A more thorough analysis of the Corner Stone speech and a look at its context:
As with the secession documents, the other “go to” document for purveyors of the Righteous Cause myth is Alexander Stephen’s Corner Stone speech.
Stephens’s Corner Stone speech is touted as proof of the “reason” (singular) the South seceded – “slavery.” You need tunnel vision to reach that superficial, narrow, and adolescent conclusion! Lets examine his main points as he begins with the why of the tweaks to the old Constitution:
(1)“All the essentials of the old constitution…have been preserved and perpetuated. Some changes have been made…They form great improvements upon the old constitution…”
The South was deeply committed to the rule of law and to the founding principles as codified in the original Constitution. Many in the North saw it as being used against their pursuit of political and economic ambitions (Seward). Northern abolitionists saw it as a worthless rag because of its protections regarding slavery (Garrison). So who were the true “rebels against the founding contractual document?”
(2)”The question of fostering one branch of industry to the prejudice of another…”
Concerns over the unequal use of federal revenue to the benefit of Northern industry at the neglect of Southern agriculture was a great concern leading to secession. We can debate whether it was actually the case but that the Southerners perceived it to be is beyond question. The essential issue here is the unequal treatment of the States in violation of the Constitutional principal of the equality of the States.
(3)”This old thorn of the tariff…is forever removed from the new…”
There’s that pesky tariff issue again that so many claim was not a real issue in the minds of the Southern statesmen. I suppose the VP didn’t get the message? That myth is well worn out! The essential issue again, inequitable treatment in violation of the Constitution’s purpose that the States be on equal footing.
(4)”The subject of internal Improvements…With us it was simply a question upon whom the burden should fall…The
cost…was borne by those who had entered the enterprise…”
Here Stephens takes us back to what the South perceived to be an inequitable use of federal revenue. Canals and harbors in the North they believed were draining revenue away from Southern interests. Need I repeat, inequitable treatment in violation of the Constitutional contract. Real or perceived is not the my point here, the South believed it so and wanted independence from the abuse. The CSA Constitution remedied that by limiting revenue spent on internal improvements and charging a user fee instead.
(5)”Cabinet ministers and heads of departments may have the privilege of seats upon the floor of the Senate and House…”
Excellent suggestion allowing those who made the plans on how money was to be spent and why, to have a transparent voice in the matter. The greatest assurance against federal tyranny was the ability to control the fed’s ability to raise and spend money.
(6)”The length of the tenure of the presidential office. In the new constitution it is six years instead of four, and the President is ineligible for re-election. It will remove… objects of personal ambition.”
A major concern in the South among many concerning Lincoln’s election was his long record of supporting crony capitalism and centralized banking as leverage to that end. Restricting the President’s term to six years eliminated the temptation to buy support and votes from the industrialists. Yet another reason the South sought independence from what they saw as a sectional president who now had his hands on the purse strings.
(7)Our new government…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…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 is an example not only of the racist attitudes that were commonly held by most all both North and South, but also an example of an oft overlooked characteristic of how white supremacy played out quite differently in the South compared to the North. In the North the inability to make slavery profitable coupled with the emerging abstract enlightenment ideal of natural rights, had led to its end. Because of racism the few remaining blacks were ostracized into segregated shanty towns, and restricted by Northern black codes. In some cases the bodies of blacks were removed from cemeteries to complete the ethnic cleansing.
In the antebellum South white supremacy played out in a vastly different way, particularly as slavery had evolved into the 19th century. Though there was racial subordination, 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 by abstract notions of natural rights. But those notions had led most in the South to, as Lee said, consider slavery as evil and a violation of natural rights. The problem was how to end it.
Abolitionist societies in the South outnumbered those in the North by a four to one margin. But 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 Southern economy and the welfare of the slave evidenced by the call for an immediate and unplanned emancipation. Northern sentiment was merely end slavery, and by that, end Southern power and the presence of the black man in America. The black man was 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 colonization that amounted to “anywhere but here.”
Abolition sentiments in the South, were it not for the onslaught of Northern “anti-slavery,” could have had time to cultivate a plan of and support for gradual emancipation that would be to the benefit of both the Southern economy and the welfare of the freed slaves. But the Northern onslaught of anti-slavery propaganda against masters, coupled with leaflets calling for slave revolts, destroyed any chance of Southern abolitionists success. Instead it caused the South to dig in its heels to: avoid economic disaster, to avoid a harmful displacing of the slaves, and to counter Northern attempts to impose its will upon the South.
