering. The puritan republicans upheld personal morality as the solution: A virtuous people could not help but be a virtuous republic. The agrarians looked to the structure of a limited government and to an ordered, hierarchic society to keep the republic healthy.
Historians' views of the political philosophy of the South during the Revolution tend to miss the mark because the writers are dazzled by the twin stars of Jefferson and Madison. The two friends had a potent impact on America, but as Southern men they were exotics. A more typical Southern view of the republican problem is represented by John Taylor of Caroline, who wrote, "The more a nation depends for its liberty on the qualities of individuals, the less likely it is to retain it. By expecting publick good from private virtue, we expose ourselves to publick evils from private vices."
Like the puritans, the agrarians had a battery of writers at their fingertips, such as Bolingbroke and the authors who published under the title "Cato's Letters." To them, the ownership of property, unencumbered by debt, was the rock foundation of republican independence, virtue, and liberty. New Englanders believed in this, too, but the Southerners made it a dogma.
This led them to see the hierarchy which already existed among them as a bulwark of the republic: In their vision, the masses of slaves did the labor, and the citizens -- by definition free white males -- thus stood on a republican equality. As DeBow wrote, "No white man at the South serves another as a body servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household. ... He is a companion and an equal."
At least ideally, and socially. But there was a class of men at the top of the social order whose plantations gave them such independence and leisure that they could devote themselves wholly to public virtue without regard for keeping food on the family table. John C. Calhoun was the epitome of such a man. One reason Southerners so dominated the republic in its early generations was that the leading Northern men in Congress frequently had to drop government business or retire from office for a time and go home to make money or plow their fields. The Southern senators did not.
As odious as much of the old South is to modern attitudes, it had the approval of history. The Spartan, Athenian, and Roman republics -- the principal examples available to the Founders -- were built on essentially the same social and economic model, with a mass of slaves at the bottom. Indeed, the very fact of slavery among them made the Southern men more zealous about protecting liberty. Edmund Burke, looking to the Southern colonies, guessed it right in 1775, answering the question that puzzled so many Englishmen: Why the love of liberty was so strong among those who held slaves.
Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. Not seeing there, that freedom, as in countries where it is a common blessing and as broad and general as the air, may be united with much abject toil, with great misery, with all the exterior of servitude; liberty looks, amongst them, like something that is more noble and liberal.As in the Athenian democracy, the people were to be consulted directly only upon the most dangerous and important questions -- such as secession. South Carolina still chose its presidential electors in the state government in 1860. Rigorous private moral virtue was not necessary in the agrarian republican model -- and was little esteemed among men in the South. Instead, jealousy of power and careful attention to governance would keep the flame of public virtue alive. Govern well, put men of pure virtues and total leisure in power, guard against demagogues and tyrants, and live as well as you please. Instead of the New England ideal of a government that put its thumb down on every amusement and vice, the Southerners favored a minimal government on every level, with few restrictions and coercions.
