Cornerstone of the Confederacy: Slavery and the Constitution

Husbands, wives, and families sold indiscriminately to different purchasers, are violently separated; probably never to meet againHusbands, wives, and families sold indiscriminately to different purchasers, are violently separated; probably never to meet again. (Photo: NYPL Digital Collections)
From the Editors…

There is currently a dust-up in political and historical forums over whether or not the Constitution sanctioned slavery or was an anti-slavery document. It is heated, and personal, and must, to many people, seem arcane. Who really cares, today, whether or not the Founding Fathers technically saw the nation as one based on slavery, when the reality was that the Constitution permitted the institution? Slavery existed before the American Revolution, it expanded afterward, and Americans had to fight a four-year war that cost more than $5 billion and 600,000 lives to end it.

So why does this issue matter so much?

It is really a fight about politics, and the nature of modern-day America.

Princeton professor Sean Wilentz launched the fight with an op-ed in the New York Times on September 16 shortly after Bernie Sanders said that the United States was “created…on racist principles.” Wilentz, a long-time Clinton supporter, vehemently disagreed. He insisted that the Constitution, which established the nation, was anti-slavery because it kept slavery a local, rather than a national, institution.

The larger question at stake in this argument is about whether or not America needs to address a history of inequality that is knit into the fabric of our society, or whether the problems we see today are largely policy issues that are not part of the nation’s fundamental make-up. This translates to politics because Sanders has been a more vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement than Hillary Clinton has been. At a more general level, though, it is a fight about how to incorporate new voices into a discussion about America’s future.

We’re History believes the best way to address these questions is by looking at what, exactly, happened in the past. Today Professor Don H. Doyle from the University of South Carolina explains how for Europeans it was Confederates, not Unionists, who during the Civil War defined the Constitution as anti-slavery.

The recent discussion of whether or not the U.S. Constitution was anti-slavery echoes some of the confusion foreign onlookers felt at the time of the American Civil War. Europeans were accustomed to strong monarchical government that did not answer to constitutions and elections, and were puzzled by the American penchant for legalistic quarrels. To those watching America tear itself apart over the slavery question in the 1850s, it was astonishing that the hard-earned victory of the Republican Party, which stood against the extension of slavery to the West, would lead to such fawning assurances about the protection of the slave system in 1861 even as the slaveholders raised their swords in rebellion. Indeed, the conviction of the Lincoln administration that the Constitution protected slavery was almost the Union’s undoing.

Whatever people abroad knew or thought they knew about the U.S. Constitution’s stance on slavery, it was Abraham Lincoln who told the world the Constitution forbade him from interfering with slavery in the states. And it was his secretary of state, William Henry Seward, who rushed to assure European cotton interests that “whether the revolution shall succeed or shall fail, the condition of slavery in the several States will remain just the same.” In 1861, the slaveholders’ rebellion had proclaimed a new nation and asked the world to recognize the Confederacy as a sovereign power. Why shouldn’t they do so, if all the existing nation stood for was “Union?” Conservative Europeans rather liked the idea of the so-called Great Republic being dismembered, and they heartily welcomed the prospect of free trade with an independent South. If slavery was off the table, why not back the rebellion?

Several of Seward’s envoys abroad realized the Union’s constitutional arguments against secession and for its right to defend itself against insurrection were falling flat, even among America’s friends in Europe. Henry Sanford, U.S. minister to Belgium, told Seward: “One of the wisest heads of England said to me lately…‘that you cannot justify this war to Europe on any inferior ground than that of the total extinction of slavery. Short of that you will not have the sympathies of the people, nor the weight of public opinion in your favor. For they take no particular interest in the political and local question of the right of secession or the preservation of the Union.’”

Seward’s minister to Spain, Carl Schurz, a radical German immigrant who had fought in the unsuccessful 1848 German revolution, understood the European mind well, and had equally sobering advice. Friends of liberty abroad had assumed that the war would “be nothing less than a grand uprising of the popular conscience in favor of a great humanitarian principle.” Instead, the Union was squandering its most valuable moral capital with constitutional excuses for protecting slavery. Why, Schurz asked sarcastically, should Europeans support the North if its only goal was “the privilege of being re-associated with the imperious and troublesome Slave States?” We must “place the war against the rebellious slave States upon a higher moral basis and thereby give us the control of public opinion in Europe,” he wrote to Seward.

