Delivered extemporaneously a few weeks before the Confederacy would start the American Civil War by firing on the U.S. Army at Fort Sumter, Stephens' speech explained what the fundamental differences were between the constitutions of the Confederacy and that of the United States, contrasts between U.S. and Confederate ideologies and beliefs, laid out the Confederacy's causes for starting the American Civil War, and defended slavery.
The Cornerstone Speech became so known for Stephens' asserting:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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.
The speech was given weeks after the secession of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and then Texas and less than three weeks after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th United States president. The war itself would not begin until Fort Sumter was attacked in mid-April, so open large-scale hostilities between the two sides had not yet begun at the time of the speech, apart from isolated incidents such as the attack on the Star of the West steamship. Referring to the general lack of violence, Stephens stated that the seceding states' declarations of secession had been accomplished without "the loss of a single drop of blood".
Stephens' March 1861 speech declared that African slavery was the "immediate cause" of secession, and that the Confederate Constitution had put to rest the "agitating questions" as to the "proper status of the negro in our form of civilization".
The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. 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 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... 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 idea of a Government built upon it—when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition.
. . . look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgement of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. 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.
The phrase "all men are created equal", from the United States Declaration of Independence, had formed part of the basis of Abraham Lincoln's assertion that he was defending the principles of the Founders of the United States. John C. Calhoun had contended that the idea was peculiar to Thomas Jefferson, and not a universal principle. Stephens' assertion, in this context, has been read as validating Lincoln's reading of the Founders' principles and countering with an assertion of "racial inequality".
After the Confederacy's defeat at the hands of the Union in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Stephens attempted to retract the statements made in his speech. Denying slavery as the Confederacy's cause for starting the war, he contended, to the contrary, that the war was rooted in constitutional differences.
The speech also outlined how the Confederate constitution eliminated the tariff and prohibited the central government from spending on internal improvements. The reasoning was on a States Rights argument with the Georgia Railroad as a first example:
The cost of the grading, the superstructure, and the equipment of our roads was borne by those who had entered into the enterprise. Nay, more not only the cost of the iron — no small item in the aggregate cost — was borne in the same way, but we were compelled to pay into the common treasury several millions of dollars for the privilege of importing the iron, after the price was paid for it abroad. What justice was there in taking this money, which our people paid into the common treasury on the importation of our iron, and applying it to the improvement of rivers and harbors elsewhere?
If Charleston harbor needs improvement, let the commerce of Charleston bear the burden. If the mouth of the Savannah river has to be cleared out, let the sea-going navigation which is benefited by it, bear the burden.
Stephens believed that the new country would have a clear delineation between federal and state responsibilities, and took the position similar to that of South Carolina during the nullification crisis that the federal government should not pay for internal improvements.
Stephens, in effect, accuses the North of slavemongering in its attempt to retain the border states for their tax revenues derived from slavery.
The first change was apparently very important to Stephens and he would have made the constitution even closer to the British system, but he felt it was still an improvement over the old constitution. That
cabinet ministers and heads of departments may have the privilege of seats upon the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives and may have the right to participate in the debates and discussions upon the various subjects of administration
As an example, in the U.S. Constitution, the Secretary of the Treasury had no chance to explain his budget or to be held accountable except by the press.
Also, the president was to serve a single six-year term in the hope that it would "remove from the incumbent all temptation to use his office or exert the powers confided to him for any objects of personal ambition."
The seven states then seceded, Stephens thought, were sufficient to form a successful republic, with a population of five million (including blacks) and a land area larger than that of France, Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom combined. The seven states contained taxable property of $2,200,000,000 and debts of only $18,000,000 (where the remaining United States had a debt of $174,000,000).
The Confederate constitution allowed new states to join easily. Stephens said that surely North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas would be members in the near future, and that Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri would eventually join.
Stephens expected the swift evacuation of Fort Sumter, a Union stronghold in South Carolina, but what "course will be pursued toward Fort Pickens, and the other forts on the gulf, is not so well understood." Since the new republic had been born bloodless, he wanted that to continue and to make peace "not only with the North, but with the world."
Finally, Stephens predicted that the new nation would succeed or fail based on the character of its constituent body politic.
Although Stephens' address has been ignored by many contemporary scholars, Harry V. Jaffa discusses the speech at length in his book, A New Birth of Freedom. He concludes that "this remarkable address conveys, more than any other contemporary document, not only the soul of the Confederacy but also of that Jim Crow South that arose from the ashes of the Confederacy."
- Schott, Thomas E. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography. 1996, p. 334.
- William John Bennett. America: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War, 1492-1914. 2006, page 315-6
- Rhea, Gordon (January 25, 2011). "Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought". Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust. Retrieved March 21, 2011.
- Jaffa, Harry (2000). A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-8476-9952-0.
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