Alexander H. Stephens, Diary entry, (June 5, 1865):

Wonder and surprise have been expressed in a number of papers at the suddenness and completeness of the collapse of the Confederate Cause, etc. This wonder and surprise proceed from lack of accurate knowledge of public sentiment in the South. Resistance to the last extremity, it is said, was expected, and yet, more than 100,000 men-in-arms yielded the contest, abandoned the conflict, quit the field, surrendered on parole and went home.

The facts are these as I understand them: No people on earth were ever more united, earnest, resolved to resist to the last extremity, than the Southern people at the outbreak of the war and during its first two years. They were ready to sacrifice property, life, everything, for the Cause, which was then simply the right of self-government. They conscientiously believed that the old Union was a compact between Sovereign Independent States; only certain powers named in the Constitution had been delegated by the States separately to the Central Government; among these was not ultimate absolute Sovereignty, this being retained by the States separately in the reserved powers; each State had the right to withdraw from the Central Government the powers delegated by repealing the ordinance that conferred them and herself resuming their full exercise as a free Independent Sovereign State, such as she was when the compact of the Union under the Constitution was formed. These principles and doctrines the great majority cherished as sacred and as underlying the whole framework of American constitutional liberty. Thousands who disapproved Secession as a measure of policy did not question it as a matter of right. The war waged by the Central Government against these States, striking at their Sovereignty and causing as it would, if successful, their complete subjugation, these people considered unconstitutional, monstrously aggressive, and utterly destructive to everything dear to them as freemen.

The slavery question had but little influence with the masses. Many even of the large slave-holders, to my personal knowledge, were willing from the first years of the war to give up that institution for peace on recognition of the doctrine of ultimate Sovereignty of the separate States, allowing upon this basis the formation of any new Union that the several Independent Parties in convention, or otherwise, might determine upon. Few sensible men of the South ever expected or desired a distinct Independent Nation embracing none but the slave States. The view of the great mass was that with the recognition of the principle of State Sovereignty as a basis of adjustment, the future might well be left to take care of itself; the States would soon assume relations to each other in such political bonds as would be most conducive to the interest, peace, happiness, and prosperity of all. These views and principles were what mainly animated the breasts of an overwhelming majority at the South. In their views not only their own domestic institution of the subordination of the African race amongst them was involved in the issue, but the very essence of constitutional liberty. So long as these principles were the watchword in the camp and at home, the people were ready to sacrifice everything in maintenance of the cause.

When the Government at Richmond itself commenced to violate some of these great cardinal principles for which hundreds of thousands had volunteered their lives, the ardour of many at home and in the army was dampened. The first great blow was conscription! With this came impressments, suspension of habeas corpus, military arrests and imprisonments, martial law. The effect upon the minds of the Southern people was fatal to the Confederate Cause. Besides in the management of the finances, the line of policy pursued by the Executive and Congress in almost every department of government soon led the most sensible men of the country to believe that there was not enough wisdom or statesmanship in control to afford reasonable hope for ultimate success. The course of the Administration during the last year toward the peace sentiment in the Northern States and toward the States Rights men influenced many to believe that Mr. Davis did not desire and was not looking for success upon the principle of State Sovereignty the only real issue in the war but was aiming at the establishment of a dynasty of his own.

Apprehensions were increased by the tone of the press known to be most in the confidence of the Administration; and by the avowed sentiments of some near the President and standing highest in his favour; by these, State Rights and State Sovereignty was ridiculed, sneered at, scoffed at. Many, with misgivings and forebodings, continued to support the Cause as the best they could do, hoping that the election in the Northern States might bring about a change of administration there, and with it some offer of negotiation or settlement leading to peace on the principle of State Sovereignty. The spirit of the army, though greatly dampened, was still resolute to maintain the Cause during that campaign, hoping for some change of policy at both Richmond and Washington by the coming fall. Such were the conditions during the summer and up to the meeting of the Confederate Congress in Richmond in November, 1863.

