Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech in Savannah is unquestionably the most famous speech associated with the Confederacy.
Stephens was speaking extemporaneously and later complained that his views had been distorted and taken out of context by Northern abolitionists.
We have already seen that Alexander Stephens gave another version of the Cornerstone Speech a month later at the Virginia Convention. The fundamental racialist worldview articulated in both speeches is more or less the same:
“But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
The status of the African negro in the Southern states was “the immediate cause” of secession. It was the “occasion” or “incident” of secession, which is to say, the spark that ignited the blaze.
The ultimate cause of secession was sectional conflict generated by clashing economic interests within the Union and rival constitutional theories about the nature of republican government.
“Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.”
The Union fractured between slave states and free states. The fracture was caused by the so-called “great truth” of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” It had since become clear that Jefferson had not fully comprehended the implications of that poisonous idea.
“The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time.”
There had been a great change in the South since the American Revolution. The influence of the Enlightenment was fading. Southerners had become more devoted to racialism, white supremacy, and slavery. The South was becoming less liberal, more conservative, whereas the North was becoming more liberal, less conservative.
“The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
In the Antebellum era, the idea that “all men are created equal” had been discredited by progress of natural science: Samuel Morton, Crania Americana (1839); Arthur de Gobineau, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853); Josiah Nott, Types of Mankind (1854); Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859), etc.
“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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
The foundation of the Confederate States of America was the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth” that “the negro is not the equal of the white man.” Jefferson’s radical statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” which had been invoked by the Yankee to justify all kinds of insane social causes, had been decisively rejected and turned upside down.
“This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. 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.”
Seventy years had passed since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The influence of the Enlightenment had faded in the South. Romanticism was now in full swing. A new generation was rejecting “the errors of the past generation” and had set out to create a new constitution for a rival American nation-state.
“Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They 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.”
The premise that “all men are created equal” has been decisively rejected by the Confederacy and the errors in reasoning that were derived from that false premise had been rejected as well. It is time to create a new social order on the basis of the reality of natural inequality.
“Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. 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. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.”
Stephens makes it clear that racial inequality is an observable fact. The African negro has been made inferior by God or Nature. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether he evolved or was created that way. The result is still the same.
“The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.”
The Confederacy is based on reality. It is based on nature.
“The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.”
Unlike the United States, the Confederacy is “founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.” The Southern Confederacy is not perpetually at war with reality because it has rejected the false liberal assumption of human equality. It stands on the “higher law.”
“This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” the real “corner-stone” in our new edifice. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.”
The Confederacy stands upon “the eternal principles of truth.” The truth of racial inequality is valid for all time. The African negro will always be inferior to the White man. In the final scheme of things, the unfounded opinions of mankind must always yield before God and Nature.
“Thousands of people who begin to understand these truths are not yet completely out of the shell; they do not see them in their length and breadth. 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.”
Thousands of people who “begin to understand these truths” do not follow them to their logical conclusion. The reality of racial inequality means that the African negro constructs his peculiar habitat like a bird makes its nest or a beaver makes its dam. There is a biological cause to his behavior.
The only way to raise the African negro above his racial equilibrium … is through coercion or forced labor. The White liberals who attempt to combine the negro with liberty and equality are forcing civilization to decline to the black equilibrium.