I didn’t know there was such a thing as the Lost Cause until I was almost ready to graduate High School. This series of posts is the story of my discovery. In the first post in this series, I shared my early understanding of the Civil War and the picture of history that had been painted for me. In the second post, my discovery of actual records and documents deepened my dismay. In this post, I’ll share some of the Southern political speeches and memoirs of Southern leaders that helped to end my belief in the Lost Cause narrative.
This is the third post in a four-part series.
“King Cotton” Speech
Reading the Articles of Secession shows us what the plan was. But you need something else to understand the mindset. The Articles merely enacted the positions held by the leaders of the slave-holding states. Perhaps it is the speeches and sweeping statements of policy and position that most clearly identify slavery as the twisted root of the Confederacy.
I remembered reading abbreviated parts of the “King Cotton” speech in high school. Cotton was always a major contributor to the Southern economy. I didn’t remember James Henry Hammond as the man responsible for the speech. He isn’t honored often outside of white supremacy. He was a prominent South Carolina planter. He also was elected United States Congressman from South Carolina (1835-1836), served as Governor of that state (1842-1844), and then as one of South Carolina’s United States Senators (1857-1860).
In a speech that lauds the strengths and beauties of the South, Hammond noted the power of agriculture. He felt the need to describe the strength of agriculture in the South, namely slavery. He justifies this evil with a very intentional statement of white supremacy. The emphasis below is mine.
In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves. We found them slaves by the “common consent of mankind,” which, according to Cicero, lex naturae est. The highest proof of what is Nature’s law. We are old-fashioned at the South yet; it is a word discarded now by “ears polite;” I will not characterize that class at the North with that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.
These are the ideas which undergirded the South Carolinian secession. These are the values for which men fought and died. And it seems odd to me that we should honor those men any more than we should honor these horrific words.If we cannot find their beliefs honorable in their own time, then why do we find these men honorable in ours? Click To Tweet
The Cornerstone Speech
The Cornerstone Speech is one that I had heard of, but never read. Cherry-picking quotes allowed for a romantic interpretation of the words of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. Lines like these make it easy to hear the swell of music. You can almost imagine the swooning of women and southern men rising to listen with hands over hearts:
I was remarking that we are passing through one of the greatest revolutions in the annals of the world. Seven States have within the last three months thrown off an old government and formed a new. This revolution has been signally marked, up to this time, by the fact of its having been accomplished without the loss of a single drop of blood.
This new constitution. or form of government, constitutes the subject to which your attention will be partly invited. In reference to it, I make this first general remark: it amply secures all our ancient rights, franchises, and liberties. All the great principles of Magna Charta are retained in it. No citizen is deprived of life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers under the laws of the land. The great principle of religious liberty, which was the honor and pride of the old constitution, is still maintained and secured. All the essentials of the old constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated. Some changes have been made. Some of these I should have preferred not to have seen made; but other important changes do meet my cordial approbation. They form great improvements upon the old constitution. So, taking the whole new constitution, I have no hesitancy in giving it as my judgment that it is decidedly better than the old.
But the speech went on for over an hour that day in March of 1861 in Savannah, Georgia. And Stephens referred to White Supremacy again and again. In the following paragraph, you can see why the speech is known as the Cornerstone Speech. The emphasis is mine.
Our new government is 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.
Historian Harry V. Jaffa focuses carefully on this speech in his book A New Birth of Freedom. He asserts that “this remarkable address conveys, more than any other contemporary document, not only the soul of the Confederacy but also of that Jim Crow South that arose from the ashes of the Confederacy.”
Jaffa was not equivocal: For him, the inherent racism of Alexander Stephens’ speech was no different than that of Adolf Hitler in principle:
Stephens’s prophecy of the Confederacy’s future resembles nothing so much as Hitler’s prophecies of the Thousand-Year Reich. Nor are their theories very different.
— Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (2000), p. 223.