Schurz’s lesson may have made its mark after an embarrassing incident that occurred at the same time. In a sensational bid for liberal support in Europe, Seward had secretly instructed Henry Sanford to invite Giuseppe Garibaldi, the celebrated Italian “Hero of Two Worlds,” to raise his sword for the Union. Garibaldi was willing to fight for America, his “second country,” he said, but wanted to know what he would be fighting for. Tell me, he asked, is this “agitation…regarding the emancipation of the Negroes or not?” During their meeting at Garibaldi’s island home off the coast of Sardinia, Sanford went into the usual spiel about American constitutional limits of power. A bewildered Garibaldi asked if there was nothing the elected president could do to end slavery. If the war was not being waged for “universal emancipation,” (Garibaldi wanted to take the fight beyond America to the Caribbean and Brazil) he noted it would be “like any civil war,” just one more “intestine war” over territory and sovereignty “in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy.”

Confederate agents and sympathizers abroad were, of course, determined to turn Lincoln’s inaugural assurances on slavery and the moral vacuity of Union war aims to their own advantage. They were instructed to avoid any mention of slavery as the cause of secession and to emphasize that they had seceded to defend the causes of self-government and free trade, two hallowed principles of European liberalism. The gallant South, they told Europeans, was challenging the tyranny of avaricious Northerners whose high tariffs were aimed at profiting off the wealth produced by the slave South.

It was not Lincoln but rather the Confederate constitution that clarified for Europeans that the U.S. Constitution did not necessarily protect slavery. The Confederate document written in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1861 was nearly a verbatim copy of the “old Constitution” drafted in Philadelphia, Confederate agents abroad stressed, except for a few changes the delegates had made to clarify certain troublesome matters the founding fathers had left unclear. Thus one brief clause forbade any “bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.” Another effectively denied the right of states under the Confederacy to impair the “right of property” enjoyed by slaveholders. Another clause guaranteed that all future territory acquired by the Confederacy would recognize and protect slavery. Through these brief amendments the delegates inscribed slavery in the fundamental law of the Confederacy – forever – and they did so precisely because they felt it had not been permanently protected under the U.S. Constitution.

However, these significant distinctions in the two constitutions did not excite nearly as much attention in foreign circles as did a sensational speech by Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens in March 1861. Stephens walked his Savannah audience through the “great improvements” Confederates had made to the American Constitution. The Confederacy, Stephens made clear, was rebelling against the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment, those “self-evident truths” of human equality and natural rights. Modern science, Stephens explained (referring, no doubt, to the French pioneer of scientific racism, Arthur Gobineau), had demonstrated conclusively that the ideas of Jefferson and the founding fathers on natural rights and human equality were “fundamentally wrong.” “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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
The Cornerstone Speech, as it came to be known, was the single most effective item of Union propaganda abroad during the Civil War. Excerpts from the speech were widely reprinted and the term “corner stone” (la pierre angulaire in French) became a familiar code for slavery. While Seward and his Union agents were dutifully denying the centrality of slavery, one of the Confederacy’s leading men had done what no amount of “education” about the limits of the U.S. Constitution could do. Stephens set before the world an aspiring nation whose founding principle was not only the perpetuation of human slavery but also the repudiation of human equality, the principle upon which the entire experiment in government by the people rested. This unguarded elucidation of the Confederate constitution helped foreigners understand the U.S. Constitution as something more than a morally hollow set of compromises among member states.

Ironically, it was Confederate slaveholders who defined the U.S. Constitution as anti-slavery.

See all of the pieces in our series: Slavery and the Constitution.

About the Author

Don H. Doyle

Don H. Doyle, author of The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (Basic Books, 2015), is McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.

Author Archive Page

Leave a Reply