In January 1861, Stephens's home state of Georgia held a convention to decide whether it should join the Confederacy. Stephens argued against the idea of Georgia seceding. "In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office [president of the United States], is sufficient cause for any state to separate from the Union," he stated. "Let us not be the ones to commit the aggression." Despite Stephens's pleas, the men at the convention voted to secede. Once the decision had been made, however, Stephens threw his support behind the Confederacy.
In February 1861, representatives from each of the secessionist states met in Montgomery, Alabama, to design the government of their new nation. Stephens acted as a delegate (representative) to the convention and helped establish the
"Slavery Is the Cornerstone of the Confederacy"
Stephens made probably his best-known speech in 1861, shortly after the Confederacy was formed. In this speech, which was published under the title "Slavery Is the Cornerstone of the Confederacy," he explained his view that slavery was the founding principle of the Southern nation and the main cause of the Civil War. Stephens began by discussing the U.S. Constitution, which did not address the issue of slavery directly. The authors of the Constitution believed that slavery was wrong, but most thought the practice would eventually end on its own, without action by the Federal government. Stephens, on the other hand, claimed that slavery was right and natural because the races were not created equal. In fact, he believed that by making slavery the foundation of their society, the founders of the Confederacy were fixing an error that had been made by the founders of the United States. The following is an excerpt from Stephens's speech:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [of equality between the races]; 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. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. . . .
It is the first Government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination [commandment] 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 . . . 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 marble. The substratum [underlying support layer] of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity [harmony] 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, 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 [building]. . . .
Confederate Constitution. The delegates then selected Jefferson Davis as president and Stephens as vice president of the Confederate States of America. For the next six weeks, Davis and Stephens tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the North. They still wanted to avoid a war if possible. One of the issues they hoped to resolve was the presence of Federal troops at Fort Sumter, located in the middle of the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. They viewed these troops as a symbol of Northern authority and asked Lincoln to remove them. When negotiations failed, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The Confederacy gained control of the fort, but the Civil War had begun.
During the first year of the war, Stephens found that he disagreed with President Davis on a number of important issues. For example, Davis wanted to establish a conscription (military draft) program to register Southern men for service in the Confederate Army. He thought that the government should require men to serve in the military. The president also wanted to suspend the legal provision known as habeas corpus, which prevented government officials from imprisoning people without charging them with a crime. Davis knew that some people in the South did not support the war effort, and he wanted the power to put these people in prison to stop them from helping the North.
Stephens and many members of the Confederate Congress opposed these policies. After all, the Southern states had seceded from the Union in order to assert their right to make important decisions for themselves, without interference from the national government. Yet Davis wanted broad new powers for the Confederate government. He felt he needed to create a strong central government for the Confederacy in order to manage the war effectively. The South would have no chance of winning against larger, better organized Union forces if each state insisted on fighting on its own. But Davis's opponents believed that states' rights and individual freedom were more important than the needs of the Confederacy as a whole. "Away with the idea of getting independence first, and looking after liberty afterward," Stephens stated. "Our liberties, once lost, may be lost forever."
By 1862, Stephens had become one of Davis's most vocal critics. He even argued that the president should give up
Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens's home in Richmond, Virginia.
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
the war effort and try to negotiate peace with the North. Because of his disagreements with Davis, Stephens eventually moved away from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and returned to Georgia. He only accepted two official missions as vice president during this time. Most of his wartime service to the Confederacy consisted of visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals and promoting the exchange of Union prisoners of war for equal numbers of Confederate prisoners.
Was this article helpful?