Mr. Davis’s message at the opening of the session produced a sensation throughout the country, even in the circle of his hitherto most zealous defenders. With many reflective people, the feeling was little short of consternation. This feeling extended to the masses. The policy foreshadowed in that message, if carried out, would lead to a centralized, consolidated, military despotism, as absolute and execrable as that of Russia or Turkey. This, men in the army and men elsewhere saw. The question was asked by many, What will be the fruits of success on this line? No answer satisfactory to a friend of constitutional liberty could be given. The only reply pretended to be given was, Independence. Sensible men knew, in the first place, that independence could never be achieved on that line; they knew too much of the men who constituted the armies, and of the objects and purposes for which they entered the fight. But secondly and mainly, they loathed, detested, and abhorred any such independence as that policy would secure.

These feelings spread and increased; the tone of the press only gave them new impulse. Thousands entertained them who would not venture to express them except in a private and most confidential way. Amongst friends it became common to say: Is it of any use to prolong the conflict? Why sacrifice more lives? Will ultimate success be any better in any view of the subject, even so far as the institution of slavery is concerned, than subjugation? Mr. Davis in his message virtually yields that institution forever. His principles announced in relation to it are as unconstitutional as those of Mr. Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation. No difference in principle between the utterances of these men; both make necessity of war override constitutional limitations of power. What interest, therefore, have we, looking to the guarantee of rights either of person or property, in prosecution of the war? Will not independence, if achieved by Davis under his line of policy, bring with it almost necessarily a far worse despotism than any yet foreshadowed by Lincoln? Lincoln, it is true, utterly ignores the doctrine of the Sovereignty of the States; Davis in his message, though not avowedly, yet in effect does the same. His recommendation for general and universal conscription, not exempting governors, judges, and legislators of States except by his special. grant of favour, strikes for all practical purposes as deadly a blow at independent State organization, States Rights, or State Sovereignty, as anything Lincoln has done or can do. Thus men argued within thernselves; thus talked among themselves, many even of those who had been ardent, zealous advocates of secession. Thus the masses and the army felt. Thus the cause was given up: it was not lost because the great body of soldiers were not as ready to resist to the last extremity and as willing to die in the maintenance of their principles as when they put their armour on, but because they saw and felt that the cause in which they had enlisted was not that in which they were now called to risk their lives and shed their blood. This is the real and true reason why the great masses of the Southern people have so generally and quietly accepted the present state of things. This is the explanation of what strikes so many at the North with wonder and surprise.

A more intelligent, patriotic, or braver body of men than those who filled the Southern armies never went to battle for their country’s cause in any age or clime; and never were any men animated by loftier, purer principles and sentiments; it was with no view of aggression upon others but simply to defend their own rights; not to make war on the Union but to maintain the Sovereignty of their own States, which had quit the Union but had rescued the Constitution. This ark of the covenant of their fathers was in their hands; and it was to preserve this (containing the life-giving principles of self-government) from destruction and pollution that they rushed to the ranks as soldiers never did before not even in the days of Peter the Hermit and the Crusades. It was for their ancient rights, customs and institutions, their liberties achieved and bequeathed to them by their ancestors, that they fought.

The idea set forth by Mr. Greeley in his “American Conflict” and by Senator Sumner in his late eulogy on Lincoln, that this noble band of warriors was nothing but a set of reckless-spirited rebels, disloyal to the Constitution of the United States and conspiring to overthrow it and to establish on its ruins a Slave Oligarchy, is utterly unfounded. The ruling motive of these armed hosts was to maintain and perpetuate the principles of the Constitution, even out of the Union when they could no longer maintain them in it. I speak of the ideas and sentiments prevailing among our people at the time, and not of the correctness of their judgment as to whether their constitutional rights could or would have been maintained in the Union. What I affirm is, that the Southern people were actuated by no disloyalty to the Constitution, to the principles it contained, or to the form of government thereby established.

Nor were the men who met at Montgomery and framed the Confederate States Constitution governed by any such motives as have been ascribed; the work of their hands show this. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The new Constitution was but an embodiment of all the essential principles of liberty contained in the old. Some changes were made on minor points; all were of conservative character; most only settling clearly points in the old that gave rise to doubt, cavil, and conflicting construction. The great essential principles of Anglo-Saxon liberty, dating back to the Magna Charta, were reaffirmed and guaranteed. Nothing savouring of the slightest spirit of disloyalty to these principles is to be found in it.

