On March 4th 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as president. One week later, The Constitution of the Confederate States of America was adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Montgomery, Alabama.2 Midway into the ratification process, on March 21st, provisionally elected Vice President of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens, mounted the stage of the Athenaeum Theatre in Savannah and delivered what has come to be known as the Cornerstone Speech. As he rose to the stage that day, the nation was at peace. Three weeks later the nation would be plunged into war.3
The name “Cornerstone” is drawn from Stephens’ quoting of Psalm 118:22, “This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner”–the real “corner-stone”–in our new edifice.” Stephens employs the Biblical reference to Christ in Psalm 118 to not only identify the Confederate States of America’s enduring commitment to Christianity but to put at center stage the truly fundamental nature of negro slavery to the Confederation and its Constitution. Stephens accepts Lincoln’s contention that America’s founding fathers hoped for the eventual extinction of slavery, but while Lincoln supports the continuation of such efforts, Stephens criticizes their manifest error for rejecting the timeless and divinely sanctioned superiority of the white race. Where the founding fathers, and Jefferson in particular, rejected negro slavery on principle, and expected its eventual disappearance in the United States, the Confederate States have staked their future on its perpetual continuance.
Using Biblical imagery found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle of Romans, Stephens explains that the folly of the founders was in presuming an equality of the races, whereas the Confederate Constitution is founded on the great physical, philosophical and moral truth of the unequal nature of the races.4 Stephens declares, “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.” Because of the timelessness of this eternal principle, Stephens is able to boast confidently of how firm a foundation it is upon which the Confederacy now rests and of the height it will one day reach; in Stephen’s words, “The highest type of civilization ever exhibited by man.”
Very few actual changes were made to the U.S. Constitution by the Confederate States, further bolstering the argument that it was not the Constitution itself that seceding States took issue with, but rather perverse interpretations. The small number of changes makes each of the changes themselves all the more significant (see below for a line-by-line comparison).5 In a number of places religious references are added, as are references to slaves and to slavery (both references are noticeably absent in the original Constitution). Additionally, several economic reforms are adopted, such as proposals restricting protectionist policies, prohibiting government subsidies, and promoting free trade. Most notably however, is the formal defense of slavery made central in the Confederate Constitution itself. No free state is permitted to join the confederacy, nor, for all practical purposes, is any confederate state permitted to ever become a free state. In short, states who do not affirm the moral rightness of negro slavery had best look elsewhere.
The contrast between the two competing philosophies is found in two, very different approaches to governance, as articulated by President Thomas Jefferson and President Jefferson Davis:
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” — Thomas Jefferson
“The condition of slavery with us is, in a word, Mr. President, nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. It is exactly what in every State exists in some form or other. It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves.” — Jefferson Davis
May 17, 2013 – Essay #65
Read the Cornerstone Speech by Alexander Stephens here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4323
David Eastman is a graduate of West Point and a former U.S. Army Captain. He is a Claremont Lincoln Fellow and you can find him on Twitter @davidceastman.
1 Ratification by the five states needed for it to be put into immediate effect would take only 15 days, ending with the ratification of Mississippi on March 26th.
2 On April 12th 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon, and on April 15th President Lincoln called forth the militia of the United States to suppress the confederacy.
3 The Avalon Project: Constitution of the Confederate States of America.
4 Romans 10:2 — “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”
Matthew 7:24-27 — “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
5 Visit “The Constitution of the Confederate States of America” for a line-by-line comparison of the US and CSA Constitutions.