In light of all that, Hammond's "cornerstone" passage is worth quoting at some length:
It will scarcely be disputed that the very poor have less leisure to prepare themselves for the proper discharge of public duties than the rich; and that the ignorant are wholly unfit for them at all. In all countries save ours, these two classes, or the poor rather, who are presumed to be necessarily ignorant, are by law expressly excluded from participation in the management of public affairs. In a Republican Government this cannot be done. Universal suffrage, though not essential in theory, seems to be in fact a necessary appendage to a republican system. Where universal suffrage obtains, it is obvious that the government is in the hands of a numerical majority; and it is hardly necessary to say that in every part of the world more than half the people are ignorant and poor. Though no one can look upon poverty as a crime, and we do not here generally regard it as any objection to a man in his individual capacity, still it must be admitted that it is a wretched and insecure government which is administered by its most ignorant citizens, and those who have the least at stake under it. Though intelligence and wealth have great influence here, as everywhere, in keeping in check reckless and unenlightened numbers, yet it is evident to close observers, if not to all, that these are rapidly usurping all power in the non-slaveholding States, and threaten a fearful crisis in republican institutions there at no remote period. In the slaveholding States, however, nearly one-half of the whole population, and those the poorest and most ignorant, have no political influence whatever, because they are slaves. Of the other half, a large proportion are both educated and independent in their circumstances, while those who unfortunately are not so, being still elevated far above the mass, are higher toned and more deeply interested in preserving a stable and well ordered government, than the same class in any other country. Hence, Slavery is truly the "cornerstone" and foundation of every well-designed and durable "republican edifice." [Hammond, reprinted in Drew Gilpin Faust, ed., "The Ideology of Slavery," 1981, LSU Press, pp. 176-7]
Stephens gave the trope a particular twist. He took it one step further and put it into the Biblical image of "The stone which the builders refused" which "is become the head stone of the corner" [Psalms CXVII:22]. Stephens's friend and rival, Toombs, in urging secession on Georgia in November 1860, had placed the national "cornerstone" elsewhere: In states' rights. "The basis, the corner-stone of this Government," he said, "was the perfect equality of the free, sovereign, and independent States which made it." But, we are told, states' rights was a smokescreen for racism. Evidently some cornerstones are more inportant than others.
As late as the 1860 election, Stephens had backed the moderate Douglas, not the South's hard-line choice, Breckenridge. He considered secessionists "demagogues," and he defended Lincoln, with whom he had served in the House. Lincoln, he wrote, "is not a bad man. He will make as good a president as Fillmore did and better too in my opinion." Lincoln, still trying to pretend he led a national government, considered inviting Stephens to join his cabinet.
But Stephens cast his loyalty with his section, not his principles. If he could not correct the South, he would try to guide it and, by compromising some, attempt to save the rest. He failed, and the South failed.
The Savannah speech is a sad affair, not just because of the blunt racism of that one passage -- the racism itself, it ought to be noted, would hardly have offended any white audience in 1861 America, North, South, or West, outside a few abolitionist circles. But sad because it shows a politician who has so twisted himself to try to hold the reins of a revolution that he has got tangled in them and they now rule him. He embraces what he once scorned, and he mocks positions he once held. He has thrown away his ideals, and the "cornerstone" passage, to me, reads so much more accurately as an odd eruption of a warped and very personal ideological struggle.
It has no place in the overall speech, which is essentially a practical laying-out of the political and military situation the Deep South faced in March 1861. The "cornerstone" rhetoric doesn't deserve such prominence in a treatment of the Confederate Constitution, which pretty much was a carbon copy of the U.S. Constitution except that it stipulated the government could not impose protective tariffs, grant subsidies, or finance internal improvements. On the matter of slavery, it specifically asserted the inviolability of that institution. This was more clear than the U.S. Constitution, but not at odds with it, and Lincoln and many in his camp publicly declared they were willing to amend the U.S. Constitution to make it say the same, if doing so would end the rebellion.
Other than that, you can read the two constitutions side by side for long stretches and not be sure which is which. The CSA Constitution banned slave imports from Africa, proscribed international traffic in slaves, kept the three-fifths clause, and even allowed non-slave states the option of joining the new nation.
No one can deny the importance of slavery to the feud that split the United States, or that the CSA states made protection of slavery one of its central purposes. But the secession of 1860-61 and the shooting war that followed were the climax of a long interplay. Like a couple heading into divorce, the regions fought often, in the open and in secret. But they nursed grudges, and what they argued out loud was not always the real issue. During the 1840s, slavery became the symbol and character of all sectional differences. It was the emotional gasoline on the sectional fires. Its moral and social implications colored every issue in terms of right and rights. William Seward, the Republican leader, recognized the fact: "Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principal question."
So far from slavery being the cause of secession, the fact is many thinking men in the South knew that secession would be the doom of slavery. Slavery could not be economically viable or legally enforcable where freedom was just a river away. They had pushed the North so hard to enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws for just this reason. Stephens was among those who judged "slavery much more secure in the union than out of it."
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