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The Cornerstone of Objectivity: Davis’ Reaction to Stephens’ Speech

If there is one Confederate speech that lives in infamy, it is Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech. Even the Confederate reaction to the speech has spawned a mythos all its own. The most interesting of these tales of reaction is Jefferson Davis’ supposed abhorrence.

Stephens, author of the Cornerstone Speech

The Cornerstone Speech


Stephens gave his speech shortly after being appointed Vice-President of the Confederacy. He had left Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1861, having just ratified the new constitution, to return to his home in Georgia. On the 21st, he spoke before a large audience in Savannah. 1Rudolph Von Abele, Alexander H. Stephens: A Biography, (New York, 1946) 198.

In this address, Stephens detailed the new constitution, comparing and contrasting it to the United States’ own. The greatest contrast concerned the equality of the races. The Unites States Constitution asserted, according to Stephens, “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically.”

The Confederate government, he claimed, was “founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; 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.” 2Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” Savannah Republican, as reprinted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during, and since the War (National Publishing Company, 1886), 717-729.

This speech was jotted down by a reporter from the Savannah Republican, approved by Stephens, and published shortly thereafter.

The Tale of Jeff Davis


From that the legend grew. As the story goes, a few days later, Jefferson Davis, newly-inaugurated President of the Confederacy, caught wind of Stephens’ speech. Davis, though a slave owner, was not too thrilled with his Vice-President’s incredibly vocal views on slavery and the black race. Davis was hoping to garner support from England or France, neither of which were in favor of slavery. Focusing upon that institution, as Stephens had done, was a bad public relations move, and for this, Davis was furious.

At least, that’s how it is often remembered. In reality, there’s absolutely zero evidence Davis even heard about Stephen’s Speech at the time.

Of course, it would be daft to conclude that this lack of evidence means that Davis had not actually read Stephens’ speech a few days after it was given. It was carried widely in the press, and by the time Davis probably read it, little doubt much of the North was a-twitter with its meanings as well.

Davis had every reason to be upset.It would be understandable that he lay into his Vice-President, to announce retractions, and to make counter speeches disagreeing with Stephens’ conclusions.

But, as far as the historical record is concerned, he did nothing of the sort. In all of Davis’ collected correspondence, there appears not a single mention of the speech around that time (or all through the war years). There are no notes, no letters to Stephens about it, and no mention of it to anyone else. 3See The Papers of Jefferson Davis: 1861, especially pages 79-113, the time between the speech and Davis’ next meeting with Stephens.

The Post-War Absence


In his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, published twenty years later, in 1881, Davis makes no mention at all of his reaction. The speech is referenced only once, and in the context of discussing the Constitution. Stephens is named and quoted, but never from the Cornerstone Speech.

However, Davis, without mentioning Stephens by name, lodged a small rebuttal against the idea that “the Confederacy was founded on slavery, that slavery was its ‘corner-stone,’ etc.” He claimed that the Confederate Constitution furnished its own “effectual answer” to such claims. This was clearly a reference to Stephen’s speech, but in these pages, Davis declined to record his original feelings and reaction of twenty years prior. 4Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1 (D. Appleton & Company, 1881) 259-261.

The Athenaeum in Savannah, where Stephens delivered his speech.
The Athenaeum in Savannah, where Stephens delivered his Cornerstone Speech.

In 1890, Varina Davis, wife of the President, published a memoir/history of her late-husband’s life. This odd little tome was written partially by her, but used excerpts from Davis’ own writings. Many defenses and rehashings appeared throughout the text, but there was nothing at all about the Cornerstone speech, let alone her husband’s reaction to it.

Stephens also wrote his memoirs, supposedly in 1865 – though they went unpublished until 1910. In Recollections, he made no mention at all of Davis’ reaction, admitting only that “much has been said” about his controversial speech. A fine explanation was given by Stephens holding that the entire speech was invalid and one long misquote. It’s a hilarious example of early postwar back-pedaling. 5Myrta Lockett Avary, ed. Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, His Diary… (Doubleday, Page and Company, 1910), 172.

