Cornerstone Speech

Alexander H. Stephens
The Cornerstone Speech
March 21, 1861

The Cornerstone Speech, also known as the Cornerstone Address, was delivered extemporaneously by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861. The speech explained what the differences were between the constitution of the Confederate Republic and that of the United States, laid out the Confederate causes for the American Civil War, and defended slavery.  The speech was given weeks after the secession of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and then Texas and less than three weeks after the inauguration of U.S. President Lincoln. Hostilities between the two sides had not yet begun.

We are in the midst of one of the greatest epochs in our history. The last ninety days will mark one of the most memorable eras in the history of modern civilization.

... we are passing through one of the greatest revolutions in the annals of the world-seven States have, within the last three months, thrown off an old Government and formed a new. This revolution has been signally marked, up to this time, by the fact of its having been accomplished without the loss of a single drop of blood. [Applause.] This new Constitution, or form of government, constitutes the subject to which your attention will be partly invited.

In reference to it, I make this first general remark: It amply secures all our ancient rights, franchises, and privileges. All the great principles of Magna Chartal are retained in it. No citizen is deprived of life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, under the laws of the land. The great principle of religious liberty, which was the honor and pride of the old Constitution, is still maintained and secured. All the essentials of the old Constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated.... So, taking the whole new Constitution, I have no hesitancy in giving it as my judgment, that it is decidedly better than the old. [Applause.] Allow me briefly to allude to some of these improvements. The question of building up class interests, or fostering one branch of industry to the prejudice of another, under the exercise of the revenue power, which gave us so much trouble under the old Constitution, is put at rest forever under the new. We allow the imposition of no duty with a view of giving advantage to one class of persons, in any trade or business, over those of another. All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. Honest labor and enterprise are left free and unrestricted in whatever pursuit they may be engaged in ....

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other-though last, not least: the new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among 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 the time. The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used 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 idea of a Government built upon it-when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."

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. [Applause.] 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 is 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 anti-slavery fanatics: their conclusions are right if their premises are. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights, with the white man.... I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the Northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery; that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle-a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of man. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds we should succeed, and that he and his associates in their crusade against our institutions would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as well as in physics and mechanics, I admitted, but told him it was he and those acting with him who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are, and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo-it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not therefore look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first Government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many Governments have been founded upon the principles of certain classes; but the classes thus enslaved, were of the same race, and in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. The negro by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, [note: A reference to Genesis, 9:20-27, which was used as a justification for slavery] is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite-then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is the best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances or to question them. For His own purposes He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another in glory."

The great objects of humanity are best attained, when conformed to his laws and degrees [sic], in the formation of Governments as well as in all things else. Our Confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders "is become the chief stone of the corner" in our new edifice.

Source: Alexander H. Stephens, "Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861 " in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, etc., vol. 1, ed. Frank Moore (New York: O.P. Putnam, 1862), pp. 44-46.

Photo by: National Statuary Hall

Alexander Hamilton Stephens


STEPHENS, Alexander Hamilton, statesman, born near Crawfordsville, Georgia, 11 February, 1812; died in Atlanta, Georgia, 4 March, 1883. His grandfather, Alexander, founder of the American branch of the Stephens family, was an Englishman, and an adherent of Prince Charles Edward. He came to this country about 1746, settled in the Penn colony, was engaged in several conflicts with the Indians and in the old French war, serving under Colonel George Washington. His home was at the junction of the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers. He was a captain in the Revolutionary army, and soon after the peace removed to Georgia. Alexander became an orphan at the age of fifteen. Under the charge of his uncle he attracted the attention of Charles C. Mills, a man of means, and after five months at school he was offered a home in Washington, Wilkes County, and a place in the high-school that was taught by the Reverend Alexander Hamilton Webster, pastor of the Presbyterian church, His middle name, Hamilton, was taken from this gentleman. He regarded this charity as a loan, and afterward repaid the full amount. He also accepted the offer of the Presbyterian educational society to send him to college, with a view to the ministry, with the proviso that he was to refund the cost in case of his change of mind, and in any event when he should be able. He entered Franklin college (now the State university) in August, 1828, was graduated in 1832 with the first honor, and subsequently earned money by teaching to pay his indebtedness. At that period of his life he was much given to morbid introspection, which was partly the result of constitutionally delicate health. On 22 July, 1834, after two months' study, he was admitted to the bar, being congratulated by Senator William H. Crawford and Judge Joseph Henry Lumpkin on the best examination they had ever heard. He lived on six dollars a month, and made $400 the first year. Then he began to win reputation, and he soon owned his father's old homestead, , and bought the estate that is now Liberty hall.

