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Cornerstone of the Confederacy

Stephens, Alexander H.
1861
Text

H. Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War (Philadelphia: National Publishing, 1866), 717 – 29.

From his opposition to the Mexican–American War and his condemnation of the Dred Scott case during his debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes on race and slavery continued to evolve, but he remained a pragmatist throughout his life and political career. Although he became one of the country’s most eloquent critics of slavery, Lincoln also married Mary Todd, who grew up in a family that owned slaves. After he was elected president he attempted to keep the South in the Union by promising to protect slavery where it already existed. However, he also insisted that the federal government would not allow the institution to expand any further. At the start of the war, many supporters of the Union assaulted abolitionists and blamed them for provoking the war. Some Northern whites started riots that targeted and victimized blacks. However, the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln throughout the war charted the evolution of white attitudes on slavery, blacks, and equality. The profound loss the war inflicted on millions of Americans and the bravery and heroism of black troops in the Union army persuaded many Northern whites to support emancipation even though they had resented arguments at the outset of the war that the conflict had been about slavery. During the first year and a half of the war, the Union struggled to achieve a major military victory in the field against the Confederate army. Desperate to declare a major victory and discourage European intervention in the war, President Lincoln seized a political opportunity after a promising Union result at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. During the war’s single bloodiest day of fighting, Union forces inflicted heavy casualties on General Robert E. Lee’s army and forced the Confederates to retreat from Maryland back into Virginia. On the heels of this battle, the president sought to achieve the twin goals of appeasing abolitionists in the North and undermining the Confederate economy by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. How does the Emancipation Proclamation help to answer the question, How did the country change because of the Civil War?

From his opposition to the Mexican–American War and his condemnation of the Dred Scott case during his debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes on race and slavery continued to evolve, but he remained a pragmatist throughout his life and political career. Although he became one of the country’s most eloquent critics of slavery, Lincoln also married Mary Todd, who grew up in a family that owned slaves. After he was elected president he attempted to keep the South in the Union by promising to protect slavery where it already existed. However, he also insisted that the federal government would not allow the institution to expand any further. At the start of the war, many supporters of the Union assaulted abolitionists and blamed them for provoking the war. Some Northern whites started riots that targeted and victimized blacks. However, the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln throughout the war charted the evolution of white attitudes on slavery, blacks, and equality. The profound loss the war inflicted on millions of Americans and the bravery and heroism of black troops in the Union army persuaded many Northern whites to support emancipation even though they had resented arguments at the outset of the war that the conflict had been about slavery. During the first year and a half of the war, the Union struggled to achieve a major military victory in the field against the Confederate army. Desperate to declare a major victory and discourage European intervention in the war, President Lincoln seized a political opportunity after a promising Union result at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. During the war’s single bloodiest day of fighting, Union forces inflicted heavy casualties on General Robert E. Lee’s army and forced the Confederates to retreat from Maryland back into Virginia. On the heels of this battle, the president sought to achieve the twin goals of appeasing abolitionists in the North and undermining the Confederate economy by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. These questions can help guide your students through a discussion of the significance of the proclamation: What did the Emancipation Proclamation actually do? What did it not do? Why does it matter? Why is it important that the proclamation is based on his powers as commander in chief? How can the proclamation be viewed as a pragmatic and realistic approach to a very specific historical moment during the Civil War? Who was the document’s intended audience? What is the enduring significance of the Emancipation Proclamation? How would Alexander Stephens respond to the Emancipation Proclamation? Why? How would Sojourner Truth have responded to Stephens’s critique of the Emancipation Proclamation (see Source 5)? Would Truth have had any criticisms of the proclamation? If so, how would her views have been different from Lincoln’s?

The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”1
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the antislavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. . . .
Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. 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.

1 Matthew 7:24 – 27