Monday, August 23, 2010

Alexander Stephens vs Thomas Jefferson

On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, the vice president of the newly formed Confederate States of America, declared that slavery was the "the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization" and criticized America's Founding Fathers (specifically Thomas Jefferson) for embracing ideals that "rested upon the assumption of the equality of races." According to Stephens, this was an "error." The new Confederate States of America, declared Stephens, 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 remarkable critique of the Founding Fathers is what justifies our stepping somewhat out of this blog's parameters. Normally, we focus on early American history and not the American Civil War. But Stephens' assessment of the Founding Fathers raises some interesting questions regarding how America's Founding Fathers came down on the issues of race and slavery.

Who Was Alexander Stephens?

If one looks at the pre-Civil War career of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, it is somewhat surprising that the Georgia politician would become one of the national leaders of a secessionist confederacy. A pro-slavery Unionist, Stephens spent most of his political career advancing southern economic interests, while at the same time defending the Union against any talk of secession. As late as the 1860 U.S. presidential election, Stephens was speaking out against southern secession.

Increasing regionalism and polarization in the 1840s and 50s, however, had set the stage for civil war, and there was little Stephens and others could do to stop it. With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860, the die was cast.

Stephens was elected to the Georgia secession convention, where he spoke out once again for Union, but defended the legal right of any state to secede. He soon found himself a member of the Confederate Congress, vice president of the provisional southern government, and finally vice president of the Confederate States of America. Though a reluctant secessionist, Stephens became an ardent supporter of the new Confederate government and its new Constitution.

The Deep South and Slavery

There are many Americans today who argue that slavery was but a minor factor or cause in leading to the American Civil War. These individuals, most of them serving as apologists for the "Lost Cause" myth of the American South, are correct that slavery wasn't the only issue of the war. They are also correct that Abraham Lincoln initially promised to leave slavery alone in the South, thus making clear that the Civil War (at least in the beginning) was not a war for liberation. But any efforts to downplay slavery as a relevant, defining issue of the Deep South run headlong into a high, thick wall of evidence to the contrary. For one thing, southern apologists who wish to downplay or ignore slavery must contend with the harsh reality of Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens' infamous "Cornerstone" speech.

The Deep South states were very much motivated by slave interests. Their own secession documents, as well as numerous speeches and writings of their leaders (including Stephens), attests to the unmistakable fact that the Deep South seceded primarily over issues related to slavery. This is perhaps not so much the case with the Upper South, but there can be no doubt as to the initial wave of secession that began with South Carolina.

Stephens on the Founding Fathers

Today, America's Founding Fathers are continually attacked in the media, in academia, and in various other quarters of our society for being racist, pro-slavery, etc. Alexander Stephens also criticizes the Founders on the issues of race and slavery, but not in the same manner as modern critics. For Stephens, the Founders were NOT racist and pro-slavery, and THAT (in his mind) was the problem. Here is an excerpt from Stephens' speech, where he raises these objections to the Founders and their ideals:

"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the 'rock upon which the old Union would split.' He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. 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.'

"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."

According to Stephens, Thomas Jefferson and America's Founders believed in racial equality, but they had it all wrong. The races, says Stephens, are not equal. And, says Stephens, the new Confederate government understands this.

Very interesting.

Was Stephens Right About Jefferson and the Founders?

Hopefully, all those reading this will agree that Stephens is fundamentally, tragically, and reprehensibly wrong on the issue of race. All human beings are equal in God's eyes.

But was Stephens likewise wrong when he described Jefferson and the Founding Fathers as believing in racial equality?

Well, let's agree that America's Founding Fathers certainly did not practice racial equality, not with any kind of advanced twenty-first century understanding of racial equality anyway. But Stephens' critique is that their principles "rested" on the general assumption of racial equality and his remarks primarily dealt with slavery. So, for our purposes, the issues here are slavery and the general, overall principles associated with basic human rights.

Our question then is did Thomas Jefferson have non-whites in mind when he penned the eloquent words of the Declaration of Independence? When Jefferson said "all men are created equal," was he just contempating whites or did he have a broader understanding of the word "men"?

Stephens would say that he did. That would be his answer. Many of today's critics of the Founders say Jefferson did not. What's the truth?

That is the question we will take up in my next post. In the meantime, I invite you to read Vindicating The Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America by Thomas G. West.


Benjamin Bellville said...

Brian this was intriguing to say the least. I truly believe it is an issue that can only ever be speculated on for we will never know the true thoughts of those involved in such weighty decisions while bearing the strain of forging a new nation.Yet the speculation is why we write and I applaud you for writing such a thought provoking piece. I'll definitely be reading more of your posts when I get a chance and I believe I will be adding this as a link to my blog I finished today which surprisingly I had learned that a stipulation of the Northwest Ordinance, for expansion north and west of the Ohio River,was that all settlements would be slavery free.I believe this may have been blatantly intended to draw a line in the sand by the Continental Congress.You can check it out here,thnx for the great read Brian!

Anonymous said...

Darn. I was trying to find out if that line about "the stone upon which the old union would break" cam from. Was he quoting Jefferson? and if so, was it in a letter or official document?