To modern eyes, the vice president of the Confederacy was a most unusual rebel.
Alexander Stephens didn’t want the South to leave the United States, and he tried to keep his home state of Georgia from abandoning ship. Once the war began, he disagreed mightily with the Confederate president and despised wartime measures like mandatory service. He even pushed for peace.
A century and a half after the Civil War ended, Stephens is slipping out of obscurity amid the national debate over the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. But it’s not because he was an outlier. Instead, he’s in the news today because he was a believer and told the truth – much to the chagrin of his colleagues – about the South’s motives.
In what’s now known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” Stephens told a Savannah, Ga., crowd in 1861 that “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [as those of slavery foes]; 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
He went further: the battle over slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”
Commentators like Monitor contributor Steven L. Taylor in a June 23 article about the Confederate battle flag are pointing to the speech as evidence that the South mainly fought to defend slavery and not to protect states rights or for any other reason.
Outside of the speech, Alexander (who later became a Georgia governor) may be best known for his statue that sits in National Statutory Hall at the US Capitol as one of two representatives of the Peach State. He stands near two other Confederate icons in the capital of a nation they fought to conquer: President Jefferson Davis (representing Mississippi) and General Robert E. Lee (representing Virginia).
Thomas E. Schott, a retired historian and native of New Orleans, knows Stephens better than anyone else thanks to the years he spent writing 1988’s mammoth Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography.
According to Schott, Alexander’s speech did indeed expose Southern true motives, much to the chagrin of the Confederate president. But there was more to Alexander than a moment of ill-advised honesty that got plenty of attention in the anti-slavery North.
In an interview, Schott explains how Stephens gives us insight into a Civil War that was more divisive than many of us realize. It pitted not only brother against brother but Northerner against Northerners and Southerner against Southerner. “He’s a representative of a whole body of Southern thought that often doesn’t get much attention – those within the Confederacy who lost to the hard-core pro-war people who ran everything.”
Q: How did the Cornerstone Speech go over at the time?
Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, didn’t particularly like it because it focused on things he didn’t want focused on at the time.
But Stephens wasn’t saying anything that was out of school or out of the ordinary. This was typical white, slaveholding, ruling-class thought. He just wasn’t too prudent by broadcasting widely accepted facts.
Q: What did Stephens think of slavery?
Like all the other Southern leaders, he embraced the “positive good” argument, a defense of slavery dating back to the 1820s. The argument says slavery is not only legal and constitutional, but it’s also a good thing.
They mean it’s a system of race control, but nobody says this. Southerners can’t conceive of any system that will control the races, keep the blacks where they thought they belong, without the institution of chattel slavery.
Q: Stephens was a major voice against secession at first. What happened?
People think in terms of total unity on both sides of the Civil War. But the North had a significant anti-war movement, and there were pro-slavery Democrats who were against Lincoln’s war.
As for the South, it was nowhere near unanimous on secession, and Georgia came close to staying in the union.
Q: Georgia voters rejected the views of Stephens and others in favor of supporting representatives to a state convention who wanted to secede. What happened?
Had the weather been better on Election Day and had the anti-secession people like Stephens been more energetic, it might have a difference. If Georgia doesn’t go out, Katie bar the door: What happens then?
But secession forces were much better organized, and they frantically campaigned for delegates, while the anti-secession people were kind of cowed. The weather on election day throughout the state was just awful. Who’s going to be motivated to go to the polls in that? Those people in favor of secession.
Q: Was Stephens a big shot in the political world of his time?
He was in public office from the early 1840s until the 1880s, a man who was to the 19th century like John McCain is to this one. He was that well known.
But he drifted into obscurity because even as vice president he spent most of his time in Crawfordville, Ga. He didn’t get along with President Davis, and he disagreed with Confederate policy on a number of things.
He opposed suspension of the writ of habeas corpus [the obligation of authorities to justify detaining people], and he opposed conscription [involuntarily drafting soldiers]. It was all in the name of constitutional liberty under the Confederate Constitution, which was modeled on the US Constitution. They professed to revere it but said they just needed to fix it.
