Thursday, September 14, 2017

Alexander Stephens Gets Grilled, Then Gets Real, Again

In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the newly formed Confederate States of America gave an unplanned speech in Savannah, Georgia. In the speech, the Georgian exclaimed that:

"The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution [slavery] 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 equality of the 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.'

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundation is 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." 

Here, early on, Stephens put it our there. He made it clear, at least in his view, what the new Confederacy was based upon. In modern terminology he "kept it real." And, at this point, why not? There had not been a defeat. Shoot, at this point there was barely a Southern army. Military victories and ultimate defeat were in the unforeseen future.

Some five years later, in 1866, Stephens was called before the U.S. Reconstruction Committee, where he was grilled with a series of questions and provided sworn testimony. He was asked at one point what the people of his region thought concerning the justice of the rebellion. Stephens answered that "the exercise of the right of secession was resorted to by them from a desire to render their liberties and institutions more secure, and a belief on their part that this was absolutely necessary for that object." What Stephens was saying here in other words is that Georgians left the union to protect their right to property in slaves. 

Stephens was asked if the people of Georgia have had a change of opinion on the right to secede since the end of the war. The former Confederate vice-president sort of beat around the bush, saying in effect that they had learned their lesson. When asked to clarify if they still believed if they had a right to secede. Stephens said that, "I cannot answer to that." 

When asked about how well secession was supported in 1861. Stephens answered that after Lincoln's call for Northern volunteers the idea was widely supported with "very few exceptions." He claimed that before that particular event the state was very much divided on the practicality of secession. The questioner asked if the ordinance of secession was not passed before Lincoln's call for troops. Stephens answered yes, and that he had previously said the peoples' sentiment was much divided.  

Stephens was also asked if the decision to secede was put to popular vote. He answered that only in that delegates were elected to the secession convention. When asked if it would have made a difference if it had been put to popular referendum rather than delegates, Stephens claimed as things then went with South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida going out, the people would have voted to secede, too.

The questioner soon got down to brass tacks. He asked "In what particular did the people believe their constitutional liberties were assailed or endangered from the Union." Stephens answered "It was the serious apprehension that if the republican organization, as then constituted, would succeed to power, it would lead ultimately to a virtual subversion of the constitution of the United States, and all essential guarantees of public liberty."  As a followup question the quizzer asked "To what feature of their internal social polity did they apprehend danger?" Stephens, like in 1861, "kept it real" and cut to the chase. He answered, "Principally the subordination of the African race as it existed under their laws and institutions." 

There it is. Secessionists, according to their former vice-president, feared that the then newly elected Republican Party would free enslaved African Americans. They reasoned that if slaves were freed, they would have to be citizens, and if citizens, then they would be political equals in that they could vote and hold office. This was unfathomable to those whites in the slaves states, whether they were a slave owner or not. Secession was ultimately their solution to the problem. They formed their own government where their constitution would be upheld and not subverted by a perceived rouge political party. So they dissolved the Union. And war came.

If you would like to read the full transcript of the questioning session you can access it here.

Image of Alexander Stephens courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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