By John Taylor, a Virginian
Anyone who has discussed the War Between the States with a Yankee, either face to face or on-line, will find that, eventually, the Yankee will bring up Alec Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech.” In this speech, Stephens is alleged to have said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; 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.”1 Of course, this is supposed to clinch the deal, and render irrefutable the argument that Southern secession and the war that followed were “all about slavery,” and anybody who might defend the idea of secession must share this view of slavery and racism. This is, of course, balderdash.
There are, however, some problems with this view. First, Stephens was a former Whig. As such, he had argued against secession in the Georgia Convention. When secession was adopted, however, Stephens was a loyal citizen of the State. In the spring of 1861, he was trying to polish his credentials and restore his respectability. He attempted this by trying to be “more Catholic than the Pope,” or, “out-Democrating the Democrats,” playing the demagogue on the slavery issue. Second, Stephens spoke extemporaneously, and the existing transcription of the speech is suspect. Third, if this was the only issue leading Georgians to adopt secession, then they need not have mentioned anything else in their justifications for secession. Georgia’s secession declaration, however, references a broad range of issues, some of which are entirely unrelated to slavery, such as escaping from northern economic exploitation, the refusal, despite constitutional requirements, of northern office holders to extradite those who commit violent acts of antislavery violence, support from northerners for the propagators of antislavery violence.
Much emphasis is placed today on Stephens’ use of the word “cornerstone,” as if this made slavery the be-all and end-all of the Southern Confederacy. Other political figures, however, spoke of different “cornerstones.” For example, Jefferson Davis, in his massive post-war apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, had this to say about corner-stones: [The] principle of State sovereignty and independence … was regarded by the fathers of the Union as the cornerstone of the structure and the basis of the hope for its perpetuity.”2 Throughout his Rise and Fall, Davis argued repeatedly that this was the cornerstone of the antebellum United States. Davis went on to argue that, to protect these ideals, the people of the southern States had seceded to carry that principle with them into the new southern Confederacy.
Could it [sovereignty] have been transferred to the Government of the Union? Clearly not, in accordance with the ideas and principles of those who made the Declaration of Independence, adopted the Articles of Confederation, and established the Constitution of the United States; for in each and all of these the corner-stone is the inherent and inalienable sovereignty of the people.3
Elsewhere, Davis continues the argument: “The principle of the sovereignty of the people [was] the corner-stone of all our institutions.”4 This cornerstone is noticeably different from Stephens’, and is probably not as objectionable to Americans today. This may be why we do not hear so much about this one. Secession might not seem like such a terrible thing if this justification for secession were foremost in the minds of people today. Davis concludes his second volume with this assessment of the causes which impelled the southern States to leave the Union. It deserves to be quoted in extenso.
The intelligent reader must perceive that this invasion of the natural and unalienable rights of man, the subjugation of the sovereignty of the people, the monstrous usurpations of powers not granted in the Constitution, the trampling under foot of the reserved rights of the States, the disregard of the supremacy of law, and the assumption of the sovereignty of the Government of the United States as the corner-stone of our future political edifice, is a revolution in our system of Government, deep-seated, reaching to the foundations, and sending the poisonous waters of despotism throughout all the branches fed from this fountain. The Confederate States resisted it from the beginning. They drew their swords for the sovereignty of the people, and they fought for the maintenance of their State governments in all their reserved rights and powers, as the only true and natural guardians of the unalienable rights of their citizens, among which the most sacred is, that only the consent of the governed can give vitality and existence to any civil or political institution.5
Thus, the cornerstones of the antebellum republic were the sovereignty of the people and the independence of the states. When these were threatened by a party dedicated to expansion of the powers for the general government, the people of the southern States withdrew their consent, seceded from the US, created a new government, and made these principles the cornerstone of their new government, the Confederacy.
Davis was not the only political figure talking about cornerstones in 1861. Stephens personal friend (and frequent political opponent), Robert Toombs spoke to the Georgia Legislature, as that body was debating what Georgia’s response should be to Lincoln’s election. Toombs, by this time, had adopted secession as the appropriate response and argued in favor of secession before the Legislature. Toombs argued that “The basis, the cornerstone of this Government, was the perfect equality of the free, sovereign, and independent States which made it.”6 To defend this cornerstone, Toombs urged secession. Thus, in Toombs view, the equality of the States was the cornerstone of the Confederacy.
And finally, just to make sure that we see the numerous cornerstones floating around the political rhetoric of nineteenth century America, consider this. In 1833, a case came before the Third United States Circuit. In those days, Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States also rode Federal Circuits. The Circuit Court Judge for the Third Circuit (New Jersey and Pennsylvania) was Henry Baldwin. Baldwin was no southerner, having been born in Connecticut and residing in Pennsylvania. In a judicial opinion on the case Johnson v. Tompkins et al., Judge Baldwin, wrote that:
[T]he foundations of the [Federal] government are laid, and rest on the rights of property in slaves—the whole structure must fall by disturbing the cornerstones—if federal numbers cease to be respected or held sacred in questions of property or government, the rights of the states must disappear, and the government and union dissolve by the prostration of its laws before the usurped authority of individuals.7
Thus, a Supreme Court Justice, sitting on a Circuit, said that the cornerstone of the United States rested on “the rights of property in slaves.” It might be interesting to compare how authoritative two political pronouncements are. Is the pronouncement of a Federal Circuit Court after calmly hearing a case and checking his opinion against the law more or less authoritative than a Vice President speaking on the stump, without notes?
Antebellum Southerners used to call a breathless unconditional Unionist, an hysterical defender of the Union, a “Union shrieker.”8 The next time you encounter one and he brings up Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech, you will know how to respond. Jefferson Davis said the Cornerstone of the Confederacy was the sovereignty of the people and the independence of the States. Those are honorable cornerstones, even in this day and age. Toombs said that the Cornerstone of the Confederacy was “perfect equality of the free, sovereign, and independent States.” Which citizen of good faith can oppose that cornerstone? Just for good measure, you can remind your “Union shrieker” that Judge Baldwin, who had no connection with the South, had stated authoritatively that “the rights of property in slaves” was the “cornerstone of the Union.” The “Union shrieker” will likely sputter, be confused, deny the truthfulness of the assertion, but, if he is honest, will eventually have to acknowledge its truth. If we are condemning nations for resting their foundations on slavery, should we not start with the United States? When confronted with Alec Stephens Cornerstone speech, let us respond by presenting those cornerstones with which we can, hopefully, all agree: the sovereignty of the people, the independence of the States, and the equality of the States.
1 Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War (Philadelphia, 1886), pg. 721.
2Jefferson Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, vol. 1, pg. 127.
3Davis, vol. 1, pg. 156. Emphasis added.
4 Davis, vol. 2, pg. 718.
5 Davis, vol. 2, pg. 762. Emphasis added.
6Secession Debated, William W. Freehling and Craig Simpson, (eds.), (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pg. 33. Emphasis added.
7 United States Courts of Justice, Reports of Cases Determined in the Circuit Court of the United States in and for the Third Circuit, (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jr. & Brother, 1837), Volume 1, pg. 597. Emphasis added.
8Richmond Enquirer, 2 November 1860, p. 2, col. 5-6.