It is the most fundamental question of the Civil War Era. It may also be the most loaded question in all of American history—Why did the South secede?
For nearly a century and a half, historians have offered various answers; however, the participants themselves told us why they did it. Various newspaper editorials outlined the case for secession. Certainly the Confederate states laid out their reasons in their various Declaration of Causes for Secession. However, today also marks the anniversary of a very important speech that sheds light on the subject.
On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stephens delivered his famous “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah, Georgia. Though he was an early opponent of the secessionist movement, when his home state of Georgia seceded, Stephens sided with them and became the Vice President of the Confederacy. He hoped his “Cornerstone Speech” would convince other Southern states to join the rebellion.
Stephens told the crowd that the new Confederate constitution secured “all our ancient rights, franchises, and liberties.” However, it was far superior to the constitution of 1787 in one important area:
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.
Stephens summed up the Confederate cause:
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.
When the Vice President of the Confederacy tells me why the South seceded, I can only take him at his word.