The Three Most Interesting Civil War Documents, Part 1
"The Cornerstone Speech"
It would be wrong to say that the new movie Lincoln has revived interest in the Civil War, because interest is always high. In some ways, it is the war that most stirs Americans, perhaps because the issues of race and region are still so present in our lives. In any case, it is fair to say that Spielberg’s Lincoln has stoked our attention further.
If you read the history leading up to the war, the most obvious fact of all is that the issue of slavery was at the very center of the conflict. The great questions of the early and mid-19th Century – The Missouri Compromise, The Compromise of 1850, The Kansas-Nebraska Act – were about the spread or restriction of slavery. Countless letters, congressional debates, elections, and newspapers testify to that fact. Read the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates from before the war – slavery dominates the political discourse. Somehow, though, there remains in the minds of some people today a controversy over the centrality of slavery in the causes of the war.
Those who think the Confederacy was founded on some principle unrelated to the preservation of black slavery should read the “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander Stephens. Stephens was the Vice President of the Confederacy and perhaps its foremost intellectual leader. On March 21, 1861, he spoke in Savannah, Georgia to lay out the philosophical foundation for session and the establishment of the new Southern government. He said, in part:
“The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us [and] 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…. 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.”
There were, of course, other factors involved in the war and the friction between North and South. But none that were nearly as important as the enormous fortunes tied up the continued existence of slavery. As Lincoln said toward the end of the war, “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” All knew it then, but somehow that knowledge has slipped away from some in the intervening years. There are elements of history that all of us would prefer to wish away, but on this matter we should listen to the old voices who spoke so clearly.
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