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Cornerstone of iniquity

Offered on this page is a transcript of a speech that should be read by anyone who wants to understand the Civil War and the clash of philosophies on which it turned. Absent this understanding, it is impossible to interpret the echoes that continue to resound in our own time, or to know what modern Southern conservatives and their sympathizers mean when they rhapsodize about the Confederacy.

Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy

Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy.
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This is the Cornerstone Speech given by Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia, vice-president of the Confederate States of America, on 21 March 1861, and it is perhaps the most succinct and cogent expression of the principles of that professed nation embodied in a single document.

It is also, not coincidentally, a wilderness of errors both moral and factual.

Examining the economic and political context of the secession, Stephens achieves an impressive consistency in turning virtually every significant element precisely upside-down. He compares favorably the geographic area and economic base of the seven states that had so far seceded with that of the pre-revolutionary colonies; noting that the states are large, rich and relatively unencumbered with debt, he infers that, if the colonies could sustain independence against the British Empire, the seven states should easily be able to do the same against the Union. He predicts that the nations of Europe, perceiving the moral superiority of the Confederacy, would quickly recognize and perhaps align themselves with it. And he foretells the assimilation by the Confederacy of many Western states, leading to the dissolution of the Union.

There is only one aspect of Stephens’ analysis that proved sound: that the Union was unwilling to let the slave states go, not because of some principle of unity, but because they would thereby forfeit the revenues those states provided. Had Stephens better understood the history of the United States, he would have realized that in precisely this essential truth lay the doom of the Confederate insurgency. And had he studied the revolt of the Socii — the secession attempt on the part of the subordinate Italian provinces against the Rome of the first century BC — he would have seen that doom limned upon the backdrop of history.

Reality, of course, proved within four years the hollowness of Stephens’ confidence. The great industrial interests of the Union, possessing a preponderance of land, resources and manpower, had a far stronger economic base than did the agricultural barons of the CSA, and in the attrition of a long and mutually destructive war, this would ultimately prove decisive. No allies came to the Confederacy’s aid, for to do so would have proclaimed their espousal of chattel slavery. And although several of the states Stephens named did become part of the CSA, most of the West either supported the Union or remained neutral but continued its economic fealty to the US; again, it was this economic preponderance that doomed the insurrection. For never, faced with any prospect short of annihilation, would the industrialists surrender an inch of territory that brought wealth to their class; and it was precisely this class from whose forebears the Founding Fathers had come, and whose interests the nation was constituted to promote.

Morally, Stephens yaws still further wide of the mark. He contends that enslavement of black by white men is the manifest will of God, referring to the Bible as his authority and to advancing science as his inspiration. Further, he prophesies that, as Galileo’s erstwhile heresies had now become “universally acknowledged” truths, the “great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” would finally inform the world’s understanding of the proper relations of the races. “This, our new government,” he tells us, “is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

Here we see precisely what the CSA really fought to defend: the rationalizing principle of its “peculiar institution,” slavery. And today, if there is one measure by which we can demonstrate the continuing progress of human rights, it is that there is virtually no place left upon the earth in which any man still dares forthrightly to assert that discredited principle.

Originally published as a review of a teachingamericanhistory.org article on Alexander Stephens and his Cornerstone Speech. Update: As of 15 April 2015, this link no longer leads directly to the article, but to a table of contents leading to the article.

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