The Cornerstone of the Confederacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Many illustrious names are frequently mentioned in association with the Civil War–Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, for example–but rarely do they include that of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America. Stephens, a well-educated and highly regarded politician from Georgia, sat at the helm of the Southern states alongside President Davis. In this speech, given in Savannah, Georgia, in the weeks leading up to the start of the Civil War, Stephens explains the reasons for the secession of the Southern states and heatedly denounces the attempts of the United States government to deny their right to do so. Stephens presents an educated logic for the Confederacy’s stance, one that provides an intriguing perspective on the Southern states in the time immediately preceding the war.

Summary Overview

Many illustrious names are frequently mentioned in association with the Civil War–Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, for example–but rarely do they include that of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America. Stephens, a well-educated and highly regarded politician from Georgia, sat at the helm of the Southern states alongside President Davis. In this speech, given in Savannah, Georgia, in the weeks leading up to the start of the Civil War, Stephens explains the reasons for the secession of the Southern states and heatedly denounces the attempts of the United States government to deny their right to do so. Stephens presents an educated logic for the Confederacy’s stance, one that provides an intriguing perspective on the Southern states in the time immediately preceding the war.

Defining Moment

The extent to which slavery can be considered a cause of the Civil War has been a subject of much debate among historians and the public, and it seems likely that this debate will continue for the foreseeable future. Regardless of one’s stance in this ongoing debate, it seems reasonable to conclude that a conflict of such scope could not have been based on a single issue. However, slavery undoubtedly played a significant role in the development of the conflict. Stephens was especially concerned with the issue of slavery within the Confederacy, which he addressed at length in his 1861 speech. He argues that “the new constitution” of the Confederacy “has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to [the] peculiar institution [of] African slavery,” thus reassuring his audience that the “peculiar institution” will remain in place. He was well aware that the members of his audience were concerned about this issue, regardless of whether they were slave owners themselves.

Stephens’s stance on those he termed “negro” is troubling to a twenty-first-century reader, but to him, it was logical. Slavery had been a part of many societies throughout history; it was, according to his speech, “a principle founded in nature.” He and his brethren within the Confederate government were merely upholding the continuation of this element of past societies, an element that need not be challenged because it was a practice sanctioned by the laws not only of nature but also of God. Stephens argues, “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.” The Confederate vice president, like the others crafting the new nation, supported his beliefs with evidence from history and interpretations of scientific and religious concepts. The Confederacy did not need to apologize or eradicate their practice of slavery because the North disapproved; God himself, according to Stephens’s analysis, supported the new nation’s claim to slavery.

Author Biography

Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born in Georgia on February 11, 1812, to Andrew and Margaret Stephens. His mother died not long after his birth, and when Stephens was a toddler, his father married Matilda Lindsay. Andrew and Matilda died within a short time of each other when Stephens was fourteen, leaving him to the care of various relatives. Stephens struggled with various ailments throughout his life and was widely known to be sickly; indeed, he is described as chronically ill on several occasions in American writer Margaret Mitchell’s classic Civil War and Reconstruction novel Gone with the Wind. Despite these difficulties, Stephens pushed himself to attend Franklin College, now part of the University of Georgia, and study law before moving on to the political arena.

While he held offices in Georgia’s state government and later in the House of Representatives, Stephens is largely remembered for his services to the Confederate States of America. A man of contradictions, Stephens rallied for the preservation of states’ rights yet was personally against slavery; he is said to have referred to the institution as an “abominable human tragedy” (“Alexander Stephens”). He was also originally against secession but ultimately determined it to be the best course of action. Stephens was appointed provisional vice president of the Confederacy in early 1861 and officially elected later that year, serving in the position until his arrest by Union forces in May of 1865.

Stephens returned to the US House of Representatives following the Civil War, serving in that capacity from 1873 to 1882. He was elected governor of Georgia in late 1882, but his term was cut short by his death on March 4, 1883, at the age of seventy-one.

Document Analysis

This speech by Stephens, sometimes referred to as the Cornerstone Speech, is a fascinating historical document. Even on the first reading, it is highly evident that he conducted much research when composing it, specifically looking to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence for inspiration. Because of this, it is highly advisable to read the Cornerstone Speech and the Declaration of Independence together. Stephens very carefully crafted his speech in order to outline all the reasons for the Confederacy’s secession from the United States, and he also introduces the topic of historians and objectivity, a valuable lesson for any history student.

