Let The Past Speak, And Show When We Were Weak

Alexander Stephens Let the past speak, and show us when we're weak

I never saw this picture at any point in my education as a child or adolescent. I never heard the name Alexander Stephens in my education. But I am considering him now because America is exploring certain unhappy aspects of its history. I wish to consider how Knowledge, the deeper spiritual intelligence that God has placed within each person, might look upon the words of Alexander Stephens. I wish to consider what “ground rules” could be agreed upon for considering the past.

Let the past speak, and show when we were weak

Alexander Stephens gave an extemporaneous speech in Savannah, Georgia in March of 1861 which has come to be known as the Cornerstone Speech, because it clearly and succinctly stated the differences between the ideas of the Confederacy, and the ideas of the US Constitution. Here is a paragraph from that speech:

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… 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 idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”

Let the past speak, and show when we were weak. The “new Constitution” was the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, adopted a mere ten days before this speech was given. The “late rupture and present revolution” was the succession of seven southern states within the previous 4 months. I have searched for the source of the Jefferson quote without success, but regarding slavery, he wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” I consider everything he said from “The prevailing ideas…” to “…evanescent and pass away” to be a reasonably objective description. Stephens is making a reference to the Sermon on the Mount about the rock and sandy foundations.

Let the past speak, and show when we were weak. What is my experience of these words of Alexander Stephens? I am aghast. I am stopped. I cry out, “How can someone say something so monstrously, terribly evil without the slightest hint of irony? And furthermore, mention it as in keeping with the Bible?” But this cry of mine is not well-formed in the light of Knowledge. Why is it not well-formed? Because of the judgment expressed by the word “evil” and its modifiers. Judgment is a decision to stop looking, to stop listening, to stop observing, and to start attacking, to start punishing, to start separating. Steps to Knowledge, the book of spiritual practice of the New Message from God, affirms earlier teachings of how judgment is the source of many miseries and sorrows in the world. Therefore, I need to think this out again.

Let the past speak, and show when we were weak. Generally speaking, I find it a good strategy to replace judgment words in a sentence (good, bad, evil, right, wrong) with description words (long, heavy, bright, feathery, cold, etc.). I also find it a good strategy to replace sentences of the form “This is that” with sentences of the form “I consider this that” or “I find this that.” Getting back to Stephens, I could say “I consider his words to be an un-American thing for an American to say, assuming we define by “American” the words “Liberty,” “E pluribus unum” (Latin for “out of many, one”) and ‘In God we trust.'” I have replaced the judgment word “evil” with the descriptive word “un-American.” I have added the qualifier of limiting it to my own experience. If I could go back to Savannah in 1861 and give my first cry to Alexander Stephens, he might be angry and have his fists up. But if I went back and gave my second utterance, we might be able to continue to debate on the merits of the proposal.

Let the past speak, and show when we were weak. There is another thing about this speech I wish to consider. It is the relative weakness of ideas. I realize some people may find this difficult. I sympathize, because I have found this difficult. I have been taught all my life to believe that ideas have consequences, that some ideas are more powerful than others, and those ideas survive because they stir things in the hearts and minds of men that other ideas do not. I’m not so sure that those things are true anymore. In the realm of being, there are only things that are and things that aren’t. The realm of thoughts and ideas is based on persuasion rather than truth. In this realm, people create ideas, people attack certain thoughts, people fortify beliefs, people weaken arguments, people eventually destroy ideologies. The weapons are logic, manipulation, seduction, propaganda, ridicule, social rewards and punishments, and so forth. An idea that succeeds in a certain context today might very well fail in a different context tomorrow. I say the Founders knew that all people are created equal. But to Alexander Stephens, it was just another idea that didn’t pan out because of its lack of foundation in reality. What was the difference between the Founders and Alexander Stephens?

Steps to Knowledge describes this weakness more than once. This is from Step 240, “Small ideas cannot fulfill my need for Knowledge”:

“Great ideas, fantastic images or wonderful belief systems cannot meet your need for Knowledge. Ideas alone can set you on your way, but they cannot take you on the journey.”

This idea is examined from another angle in Step 277, “My ideas are small, but Knowledge is great.”

“Imagination is unstable, and even its brightest moments can turn to darkness in a second. Even its greatest inspirations can be bitterly discouraged with the slightest provocation. Here there is no certainty. Here there is no reality. Here nothing is trustworthy, for only change can be expected.”

Let the past speak, and show when we were weak. I very recently learned there is a statue of Alexander Stephens in the U. S. Capitol. It was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, the creator of Mount Rushmore. It was given to the Capitol by the State of Georgia in 1927.

Both Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) and the descendants of Alexander Stephens have called for the removal of this statue from the Capitol. Will it happen? Should it happen? I don’t know.

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