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The Cornerstone Speech was delivered extemporaneously by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861. The speech explained what the differences were between the constitution of the Confederate Republic and that of the United States, laid out the Confederate causes for the American Civil War, and defended slavery.
The speech was given weeks after the secession of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas and less than three weeks after the inauguration of U.S. President Lincoln. Hostilities between the two sides had not yet begun.
The longest portion of the speech outlined how this constitution eliminated the tariff and prohibited the central government from spending on internal improvements. The reasoning was on a States Rights argument with the Georgia Railroad as a first example:
The cost of the grading, the superstructure, and the equipment of our roads was borne by those who had entered into the enterprise. Nay, more not only the cost of the iron — no small item in the aggregate cost — was borne in the same way, but we were compelled to pay into the common treasury several millions of dollars for the privilege of importing the iron, after the price was paid for it abroad. What justice was there in taking this money, which our people paid into the common treasury on the importation of our iron, and applying it to the improvement of rivers and harbors elsewhere?
If Charleston harbor needs improvement, let the commerce of Charleston bear the burden. If the mouth of the Savannah river has to be cleared out, let the sea-going navigation which is benefited by it, bear the burden.
Stephens believed that the new country would have a clear delineation between federal and state responsibilities, and took the position similar to that of South Carolina during the nullification crisis that the federal government should not pay for internal improvements.
Stephens, in effect, accuses the North of slavemongering in its attempt to retain the border states for their tax revenues derived from slavery.
The first change was apparently very important to Stephens and he was upset that it wasn't made even closer to the British system but he felt it was still an improvement over the old constitution. That
cabinet ministers and heads of departments may have the privilege of seats upon the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives and may have the right to participate in the debates and discussions upon the various subjects of administration
As an example, in the U.S. Constitution, the Secretary of the Treasury had no chance to explain his budget or to be held accountable except via the press.
Also, the president was to serve a single six year term in the hope that it would "remove from the incumbent all temptation to use his office or exert the powers confided to him for any objects of personal ambition."
This was the Cornerstone that this speech was named for.
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.
Stephens went on to say
(Jefferson's) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. ... 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.
The seven states then seceded, Stephens thought, were sufficient to form a successful republic, with a population of five million (including blacks) and a land area larger than that of France, Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom combined. The seven states contained taxable property of $2,200,000,000 and debts of only $18,000,000 (where the remaining United States had a debt of $174,000,000).
The Confederate constitution allowed new states to join easily. Stephens said that surely North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas would be members in the near future, and that Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri would eventually join.
Stephens expected the swift evacuation of Fort Sumter, a Union stronghold in South Carolina, but what "course will be pursued toward Fort Pickens, and the other forts on the gulf, is not so well understood." Since the new republic had been born bloodless, he wanted that to continue and to make peace "not only with the North, but with the world."
Finally, Stephens predicted that that the new nation would succeed or fail based on the character of its constituent body politic.