The Memoirs of Jefferson Davis
I had to look hard for something on the leader of the Confederate government. Maybe it’s because Jefferson Davis isn’t quoted much in popular culture. I suppose that’s because the Lost Cause narrative is considered to be so vital to our shared sense of nationalism, we can’t run the risk of admitting that the Confederates were fighting for an immoral value. We don’t want to admit that folks with racist views were folded back into the fabric of our nation. So words like these from Davis’ memoirs are kept on the down-low.
As a mere historical fact, we have seen that African servitude among us ―confessedly the mildest and most humane of all institutions to which the name “slavery” has ever been applied―existed in all the original states, and that it was recognized and protected in the fourth article of the Constitution.
— Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Vol. 1 (1881), pp. 66.
He was also very happy with the Taney remarks from the Dred Scott case. Davis praises the notorious Chief Justice Taney. In particular, he found truth in Taney’s statement, “[P]ersons of the African race were not, and could not be, acknowledged as “part of the people,” or citizens, under the Constitution of the United States.” (Vol. 1, pp. 70-71.)
Between Alexander and Davis, I found less and less to recommend the Lost Cause narrative. And I was losing heroes at a prodigious rate.
Forrest and Lee
In college, I had friends who extolled the honor of Generals like Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest. I was more than doubtful of their honor by this time. After all, I had seen the effect of the Lost Cause narrative on my high school history book. I had read for myself the articles of secession and their clear connection between slavery and rebellion. I had discovered the unedited speeches from leaders of the day who insisted over and over that their quarrel with the federal government was about slavery.
I was certainly no longer interested in defending these men, but I had hoped that these gallant horsemen and military geniuses had avoided the taint of their political leaders and the less-educated masses.
That was not to be the case. The last of my heroes fell quickly.
Lee, the man who was not, by many accounts, an idealogue of slavery, nonetheless was not a pleasant slave owner.
Mr. Norris [one of Lee’s slaves] said he, a sister and a cousin tried to escape in 1859, but were caught. “We were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty,” he said. And when the overseer declined to wield the lash, a constable stepped up, Mr. Norris said. He added that Lee had told the constable to “lay it on well.”
— The Testimony of Wesley Norris: John W. Blassingame (ed.): Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, and Interviews, and Autobiographies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (ISBN 0-8071-0273-3). 467-468.
Forrest’s failings are much better known. Revisiting his history in my collegiate studies was a walk though childhood experiences and conversations. Forrest forming the Ku Klux Klan was common knowledge in West Tennessee. I attended church camp just outside the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park and heard a lot more about historical fact and opinion than I ever expected to hear at summer camp. I did learn later that many historians assert that his troops massacred Union soldiers, most of whom were black and were reportedly trying to surrender, at Fort Pillow, although the exact details of the encounter are frequently disputed. When asked if he fought for slavery or for something more noble, he reportedly responded, “If we weren’t fighting to preserve slavery, I don’t know what the hell we were fighting for.”
Even with the terrible deeds of their past and the glaring error of fighting for something as wrong as the institution of slavery, I discovered later that these men had some redeeming qualities. Lee was the president of Washington College and served with distinction. Forrest made amends for his racist attitudes and behaviors with efforts toward reconciliation and racial harmony. Forrest addressed the Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association at the fairgrounds of Memphis in 1875.
I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief.
Perhaps these men were honorable after all. Perhaps their latter years demonstrated remorse and an attempt to better themselves and the nation. The fact remains that every statue I’ve ever seen erected to either man honors them in their role as military leaders to a traitorous cause and leaders in a seditionist army. If we are honoring these men for their honorable behavior, why are they depicted as dressed in their dishonorable regalia?If we are honoring these men for their honorable behavior, why are they depicted as dressed in their dishonorable regalia? Click To Tweet
I think it has everything to do with the Lost Cause, and the whitewashing we have given the Civil War.
This is the third post in a four-part series.
Author: Joey Reed
Joey is married to his best friend and they live in Kentucky. Joey serves Mayfield First United Methodist Church, the Purchase District, the Memphis Annual Conference, and the world is his parish.