If you’ve never read the “Cornerstone speech“, I strongly recommend it. It’s a speech given by Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, in late March, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia. At the time he gave the speech, seven states had already seceded but Fort Sumpter was still in Union hands. It’s an amazing insight into the principles that went into establishing the Confederacy and its constitution.
Let me get the obvious out of the way first: Stephens is extremely candid about the issue of slavery. He states that the “old constitution” got it all wrong, that the South’s primary beef with the North is slavery, and that the division over slavery was the proximate cause of the dissolution of the union. He’s not coy about it at all. Stephens says that secession was primarily about the South wanting to continue to keep slaves.
Now, it’s been argued that his statements in this speech weren’t accurate and that tariffs and other economic disputes with the North were the real reason. I don’t find this line of reasoning particularly compelling. Even if it’s true, it’s pretty damning. If Stephens didn’t really believe that slavery was the primary issue but claimed otherwise to appeal to the crowd, that suggests that the rationale was one that would appeal to the majority of the citizens of the South. The leaders of the South believed that slavery was the main issue, or the (non-slave) people did, or both.
Oddly enough, that’s not what I find most interesting about the speech. What intrigues me is how Stephens describes the improvements on the “old constitution.” It’s a vision of a smaller, more limited federal government. It’s a vision of a government that does not interfere in the economy to any meaningful decree. It’s without question a very conservative government, a point that he makes explicitly twice during the speech. It is a government based on “intelligence, virtue, and patriotism.”
It is also a government that is extremely limited with respect to its ability to levy taxes and tariffs. Stephens goes into great detail explaining why he and, presumably, the framers of the Confederate constitution, believe tariffs should be dispense with entirely. This is despite the fact that tariffs were at their lowest point in almost 50 years at the time of secession.
In other words, this speech (setting aside the discussion of race) would be very much in line with the philosophy espoused by the Tea Party and libertarian wing of today’s right. It’s probably no coincidence that there’s a lot of geographic overlap between “Confederate states” and “states with a large number of Tea Party” members. The Tea Party’s philosophical roots lie not in Boston, but instead, in Georgia.
I don’t know if any of this will be news to any of you. It’s not like the connection between the South and the Tea Party is difficult to see. It just hadn’t clicked with me how closely their beliefs lined up with those of the framers of the Constitution…of the Confederate States of America.