He also made a public address to the legislature of Georgia where he calls for initial moves toward offering peace to the North, and he blasts the Confederate administration on other issues like the impressment [forceful taking] of goods and supplies.
Q: Stephens even met with President Lincoln, an old friend from Congress, in an effort to reach peace between the North and South. What happened?
Stephens and two other Confederate officials met with Lincoln and William Seward, the secretary of state, on a ship at Hampton Roads, Virginia. This was in February of 1865, and it’s obvious that the South is on its last legs.
Stephens and people who favor peace want any kind of straw they can grab that will give them a chance for a cease fire. The idea is this: If we get a cease fire, the war won’t resume. We’ll have to negotiate, and we’ll negotiate on the basis of Southern independence.
Q: It sounds like Lincoln was willing to talk about some things, but basically patted Stephens on the head with a nice-try kind of attitude when he tried to act like his side was winning the war. Is that about right?
Exactly. Lincoln was in a position where he didn’t have to give an inch.
Q: How should he look at Stephens today? What can we learn from him?
He’s still on the wrong side of history. He was a slaveholder with 35 people in bondage. But not one of them left after the Civil War. And from his prison cell at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor after the war, he began writing about things like extending the right to vote to qualified blacks.The fact that he’s even thinking these thoughts tells you that you’ve got people in the South who are not all hard-core Simon Legrees.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Stephens continued to argue against secession during the lead-up to the Civil War. Despite these misgivings, he was chosen to be the first vice president of the Confederate States of America during the Confederate Congress in February 1861. For many in the Confederacy, Stephens’ reputation as a moderate and a unionist—albeit a strong supporter of slavery—was seen as a valuable tool in winning border states over to the Southern cause.
After taking office Stephens played an influential role in drafting the Confederacy’s new constitution. He then introduced the new government during a stump speech in Savannah on March 21, 1861. In what became known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” Stephens argued that the new Confederate government was based upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
After the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Stephens moved to the new Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, and took part in administrative preparations for the war effort. During this time he repeatedly advocated that the Confederacy delay large-scale military action in order to properly plan and equip itself for prolonged war. Stephens was unenthusiastic about his position as vice president, which granted him little power and largely relegated him to the role of passive observer over the Confederate Congress. Nevertheless, he was reelected to his post in February 1862 after his one-year provisional appointment expired.
Starting in 1862 Stephens began the first of many arguments with President Jefferson Davis over the management of the war effort. A staunch proponent of limited government, Stephens took issue with Davis’s suspension of habeas corpus, which allowed arrests without charge. In September 1862 he published an unsigned letter in a Georgia newspaper condemning the policy of conscription, which gave the Confederate government the power to draft troops ahead of their state militias. He would later clash with Davis over both impressment and the Confederate combat strategy. Disillusioned with Davis’ policies and feeling unneeded, Stephens regularly left the Confederate capital to spend extended periods away at his home in Georgia.
In July 1863 Stephens was sent to Washington, D.C., on a mission to discuss prisoner exchanges with the Union. Anxious to end the war, Stephens also hoped to broach the subject of reaching a peace agreement. His journey only took him as far as Newport News, Virginia, where—following the crucial Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg—he was informed that the U.S. government would not consider opening negotiations with him.
Stephens next redoubled his efforts to oppose Davis, who he believed had become too powerful. In March 1864 he gave a speech to the Georgia state legislature outlining his criticisms of Davis, and was denounced by many Southerners as a traitor. His opposition to Davis became so pronounced that in late 1864 he received a letter from Union General William T. Sherman—then undertaking his “March to the Sea”—encouraging Stephens to meet and discuss the possibility of Georgia forming an independent peace agreement with the Union. Stephens refused the invitation, but his relationship with Davis remained strained for the rest of the war.
Stephens maintained his states’ rights philosophy into 1865, when he made another failed attempt to negotiate peace with the U.S. government. He then returned to his home in Georgia, where he was arrested on May 11, 1865. He was imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, for five months before being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in October 1865.