When researching any historical topic, it is all too easy to criticize the people and events under examination, especially given the amount of time elapsed since the event itself. There is also the danger of allowing oneself to become too emotionally involved in the subject under research. It is vital that historians remain objective in their analysis of historical events and individuals; otherwise, such research may become clouded. Sensitive subjects, such as the way in which Stephens describes African Americans and their restriction from freedom, indeed provoke heated opinions, but the historian must remain impartial to the topic discussed, reviewing all material and viewpoints so as to attain a deeper understanding of a situation.

When examining a historical document, one must keep its intended audience in mind, for if the audience and thus the context of the document is disregarded, it can be easy to misinterpret the writer’s meaning. On the first read, the intended audience of Stephens’s speech may easily be misunderstood. Stephens describes the reasons for the Southern states’ secession from the United States and validates the practice of slavery within the new nation as in keeping with the laws of nature and God. As a Confederate leader speaking to an audience of Confederates, Stephens may be seen as preaching to the choir, so to speak. In light of his lengthy explanations and justifications of the Confederate cause, the speech could also be interpreted as propaganda directed toward the North, substantiating the Confederacy’s cause as just and legal. But this speech was not for the North–Stephens did, after all, deliver it in his home state of Georgia–nor was Stephens simply speaking to people who already shared his views. Those living within the South had endured months of uncertainty and upheaval, and Stephens sought to calm their anxieties, assure them that their rights and those of future generations were secured, and reassure the masses that the principles of the new nation were sound and just. He describes all the actions the Confederate leaders have undertaken to ensure that they have formed a just government, one that will care for its people and protect their rights and those of future generations. Stephens explains,

This new form of government, constitutes the subject to which your attention will be partly invited…. It amply secures all our ancient rights, franchises, and liberties. All the great principles of Magna Charta are retained in it. No citizen is deprived of life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers under the laws of the land.

Stephens emphatically states that the new lawmakers have seen everything through for the protection of the people and their industries.

From the beginning, Stephens wanted to impress that the first seven states seceded without bloodshed; he and the Confederacy desired that the United States let them go peacefully and believed that there was no need for war. However, Stephens makes it clear that although the original seven states had seceded without injury or loss of life, the Confederacy would not be afraid to engage in war to protect its way of life and its people. Stephens’s speech implies that he and other lawmakers anticipated some degree of armed conflict if the situation called for it, but he notes that “the idea of coercion, shadowed forth in President Lincoln’s inaugural, seems not to be followed up thus far so vigorously as was expected” and expresses his belief that Fort Sumter, a Union-controlled fort in South Carolina, “will soon be evacuated.” His words are ironic in hindsight: Stephens delivered this speech on March 21, 1861, and shots were exchanged at Fort Sumter merely weeks later on April 12, thus sparking the Civil War.

Stephens goes on to discuss the institution of slavery, noting that the new constitution of the Confederacy, unlike that of the United States, eliminated any questions about the morality or legality of the practice. He explains that objections to slavery are based “upon the assumption of the equality of races,” which he characterizes as “fundamentally wrong.” Stephens argues that African Americans are naturally suited to be slaves, and thus slavery is consistent with the laws of both nature and God. Of course, it would be unwise to assume that all Southerners, or even all members of Stephens’s audience, either owned slaves or wholeheartedly approved of slavery. Likewise, not all Northerners were abolitionists or devoid of racism toward African Americans–indeed, slavery remained legal in some Union border states until 1865. Many soldiers fought for their respective countries without thoughts to either the justness or the injustice of slavery.

Though part of the faction that broke away from the United States, Stephens greatly admired the work and writings of the founders of that country, particularly Thomas Jefferson, who was, coincidentally, also a Southerner and a slave owner. Stephens’s speech, which begins by noting that seven states have “thrown off an old government and formed a new” one and listing their reasons for secession, is clearly modeled in part after the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration opens:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Stephens, who also cites the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” took Jefferson’s words to heart, weaving them into the fabric of his speech and thereby giving the Confederacy’s decision a greater sense of authority and justification.