Prior to his death in 1883, Stephens’ official biographers, Richard Malcolm Johnston and William Hand Browne, released Life of Alexander H. Stephens. They too made no reference or allusion to Jefferson Davis’ reaction. 6Richard Malcolm Johnston and William Hand Browne, Life of Alexander H. Stephens ( J.B. Lippincott, 1878), 396.

A Love Letter to Jefferson Davis


So where, then, did this idea originate? From whose flowery pen did it flow – and, more importantly, why?

Nearly a century had to pass between Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech and the invention President Davis’ reaction. Of course, by then, Davis was seventy years dead. This story would come from a supposedly non-fiction biography of Jefferson Davis.

davis

“The President was dismayed at the lack of political tact exhibited by his Vice-President,” wrote author Hudson Strode in 1959. “To Davis’s amazement, Stephens bypassed the all-important constitutional guarantee of States Rights and emphasized the institution of slavery. Could anything, he wondered, have been more calculated to damage the Confederate cause both in the North and abroad than his Vice-President’s speech?” 7Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis, Vol. 2: Confederate President (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1959), 24. The first volumes was released in 1955, and the last in 1964.

This passage, written by Strode on the eve of the Civil War’s centennial, is pure fiction. Davis, as we’ve seen, left no record of his dismay, his amazement or his wonderings. This was fully the author’s own invention. In the book, Strode cited few sources (and gave none at all for the entire page upon which this story appeared).

Hudson Strode authored a number of books, mostly on northern Europe and Mexico. His trilogy on Jefferson Davis, however, was his jewel. When writing a biography, it’s nearly impossible not to grow attached to the subject. In the case of Strode, however, his almost familial love for Davis seeped through every page. His defenses of not only Davis but the Confederacy seems to belong more in the Neo-Confederate blogosphere than a biography. Essentially, it is a three-volume love letter to his beloved hero.

The fabrication of Davis’ reaction to the Cornerstone speech matters for two important reasons. First, it’s a fine lesson to learn about biographies, especially those written by authors too in love with their subjects. When objectivity is lost, the writing becomes fan-fiction. Second, in writing Davis’ biography, Strode had obvious intentions, apart from history. He wasn’t just in love with Davis, but with the Confederacy. When doing his research, he cherry-picked his facts, leaving out or changing the unpalatable, and using only those that would make Davis and his government appealing.

This is the opposite of history. This is dangerous as it doesn’t just leave out facts, but invents new ones, spawning a legend that too many esteemed authors have continued without question. 8For instance, Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion, an otherwise fine book, slips it in with only the briefest of comments and seemingly little doubt (p14).

As students of history, we have to do everything we can to root out this nastiness in ourselves and recognize it in others. It is the cornerstone of our duty. The impulse to fortify our biases or heritage is nearly impossible to avoid, but with a bit of critical thinking and awareness, we can make strides to do better – at least better than Hudson Strode, as a fine an author of Civil War fiction as there ever was.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “The Cornerstone of Objectivity: Davis’ Reaction to Stephens’ Speech

  1. I find it odd that Jefferson Davis would have any reaction what so ever to Stephens’ speech. The sentiments mirrored his own. Davis’ address to the Confederate Congress on April 29th, 1861. first he establishes why the North is not conducive to slavery. then he goes into a detailed description of why Slavery is a positive benefit to the South, to White citizens and to the Slaves themselves:

    “In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition,”

    A bit further down in the paragraph he explains that these benefits of slavery, to the South, to the North, to whites and to the slaves, is what the were protecting by seceding:

    “With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced. With this view the legislatures of the several States invited the people to select delegates to conventions to be held for the purpose of determining for themselves what measures were best adapted to meet so alarming a crisis in their history.”

    So I fully agree, it is bad history to assume Davis was scandalized by Stephens’ point of view. Obviously, when you read the speeches of both men, the conclusion is they weren’t in conflict with one another, they were working on explaining the same rationale to different audiences.

    1. For me, his supposed reaction made sense. It was terrible PR, especially in light of England and France. Stephens just laid it all out so clearly.

      Is this a myth that’s gotten a lot of traction? I believed this for quite a while, and then sort of forgot about it until reading Disciples of Disunion.

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