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 strong in the South. Jeff Davis and his brother had written a manual teaching the masters how to prep their slaves for eventual freedom. Lee had expressed how immediate unplanned emancipation would cause more harm than good.
This is the context in which we read Stephen’s statement above. He speaks as though he understands slavery will eventually end, but its end must be preceded by a preparation for living in the civilized Christian society that was America. This is an example of the “positive good” doctrine that had long been developed in the South. It must be understood within the 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 an 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? There were vast territories to the West where, as Jefferson suggested, the freedmen could be dispersed and given land, but the Republican party (as most Northern sentiments) wanted those lands preserved for the white race alone. And the North wanted no part of a compensated emancipation, even though that would have been the just approach to take given the North’s foundational role in slavery. But those pushing for emancipation in the North wanted it to be immediate, unplanned, uncompensated, and the Southern economy and welfare of the black folk be damned. That is the context wherein slavery as a “positive good” can be understood. Southerners saw it as much a violation of natural rights as the North, but to end it on Northern terms meant either the death or deportation of the black folk they 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, especially if done with the welfare of the black folk in mind. The South had no choice but to consider slavery as the best of a bad historical situation given the corner they were backed into by the North. The North (excepting the small percentage of abolitionists) was perfectly content to abide slavery and the black race as long as it was kept bottled up in the South. This attitude leads directly to Stephens next most poignant statement. All the North had to do to cleanse itself of the repugnant stain of slavery was to let the South go its own way. Why was “Union” so important that it 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 to free itself from being yoked to a section of the country that sought only to possess the “Southern spoils.”
(8)”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.” Alexander Stephens, Conf VP, 3/21/1861.
So why secession? It certainly was NOT slavery. Slavery was merely the most recent occasion of the North violating the compact that held the States in union. The South refused to be a stepchild until forced by outnumbering bayonets. Slavery issues were only the symptom of the underlying cancer that led to secession. Northern cupidity and infidelity were the cancerous cause of secession. Period… case closed!!!
What follows is additional context that sheds light on why the South seceded. Note particularly the emphasis throughout of the concern about “equity,” especially in reference to the territories. Slavery wasn’t going West as the 1850 to 1860 census reveals. It had long reached its geographical boundary. But the North dictating to the South how its rights must be limited in the shared territories was yet another occasion of unequal treatment in violation of the essential purpose of the Constitution:
“They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Gov’t have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic…The material prosperity for the North was greatly dependent on the Federal Gov’t; that of the South not at all. In the first years of the Republic…the North began to seek profit and aggrandizement at the expense of the agricultural interests…and the principles of equity and justice….the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers…the Constitution has no other sanction than their good faith; that is withheld from us; we are remediless in the Union… Abolitionists… have been engaged in constant efforts to subvert our institutions and to excite insurrection and servile war among us… These efforts have in one instance led to actual invasion… because their avowed purpose is to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides. (Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, Georgia.)
In the next piece you hear that humanitarian concern in the South that led to calling slavery a positive good. Complaining about sentiments in the North for “immediate emancipation” drives the following lament:
“It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better.” (A major humanitarian concern of Southerners as expressed in the Mississippi Declaration of Secession.)
Note next “the frequent violations of the Constitution” and the concern for “states rights,” not slavery, are the cause of secession:
“the frequent violations of the Constitution of the US, by the Federal Gov’t, and its encroachment upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union…FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES…that each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right which is not, by this Confederation, expressly delegated to the US in Congress assembled… His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said US … to be FREE SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT STATES… Thus were established the two great principles asserted by the Colonies, namely:
the right of a State to govern itself; and the right of a people to abolish a Gov’t when it becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted… the powers not delegated to the US by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people… Failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other… We assert that 14 States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations.” (South Carolina)
It can’t be any more clearly stated than what I have presented above. The South seceded over a multitude of “occasions” with one common theme: the cupidity and infidelity of the North. Whether Southern perception was right or wrong is a topic for another post. It was what they believed and their one essential motive for seeking independence. Only a superficial analysis of the historical context can lead one to assume otherwise.
(The photo is of a post-war Stephens and his servant. I have read that the servant was Stephens former slave who, like many other former slaves, stayed on with their former masters. Stephens found the young man very bright and paid his way through college.)
Web Source: Facebook Post – Rod B O’Barr
March 23, 2019