Poor Alexander H. Stephens!
The Vice President of the American Confederacy’s informal speech to a Savannah audience in March 1861 is used to verify that the defense of slavery is all the new experiment in American government was about — and despite the fact that Stephen’s remarks were simply imperfect reporter’s notes and we are not even sure if he uttered those exact words.
If Stephen’s indeed mentioned “cornerstone and African slavery” in the same sentence in Savannah, he most likely was referring to Charleston abolitionist Angelina Grimke’ who some 25 years before said this about the United States.
Angelina’s speech in 1836 was entitled “An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” and its topic anti-slavery. Both she and her sister were born into wealth in Charleston, SC — and later moved to the former center of the transatlantic slave trade, New England, to become Quakers and join William Lloyd Garrison’s abolition movement. There the Grimke’ sisters perhaps not only engaged in serious abolitionist discourse but also discovered that the slavery they abhorred was a mostly New England enterprise, and supported by its notorious rum trade with Africa.
Grimke stated in her appeal that “The interests of the North . . . are very closely combined with those of the South. The Northern merchants and manufacturers are making their fortunes out of the produce of slave labor . . . [and] the North is most dreadfully afraid of Amalgamation. She is alarmed at the very idea of a thing so monstrous, as she thinks. And lest this consequence might flow from emancipation, she is determined to resist all efforts at emancipation without expatriation. It is not because she [the North] approves of slavery, or believes it to be “the cornerstone of our republic,” for she is as much anti-slavery as we are; but amalgamation is too horrible to think of.” (see “Against Slavery, An Abolitionist Reader,” Angelina & Sarah Moore Grimke’, Penguin Books, 2000).
Stephen’s wrote in his Recollection’s that he spoke extemporaneously in his Savannah speech, and the reporter’s notes he reviewed afterward “were imperfect” contained “glaring errors.” He goes on to explain the contents of his speech with “The relation of the black to the white race, or the proper status of the colored population amongst us, was a question now of vastly more importance than when the Constitution was formed. The order of subordination is nature’s great law; philosophy taught that order as the normal condition of the African amongst European races. Upon this recognized principle of a proper subordination, let it be called slavery or what not, our State institutions were formed and rested. The principle of the subordination of the inferior to the superior was the “cornerstone” on which it was formed. I used this metaphor merely to illustrate the firm convictions of the framers of the new Constitution that this relation of the black to the white race, which existed in 1787 . . . The status of the African race in the new Constitution was left just where it was in the old; I affirmed and meant to affirm nothing else in this Savannah speech” (Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, 1910/1998, LSU Press).
Thus Stephens viewed African slavery in the same way as the abolitionists who sought secession from the United States by New England, to separate themselves from what they saw as the evil cornerstone of the United States. And the Confederacy incorporated nothing more than what the United States already had recognized as a domestic institution of the States, to be accepted or eradicated in time by each State. This raises the obvious question: If the abolitionists were opposed to slavery, why did they not advance a peaceful and practical emancipation proposal as did England in the 1840s with compensated emancipation?
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org