Lincoln's Defense of Politics: The Public Man and His Opponents in the Crisis over Slavery

By Thomas E. Schneider | Go to book overview

Alexander H. Stephens


Chapter 3
Slavery, Secession, and the Higher Law

Anyone who studies the career of Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as it unfolded during the half decade preceding the outbreak of the Civil War is sure to be struck by two things: his defense of slavery and—until the secession of his state was an accomplished fact—his defense of the Union. As to slavery, he expressed, though in an extreme form, an opinion that was evidently widespread in the South; as to the Union, he stood against such an opinion. If Stephens was willing to hazard his political fortunes in the one instance, it seems unreasonable to assume that he was merely seeking to advance them in the other. If Stephens's actions in both instances proceeded from his deeply held convictions, then the question arises as to the connection between these actions. Stephens's defense of slavery was based not on its constitutionality but on its conformity, as he asserted, to natural law. Nor was his defense of the Union dependent on the allegedly proslavery character of the basic law—a view of the Constitution that was common to abolitionists and southern fire-eaters. Stephens, for his own part, did not succeed in establishing a satisfactory connection between the objects he defended; his lack of success indirectly confirms the relation between freedom and law on which Lincoln's Unionism rested.

Stephens defended Negro slavery as naturally just, most notoriously

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