When Georgia had seceded against my wish, judgment, and vote, my greatest apprehension was lest liberty be lost in the confusion that might follow. To guard against such an event, I myself, looking to the future, introduced a resolution, which was passed by the seceding convention, instructing Georgia delegates to a proposed Convention in Montgomery of seceding States, to adopt the old Constitution as basis for any new one that might be formed. Such was my admiration of the wisdom of the fathers, such my loyalty and devotion to the principles they had established. At Montgomery, no delegate from any State evinced in any debate the slightest disinclination to conform strictly to this policy. Even on African slavery in the South, no change from the old was made in the new Constitution save in clearly defining those points on which disputes had arisen all of which points had been decided by the highest judicial tribunals of the old Government as they were now set forth in the fundamental law of the new. The only striking difference between the old Constitution and the new was the immediate and perpetual prohibition of the African slave-trade in the latter, whereas continuance of this traffic for twenty years had been provided for in the former. I speak from memory, but I think I am correct.

As for my Savannah speech, about which so much has been said and in regard to which I am represented as setting forth “slavery” as the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy, it is proper for me to state that that speech was extemporaneous. The reporter’s notes, which were very imperfect, were hastily corrected by me; and were published without further revision and with several glaring errors. The substance of what I said on slavery was, that on the points under the old Constitution out of which so much discussion, agitation, and strife between the States had arisen, no future contention could arise, as these had been put to rest by clear language. I did not say, nor do I think the reporter represented me as saying, that there was the slightest change in the new Constitution from the old regarding the status of the African race amongst us. (Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession; out of it rose the breach of compact, for instance, on the part of several Northern States in refusing to comply with Constitutional obligations as to rendition of fugitives from service, a course betraying total disregard for all constitutional barriers and guarantees.) I admitted that the fathers, both of the North and the South, who framed the old Constitution, while recognizing existing slavery and guaranteeing its continuance under the Constitution so long as the States should severally see fit to tolerate it in their respective limits, were perhaps all opposed to the principle. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, all looked for its early extinction throughout the United States. But on the subject of slavery so called (which was with us, or should be, nothing but the proper subordination of the inferior African race to the superior white) great and radical changes had taken place in the realm of thought; many eminent latter-day statesmen, philosophers, and philanthropists held different views from the fathers.

The patriotism of the fathers was not questioned, nor their ability and wisdom, but it devolved on the public men and statesmen of each generation to grapple with and solve the problems of their own times. The relation of the black to the white race, or the proper status of the coloured population amongst us, was a question now of vastly more importance than when the old Constitution was formed. The order of subordination was nature’s great law; philosophy taught that order as the normal condition of the African amongst European races. Upon this recognized principle of a proper subordination, let it be called slavery or what not, our State institutions were formed and rested. The new Confederation was entered into with this distinct understanding. This principle of the subordination of the inferior to the superior was the ” corner- stone” on which it was formed. I used this metaphor merely to illustrate the firm convictions of the framers of the new Constitution that this relation of the black to the white race, which existed in 1787, was not wrong in itself, either morally or politically; that it was in conformity to nature and best for both races. I alluded not to the principles of the new Government on this subject, but to public sentiment in regard to these principles. The status of the African race in the new Constitution was left just where it was in the old; I affirmed and meant to affirm nothing else in this Savannah speech.

My own opinion on slavery, as often expressed, was that if the institution was not the best, or could not be made the best, for both races, looking to the advancement and progress of both, physically and morally, it ought to be abolished. It was far from being what it might and ought to have been. Education was denied. This was wrong. I ever condemned the wrong. Marriage was not recognized. This was a wrong that I condemned. Many things connected with it did not meet my approval but excited my disgust, abhorrence, and detestation. The same I may say of things connected with the best institutions in the best communities in which my lot has been cast. Great improvements were,however, going on in the condition of blacks in the South. Their general physical condition not only as to necessaries but as to comforts was better in my own neighbourhood in 1860, than was that of the whites when I can first recollect, say 1820. Much greater would have been made, I verily believe, but for outside agitation. I have but small doubt that education would have been allowed long ago in Georgia, except for outside pressure
which stopped internal reform.

 

Source: Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens: his diary kept when a prisoner at Fort Warren, Boston Harbour, 1865; giving incidents and reflections of his prison life and some letters and reminiscences by Stephens, Alexander Hamilton, 1812-1883; Avary, Myrta Lockett, ed., pp. 165-175

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