Was the Civil War fought over slavery? Shortly after seven southern states had seceded from the Union and joined together as the Confederate States of America, and less than a month before the Confederate military opened fire on Ft. Sumter, the newly elected vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave a definitive answer.
The forty-nine year old slaveholder Stephens was a sickly man—although he was 5’ 7”, he often weighed less than 100 pounds—and when he spoke on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia, he had to tell the crowd to be quiet. “I cannot speak so long as there is any noise or confusion,” he warned. He would wait until calm was restored before he proceeded, he said, because he wanted everyone, not only in Savannah and in Georgia generally, but also in the entire Confederacy, to hear what he had to say.
Once and for all, Stephens was going to explain the difference between the United States and the Confederacy. That difference, he said, was slavery. The American Constitution had a crucial defect at its heart, he said. That defect was that it based the government on the principle that humans were inherently equal. Confederate leaders had fixed that problem. They had constructed a perfect government because they had corrected the Founding Fathers’ error. The “cornerstone” on which the Confederate government rested was racial slavery.
Stephens explained that Thomas Jefferson himself had warned that slavery would ultimately split the Union. But, he said, Jefferson had blundered. Like other statesmen of his era, the Virginia president had believed that slavery was evil, that it was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” The Founding Fathers believed that, while the nation was temporarily stuck with slavery, the institution would not last. In their minds, human equality was an eternal truth, and they assumed that this principle would eventually triumph, somehow, even if they could not themselves see how it would happen. This fundamental principle, Stephens claimed, was wrong, and their error had made them create a dangerously shaky government. It was an error the Confederacy had addressed.
Stephens explained. In contrast to the government the Founding Fathers had created, the Confederacy rested on 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.
The Confederacy, Stephens said, was a pioneer nation, the first ever to make a government that strictly conformed to God’s racial laws. Other nations would certainly follow, for eventually all would have to acknowledge “the truths upon which our system rests.”
The United States of Abraham Lincoln’s era, he said, in contrast, continued to suffer from the errors of the past. Northerners clung to the outdated idea that “the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.” But that foundational principle of human equality was simply wrong. God had made racial inequality an eternal truth. Trying to build a government without slavery flew in the face of “the ordinance of the Creator.”
Stephens was convinced that the United States, with its quaint ideas about human equality, was antiquated, while the Confederacy stood on the side of Providence and progress. Theirs was not a vision of an agrarian world rapidly passing away as western countries modernized, but of the future. Stephens dismissed the naysayers who warned that the “civilized world” would stand against a nation based on racial slavery. “When we stand upon the eternal principles of truth,” he said, “if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.”
Modern-day defenders of the Confederacy overwrite what history knows as the “Cornerstone Speech,” insisting that their ideological forebears were far less interested in defending slavery than in protecting states’ rights. In fact, that argument developed primarily after the Civil War broke out. It showed up when Confederate leaders—including Stephens, ironically—increasingly objected to the power Confederate President Jefferson Davis claimed for his national government. As the embattled Confederacy declared martial law, drafted men to fight, impressed slaves to put them to work for the army, and commandeered supplies, opponents in the southern states fell back on the idea that they had gone to war to fight against the idea of a strong central government, not simply against the United States.
That argument became part of southern lore after the war ended. In summer 1865, after President Andrew Johnson had instructed the states of the former Confederacy to reorganize their state governments without slavery, southern leaders tried to reinstate racial distinctions by passing a series of laws known as the “Black Codes.” Under these, no former slave could testify in court. That meant former slaves had no legal way to sue employers who cheated them, thugs who beat them, or even criminals who murdered them. To try to level the playing field, the officers of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands heard cases involving African Americans.
When the officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau—as it was dubbed—decided in favor of former slaves about 68% of the time, angry white southerners howled. This was precisely what they had gone to war to prevent, they said. The Freedmen’s Bureau was a federal bureau administered by the military, and its officers were intruding directly into their communities and siding with former slaves. If this wasn’t the overreach of tyrants intending to destroy liberty, what was? With slavery gone, former Confederates turned to the politics of the moment. They harnessed nostalgia for the fallen Confederacy to try to end the power of Republicans in Congress to dictate the terms of Reconstruction.
But in Savannah in March 1861, Alexander Stephens had told a different story. “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution,” he said. And then he clarified: “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”