The Confederate principle of slavery – 150 years ago

civil warby Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL

The “Model Nation of History” and its Corner-Stone. – Editorial –
[Via NYT]

It would be difficult, without the deliberate declaration which Vice-President STEPHENS has given to the world, to believe that a national revolution could ever be conducted on the theory which he assigns as underlying secession. Some noble human motive– some yearning toward light and liberty — has hitherto consecrated every revolution: some indeed have been steeped in splendors; while this age has been cheered and blessed with the spectacle of a spontaneous upheaval of popular life, on another Continent, which is a pure gain to progress, and claims the tears and laurels of mankind. It has been reserved for the Slave Power of America to bring into the theory of society a doctrine utterly wicked, retrograde, diabolical. As stated with applause, the other day, by Mr. STEPHENS, in the town of Atlanta, it is perhaps the most purely atrocious thing in history. It may well give us pause that in this Nineteenth of the Christian centuries, and in America of all countries in the world, a theory of the social contract such as this could be seriously promulged:

“The foundations of our new Government 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 moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

And again:

“The delusion of the equality of races cannot be traced in any of the component parts of the Southern Constitution. In that instrument we solemnly discard the pestilent heresy of fancy politicians that all men of all races are equal, and make African inequality and the equality of white men the chief corner-stone of the Southern Republic. With a Government so founded, the world has yet to see in us the model nation of history.”


Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech is an amazing thing – trying to cloak the subordination of people into some sort of Enlightenment principle, while directly admitting that this principle was not derived from the Enlightenment but from God.

As the Times points out, Stephens great principle is not even factually consistent. He states that slavery of one’s own race is wrong. It is only “negro Slavery which is right”:

Negroes should be enslaved because they are of a different species from white men: in fact, the whole question is removed to the domain of zoology — a new and very remarkable position. But it is precisely here, when we have rooted and grounded our system in the surest scientific principles, that the damning facts arise. A very large portion of the Southern slaves do not belong to the negro as much as to the white race. Vast numbers of them are mulattoes. A very large number are quadroons, sprung not merely from white fathers, but from several generations of white forefathers. It is obvious that the child of a white parent and a black one appertains as much to the one stock as to the other; and in the case of quadroons and octoroons the amount of negro blood has been halved and halved again, until at last the slave is incomparably more Caucasian than African. Now, if the enslavement of white men be wrong, as the new savans admit, what is the algebraic expression that will convey the degree of culpability of enslaving a mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, &c.? It is evident that there arises the need of a school of subtle physiologic casuists who shall determine the precise degrees in which crime and color intervene.

The facts at the time demonstrated that there was no biological difference between races and that any difference seen was strictly defined by society. What degree of ‘blood’ made one an inferior being? At what point does one become fit for subordination or able to be risen to the superior? Many in the Confederacy believed that the least amount of inferior blood made one inferior, rightfully subjugated by another. The North believed that everyone’s blood was the same and should be accorded the same rights.

Which one really embodied the Enlightenment principles, some of which I discussed earlier? No matter how Stephens tried to make it sound lie he was espousing rational principles, he still relied on “God did it”  rhetoric.

The speech really demonstrates such a disconnect – not only from Enlightenment principles which has since been so important in creating our world today – but also from the political realities that would result in the complete destruction of all that he discusses in the speech.

That is because, even though his views were wrong, his actions were often right. He had attempted to prevent the various successions, even voting against it fro Georgia. The thought that things could continue to be dealt with in the Congress. He did not want the attack on Sumter to happen when it did. He actually became a strong opponent to the course of the Confederate government, feeling it had become dictatorial and abusive of civil rights.

This happened 150 years ago. Ironic that we now have as President a man who would have been seen as of another, and inferior, race by all of the Confederate states. What is also interesting is that the speech, made just a few weeks before war began at Fort Sumter, seems to have such a hopeful eye that no blood will be spilt.

He made the speech in such a fragile bubble of time, when the secession could be bound up in wonderfully evocative prose, without any real consequences. This editorial was published on April 2, 1861. It was 3 months since Lincoln had been inaugurated and the states started to succeed. In 10 days, on April 12, the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter and the end of the Confederate States began, as did their Providence-derived principle “truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

And his slow progression, along with the rest of the Confederacy, towards failure for their cornerstone began.