Ben Carson’s Unfortunate Cornerstone

Dr. Ben Carson has a new gig as the head of something called the American Cornerstone Institute. It seems that the outfit exists primarily as a funding vehicle for the good doctor himself, but that should hardly raise an eyebrow in today’s Washington, D.C.  The greater problem is that the operation’s poorly chosen name echoes an historically freighted pro-slavery declaration, issued on the eve of the Civil War.

The former presidential candidate, ex-secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and retired neurosurgeon’s not-for-profit think tank promises to “champion conservative solutions to the real problems our nation faces.” After four years of quiescence during the Trump administration, Carson now claims to have realized that values such as “compromise, compassion, and civility” have vanished from our political discourse, and he is determined to restore them.

The Cornerstone Institute is basically a one-man show. The website flogs Carson’s accomplishments, with multiple still photographs, video clips and pull-quotes touting his wisdom, insight, and principles, with no mention of anyone else. And of course, there are pitches for contributions. The Cornerstone Institute was only incorporated in February 2021, so it is too soon to obtain the IRS form with information on its top salaries, but it is a pretty safe bet that Carson is paying himself handsomely for what is essentially just a big exercise in self-promotion.

I don’t have any complaints about ex-Trump officials cashing in however they can. Carson wasn’t close enough to the president to write a tell-all book, he doesn’t seem to have the energetic people skills needed for lobbying, and he isn’t a lawyer. So that leaves think-tanking, with Carson evidently betting that he can do better on his own than he can working for one of the established right-wing outfits.

The actually disturbing thing about Carson’s endeavor is its name. “Cornerstone” seems obviously intended as a New Testament reference – although that is unmentioned on the website – but the word also has a much more poisonous association in American political history. It is odd that nobody appears to have warned Carson about it before he went public.

On March 21, 1861, Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the recently formed Confederate States of American, delivered what has come to be known as the Cornerstone Address, explaining the reasons for secession from the Union. He minced no words, defending slavery as the guiding principle of the Confederacy:

Our new government is founded . . . its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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.

The Cornerstone Address came just seventeen days after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, at a time when only Georgia and six other states had announced their secession from the Union. As a former Whig, previously a staunch Unionist, and a one-time friend of Lincoln, Stephens’s bold pronouncement did much to brace the Confederate cause. The firing on Fort Sumter was only three weeks later, leading to the secession of four more states.

The Civil War would have happened with or without Stephens’s Cornerstone speech, but it was still a defining moment in the struggle over disunion, leaving no doubt that the purpose of the rebellion was the perpetuation of slavery.

The Cornerstone Address continues to play an important role in our understanding of the Civil War. When contemporary apologists for the Confederacy argue that secession was driven by states’ rights, tariffs, or the so-called “Lost Cause,” it takes only one look at the Cornerstone Address to refute their claims. The Confederacy was premised on White supremacy. It armies were assembled and battles were fought in the commission of treason in defense of slavery.

It is likely that Carson was unaware of the Cornerstone Address when he named his foundation. Perhaps he never studied antebellum history during his pre-med and medical school education at Yale and the University of Michigan. Even so, there may be some words that cannot be reclaimed or repurposed. Nobody today would choose “Confederacy” as the name for a respectable political organization, or “Stasi” for a government office (even though that is merely a German abbreviation for “State Security Service”). “Cornerstone” is not quite so notorious, but its historical association with slavery is nonetheless profound.

Ironically, the American Cornerstone Institute has launched its “A More Perfect Union Project,” aimed at “educating our citizens in civics and history.” The project quotes Lincoln’s reverence for the Declaration of Independence as “the immortal emblem of humanity,” without noting that the Great Emancipator gave his life to destroy Alexander Stephens’s vision for the cornerstone of a government founded on racial subordination.

Trump's America: The return of Ben Carson | The NC Triad's altweekly

In a recent oped in the Washington Post, Carson bemoaned a “subtle shift” in the national conversation about race “from equality to equity.” This is “un-American,” he said, because it assumes that “all differential outcomes between groups are solely the result of that bigotry and oppression.” From there, Carson predictably inveighed against affirmative action hiring programs, campaigns to support Black-owned businesses, and even local “anti-poverty stipends” that target people of color.

If the McCarthyist condemnation of liberal causes seems at odds with the Cornerstone Institute’s commitment to restoring civility, well, you just have to figure that Carson didn’t really mean it that way. Our goal, he says, is to “heal the divide that has polarized our great nation,” and the nasty bit must have just slipped out by accident. It seems that you can take the man out of the Trump administration, but it is not so easy to take the Trump administration out of the man.

In that light, I have a suggestion for Dr. Carson, assuming that he is truly concerned about the un-American implications of subtle language. Nothing was ever more un-American than the Confederacy, so he ought to consider dropping Alexander Stephens’s “cornerstone” in favor of a quotation from Abraham Lincoln. How about the “New Birth of Freedom Institute”?