Looking ahead to future generations, the Declaration of Independence assures US citizens that it is their right to remain vigilant regarding how their government treats them and notes that they have a responsibility to safeguard their protection, even if that means forming another nation:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

In Stephens’s view, the Confederate States, in breaking away from the United States, were following Jefferson’s advisement to the letter; it was their duty to break from the Union to preserve their way of life. The Founding Fathers thus validated the South’s decision, and one of the United States’ most revered documents itself granted the Southern states the right to secede.

As vice president of the Confederate States of America, Stephens sought to reassure his constituents that their rights were secured under the new government; that their principles, including the right the hold one race above another, were consistent with both the laws of nature and God’s laws; and that the step to break away from the United States was one sanctioned by the Founding Fathers themselves. Despite his efforts, the speech did little to decrease tensions, and the following month saw the beginning of several devastating years of war.

Stephens’s speech, including his discussion of slavery, sparked much debate at the time and was the focus of significant criticism. In Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, a memoir written while Stephens was imprisoned in Massachusetts’s Fort Warren in 1865, he attempts to clarify the statements in his 1861 speech. He does not state what specific provocations elicited his response, although he infers that reporters had misrepresented his statements, but he nonetheless indicates that he felt a response to be necessary. In his discussion of his speech, he defends his beliefs regarding the separation of the races and the inferiority of African Americans, again citing religion in support of his argument:

The relation of the black to the white race, or the proper status of the coloured population amongst us, was a question now of vastly more importance than when the old Constitution was formed. The order of subordination was nature’s great law; philosophy taught that order as the normal condition of the African amongst European races. (173)

He also addresses his insistence that African Americans were much better cared for in the 1860s than during his own youth in the 1820s. There is a degree of belligerence in his tone, which raises further questions regarding what exactly led him to compose this heated clarification.

Essential Themes

Stephens devotes a significant portion of his speech to the issue of the separation of the races, and he implies that the North’s stance on slavery is based in part on a misinterpretation of the statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are equal. This interpretation, Stephens argues, is inherently wrong:

[Northerners] 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.

His references to nature and religion are thereby employed as evidence of the irrationality of the North’s viewpoint. Stephens even goes so far as to refer to Northerners who believed in the equality of the races as “fanatics” who basely ignored the truth presented to them.

Stephens does note that the problems of slavery–those that led to the creation of the Confederacy–were anticipated by Jefferson, who had identified the institution as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” While Jefferson was ultimately correct, at the same time, the government he envisioned was one in which the state governments had a stronger voice than the federal government–a system in which the development of factions among the states was almost inevitable. In his speech in Savannah, Stephens sought to appeal to those who thought the Declaration of Independence had been misinterpreted by the United States government, reassuring them that all such matters would be corrected in the new Confederate nation.

Bibliography
  • “Alexander Stephens.” GeorgiaInfo. Digital Lib. of Georgia, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • Brown, George W. “Trends toward the Formation of a Southern Confederacy.” The Journal of Negro History 18.3 (1933): 256–81. Print.
  • Durrill, Wayne K. “Ritual, Community, and War: Local Flag Presentation Ceremonies and Disunity in the Early Confederacy.” Journal of Social History 39.4 (2006): 1105–22. Print.
  • Ekelund, Robert B., Jr., and Mark Thornton. “The Union Blockade and Demoralization of the South: Relative Prices in the Confederacy.” Social Science Quarterly 73.4 (1992): 890–902. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Morgan, Chad. “Alexander Stephens (1812–1883).” The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Georgia Humanities Council, 2 July 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
  • Stephens, Alexander H. Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens. Ed. Myrta Lockett Avary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1998.
  • Wish, Harvey. “Slave Disloyalty under the Confederacy.” The Journal of Negro History 23.4 (1938): 435–50. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Davis, William C. The Union That Shaped the Confederacy: Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2001. Print.
  • Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.
  • Rabun, James Z. “Alexander H. Stephens and Jefferson Davis.” The American History Review 58.2 (1953): 290–321. Print.
  • Schott, Thomas E. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1996. Print.
  • Stephens, Alexander H. A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States. Carlisle: Applewood, 2008. Print.
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