In 1836 he was elected to the lower branch of the legislature against bitter opposition because he strove against nullification, while believing in state sovereignty, and opposed vigilance committees and the then common "slicking clubs," the parent of the Ku-Klux Klan. His first speech in the legislature secured the passage of the appropriation for what is now the Western and Atlantic railway from Atlanta to Chattanooga, the property of Georgia. His advocacy secured a charter for the Macon, Georgia, female college, the first in the world for the regular graduation of young women in classics and the sciences. In 1839 he was a delegate to the Charleston commercial convention, and in 1843 he was nominated for congress under the "general-ticket system," there being then no division of the state into congressional districts. He was elected by 3,000 majority. His first speech was in favor of the power of congress to pass an act requiring the states to be divided into congressional districts. He seemed thus to question his own right to sit, as Georgia had not obeyed the law. He won both point and seat. It was, in fact, the entering-wedge of the assertion of the power of the general government to legislate in state domestic affairs, under tile plea of regulating its own organization. On the same principle Mr. Stephens, as senator-elect from Georgia, in 1866, was not allowed to sit, Georgia not having complied with the terms of congress. He advocated the annexation of Texas by legislative resolution as early as 1838-'9, and opposed the John Tyler treaty of 1844, but, with seven other southern Whigs, secured the passage of the Milton-Brown plan of 1845.

He bitterly opposed President James K Polk on the Mexican war, but adopted all its results as a godsend of southern territory. In 1848 he had a personal encounter with Judge Cone, of Greensboro, which illustrated the physical courage for which he had been noted from youth--the courage that comes, not from principle or duty, but from utter indifference to consequences. The difficulty grew out of a quarrel on the Clayton compromise of 1848. Cone cut Stephens terribly with a knife and cried : "Now, ---you, retract, or I'll cut your throat." The bleeding, almost dying Stephens said : "Never !--cut," and grasped the swiftly descending knife-blade in his right hand. That hand never again wrote plainly. Few of the witnesses of the affair, which occurred on the piazza of Thompson's hotel, Atlanta, expected him to recover. He did, however, in time to make a speech in favor of Zachary Taylor for the presidency, the carriage being drawn to the stand by the people. In 1850 Mr. Stephens opposed the secession movement at the south, and thought the admission of California as a free state a blessing, as repealing the Missouri restrictions and opening all the remaining territories north and south to slavery He was one of the authors of the "Georgia platform" of 1850. Its first resolve was "that we hold the American Union secondary in importance only to the rights and principles it was designed to perpetuate." 

On the nominations of Franklin Pierce and General Winfield Scott, at Baltimore, the lines of Whig and Democrat were drawn for the last time. Pierce approved the settlement of 1850 ; Scott did not. Stephens, with Charles G. Faulkner, Walker Brooke, Alexander White, James Abercrombie, Robert Toombs, James Johnson, Christopher H. Williams, and Meredith P. Gentry, killed the Whig party forever by their famous card of 3 July, 1852, giving their reasons for refusing to support General Scott. Stephens wrote it. Daniel Webster was nominated without a party, but died, and Toombs and Stephens voted for him after he was dead. In 1854 Mr. Stephens defended the principles of the Kansas-Nebraska act, as embodying the principle of 1850, "the people of the territories left free to form and regulate their own domestic institutions (including slavery), subject only to the constitution of the United States." In 1859 he retired from congress, and in a farewell speech in Augusta, Georgia, intimated that the only way to get more slaves and settle the territories with slave-holding voters was to reopen the African slave-trade.

Mr. Stephens seemed a bundle of contradictions, but he always acted upon reasons and principles. While a state-rights man, he supported Harrison in 1840. In 1844, though in favor of the acquisition of Texas, he supported Clay, who said it would reopen the slave issue and make war, as it did. In 1845 he voted with the Democratic party in admitting Texas. In 1846 and 1847 he stood with Calhoun and the Whig party upon the Mexican war. His house resolutions in February, 1847, became the basis of the Whig reorganization, and General Zachary Taylor was elected president on the same policy in 1848. In 1850 he differed with Fillmore on policy, as he had with Polk, and approved the compromise of Clay. In 1854 he was with Stephen A. Douglas, and in 1856 aided to elect James Buchanan, his extreme foe. In 1859 he resigned his seat in congress, saying: "I saw there was bound to be a smash-up on the road, and resolved to jump off at the first station." In 1860 he supported Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency against John C. Breckinridge, the professed exponent of state rights, holding that the territorial views of Mr. Douglas were his life-long principles.

