The surreal quality of the present moment in American life is hard to miss. One element in the dreamscape is discussions of the Confederate flag as a symbol still held dear by some Americans, 155 years after the Civil War. NASCAR, for one, will now forbid displays of the flag at races, though it’s hard to see how that will be policed.
Who would fly such a thing in public, certain to cause pain to many who see it? No doubt a few diehard racists, but the rebel symbol may speak more to an impatience with the sneering coastal elite and with suffocating political correctness. That seemed to be the significance when, on a recent family trip to the Oregon beaches, I noticed a surprising number of the flags, on poles and as bumper stickers, inland from the zone of vacation homes on the ocean. The locals, it appeared, were communicating a message to the affluent Portland and Seattle progressives who drive through. In my Seattle suburb, a near-neighbor had a Confederate flag on his dock, positioned on a pole just below an American flag. He prudently took it down when someone posted a photo on the social media app Nextdoor, and there were cries for doxxing him and setting fire to his property.
The Cornerstone Speech
There are still other meanings to the symbol. Some Southerners associate it with family history, “Heritage not hate.” A different and less familiar meaning, expressed in modern terms, would be “Follow the science!”
Yes, that’s right. It is interesting to remember the role of racial science in the thinking of at least one prominent Confederate politician. Alexander H. Stephens was Vice President of the Confederacy. In 1861 he delivered a famous oration, the so-called Cornerstone Speech, justifying slavery and rebellion on scientific grounds.
The name of the speech comes from Stephen’s (arguably blasphemous) appropriation of a verse from Psalms, “The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief cornerstone.” He took the corner “stone” to be the emerging scientific consensus, which America’s Founders had violated in holding all men to be equal. On the contrary, Stephens argued, Africans were not equal, and science proved it. The Confederacy was the first scientific government, he said. The South, unlike the North, merely sought to follow the science! And this was why they would prevail in the end. He attacked the “error” in the Constitution:
Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; 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. [Applause.] 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.
Stephens thought he saw justification for racism in science and religion, but he emphasized science. It was the advance of science, in his mind, that secured his perverted reading of religion:
As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo. It was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with [William] Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.
A Student of Science
Stephens was an enthusiastic reader of current science works. Which works, in particular? The historian and political scientist Harry Jaffa, in his book A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (p. 224), wrote that he “surmised” that Stephens had Darwin in mind:
Stephens compares the great scientific discovery in regard to the Negro to the discoveries of Galileo, Adam Smith, and Harvey. He does not name the discoverer of Negro inferiority, nor does he even hint at what evidence had supposed this great discovery. One can only surmise that Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859, may have been on his mind. Yet there is nothing in that work bearing directly upon the question of Negro equality.
I’m not aware of evidence that Stephens was familiar with Darwin. The Origin of Species (full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) had come out two years before in England and in 1860 in America. However, as Jaffa notes, the book contains no discussion of the human races. That topic Darwin saved for The Descent of Man, published in 1871, where he asserted a scientific racial hierarchy, with Africans at the bottom, that would have cheered Stephens and other Confederates. True, Darwin was against slavery, but his idea of a gradually branching Tree of Life left no obvious place for a divine image imprinted equally on every human. On the contrary, even before he wrote The Descent of Man, an evolutionist might logically expect that humans of various races would have achieved different levels of advancement from their shared primitive ancestry, just as Darwin later made explicit.
From Human Zoos to the Alt-Right
Even if Stephens never heard of Darwin, there were scientific racists before Darwin such as French writer Arthur de Gobineau. Darwinian evolution emerged from the context of the scientific thinking of Darwin’s time, which was also Stephens’s time. Darwin and Stephens were contemporaries and would have found much common ground, even as they disagreed about slavery.
In decades to come, at the very best universities, racist pseudoscience would gather even more strength and popularity with leading scientists and scholars. As John West tells the story in the documentaries Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism and The Biology of the Second Reich, “following the science” of the time led to shaming Africans by displaying them in zoos, thus educating the public about the truths of evolutionary theory, to eugenics, and to genocide. Only with the revelation of the Holocaust did prestige scientists step back in shock from what they had done and try to sweep this past decorously under the carpet. Today’s Alt-Right is not so shy. As I have reported (see here and here, for example), the Alt-Right invokes neo-eugenic theory, Darwinian evolution, and, of course, the Confederate States of America.
They have a twisted logic, or at least a consistency, on their side. I don’t think you’ll see the Confederate flag floating overhead at the next March for Science. But, from a historical perspective, it would not be out of place there, any more than at a rally of the Alt-Right. It’s only because of a willed amnesia that we forget this.
Photo: Alexander H. Stephens, by Matthew Brady, via Wikimedia Commons.