You Get No Points

Jefferson Davis’ claimed in his memoirs that “The goal of secession, Davis wrote, was to protect the rights of “sovereign states” from “tremendous and sweeping usurpation” by the federal government. “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” His claims are completely contradicted by the facts of the matter in the contemporary record, particularly those coming from the mouth of his erstwhile Vice President.

Vice President Stephens, in his Cornerstone Speech, made the clear statement that “Some changes have been made. Some of these I should have preferred not to have seen made; but other important changes do meet my cordial approbation. They form great improvements upon the old constitution. So, taking the whole new constitution, I have no hesitancy in giving it as my judgment that it is decidedly better than the old [1].” From this statement, we see that Alexander Stephens, who himself had served in Congress, and was familiar with the contents of the Constitution, clearly stated that there were changes and improvements in the American constitution. This gives the lie to any claims that the Confederacy merely sought to restore the original intent and meaning of the Constitution. Instead, they sought to free themselves from noxious requirements to abide and respect the antislavery feelings of their Northern neighbors.

Nor was Davis’ history any more sound in his false claim that slavery was only an incidental aspect of the Civil War. Again, as Stephens maintained [1]: “Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, 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 best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.” Here we see that far from being incidental to the Civil War, the issue of black slavery was literally foundational in the mental conception of the Confederacy’s elite about their new nation.

It is easy to understand why Davis would be interested in making such false claims. For one, it is easier to assuage one’s own losses and build legitimacy in the restored Union if one focuses on the existing federal constitution before its avowedly antislavery Amendments rather than the embarrassing prospect of having the Confederate Constitution looked at with intense and hostile scrutiny. Likewise, with slavery eliminated, to admit the true importance of slavery would delegitimize one’s efforts at increasing political power and reducing dissatisfaction at failure. So it is only natural that Jefferson Davis and many others (including Alexander Stephens) would downplay their commitment to slavery in the aftermath of its defeat, out of a sense of shame if nothing else.

That said, these reasonable excuses do not make Davis a competent historian. Perhaps it is too much to expect someone to be reasonably impartial when examining a historical incident in which their conduct was less than stellar. That said, someone who purports to speak as an expert authority because of personal experience faces a heavy burden when attempting to whitewash their own record. It would have been far better, if humbling, for Davis and his contemporaries to openly admit what they sought to do, their racist and pro-slavery biases, and then point to their own change in light of the verdict of history. It’s hard to be humble when you are a defeated Confederate, though.

[1] Stephens, Alexander. “Cornerstone Speech.” Cornerstone Speech. Teaching American History, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

Website cited from:

Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War (Philadelphia, 1886), pp. 717-729.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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