In 1860 he made a great Union speech, and in 1861 became the vice-president of the Confederacy of seceded states--both times on principle. By 1862 he was as much at issue with Jefferson Davis as he had been with Mr. Lincoln in 1860, and on the same matter--state rights--and he continued to differ to the end. Mr. Stephens, Governor Joseph E. Brown, and General Robert Toombs, one Union man and two of the bitterest of the original secessionists of 1860, formed the head of the Georgia peace party of 1864, and all the three supported by speeches and letters the Linton-Stephens peace, and habeas corpus resolutions passed by the Georgia legislature in that year. In February, 1865, he was at the head of the peace commission on the part of the Confederate government in the Hampton Roads conference. After the downfall of the Confederacy he was arrested and confined for five months in Fort Warren, Boston harbor, as a prisoner of state, but in October, 1865, he was released on his own parole. On 22 February, 1866, he made a strong reconstruction speech and plea for the new freedmen. He had been chosen to the senate by the legislature, but congress ignored the restoration of Georgia to the Union under the presidential proclamation of Andrew Johnson, and he did not take his seat. On 16 April, 1866, he was called to testify before the congressional reconstruction committee. He both testified and spoke on his life-long theme.

In 1867 he published the first volume of his "War between the States." In December, 1868, he was elected professor of political science and history in the University of Georgia, but declined from failing health. He was kept in the house by rheumatism nearly four years. In 1870 he completed the second volume of "The War between the States," but in a more partisan and less hopeful tone than the first volume. Later in the year he conceived the idea of a "School History of the United States," which he carried out (1870-'1). He taught a law class in 1871 as a means of support, and edited and became in part proprietor of the Atlanta "Sun," which was published chiefly to defeat Horace Greeley for the presidency. The enterprise proved financially unsuccessful, and exhausted all the profits of his books. By 5 September, Charles O'Conor had declined the "straight-out" nomination in Louisville, and with that died Mr. Stephens's last hope. He was defeated in his canvass for a seat in the United States senate in November, 1871, but in 1874 was elected to congress. He opposed the civil rights bill in a speech on 5 January, 1874, and the repeal of the increase of salary act. He was re-elected in 1876, and continuously served until his resignation in 1882.

In the contest before the electoral commission, on the Hayes-Tilden issue, he advocated going behind the returns and setting aside those of Florida and Louisiana, but opposed all resort to force for seating Mr. Tilden. In January, 1878, he reviewed the question in the "'International Review." On the announcement that Mr. Hayes was elected he advised acquiescence. His speech on the uncovering of the painting, "The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation," 12 February, brought praise from all quarters. An old admirer proposed to send his crutches to congress after he should cease to be able to go. In 1881-'2 he undertook to write a "History of the United States," which he completed and published just before his death (New York, 1883). It had neither the vigor nor the value of his "War between the States," and was a failure, carrying with it his last bonds, in which he had invested part of the proceeds of his really great life-work. He had received a bad sprain in May, 1882, on the capitol steps, and at the close of the session left Washington forever. In 1882 he was elected governor of Georgia, by 60,000 majority, over General Lucius J. Gartrell, a Confederate officer and lawyer. He worked hard and was an excellent governor. He made his last public speech at the Georgia sesquicentennial celebration in Savannah, 12 February, 1883.

--His brother, Linton, jurist, born in Crawfordsville, Georgia, 1 July, 1823; died in Sparta, Georgia, 14 July, 1872, was left an orphan at the age of three years, but his education was eared for by friends, and he was graduated at the University of Georgia in 1843. He then studied law at the University of Virginia and at Harvard, was admitted to the bar in his native state, and, taking an active part in politics, represented the counties of Taliaferro and Hancock in the legislature for several years. In 1858 he was appointed to a vacancy in the supreme court of Georgia, and his decisions, contained in three volumes of the " Georgia Reports" arc characterized by their precision, perspicuity, and power of logic. Judge Stephens was a delegate to the Georgia secession convention in 1861, and opposed that measure, but subsequently proposed a preamble and resolution declaring that the lack of unanimity in the convention was in regard to the proposed remedy and its application before a resort to other means of redress, and not as to alleged grievances. This was adopted, and he signed the ordinance. During the civil war he was a member of the Georgia legislature, where he introduced the peace resolutions of 1864, and vigorously denounced the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus by the Confederate congress. He also served in the army, and attained the rank of colonel. He continued his activity in politics during the reconstruction period, and prior to the presidential canvass of 1872 publicly spoke in favor of the selection of a purely Democratic ticket instead of adopting the candidacy of Horace Greeley.

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