Alexander H. Stephens

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Alexander H. Stephens
Alexander Stephens -1855.jpg
Governor of Georgia
In office
November 4, 1882 – March 4, 1883
Preceded by Alfred Colquitt
Succeeded by James Boynton
Vice President of the Confederate States
In office
February 11, 1861 – May 11, 1865
Acting: February 11, 1861 – February 22, 1862
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's 8th district
In office
December 1, 1873 – November 4, 1882
Preceded by John Jones
Succeeded by Seaborn Reese
In office
March 4, 1853 – March 4, 1859
Preceded by Robert Toombs
Succeeded by John Jones
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's 7th district
In office
March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1853
Preceded by Constituency established
Succeeded by David Reese
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's At-large district
In office
October 2, 1843 – March 4, 1845
Preceded by Mark Cooper
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Personal details
Born Alexander Hamilton Stephens
(1812-02-11)February 11, 1812
Crawfordville, Georgia, U.S.
Died March 4, 1883(1883-03-04) (aged 71)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Political party Whig (Before 1851; 1853–1855)
Constitutional Union (1851–1853)
Democratic (1855–1883)
Alma mater University of Georgia
Religion Presbyterianism
Signature Cursive signature in ink

Alexander Hamilton Stephens (February 11, 1812 – March 4, 1883) was an American politician from Georgia and Vice President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. He also served as a U.S. Representative from Georgia (both before the Civil War and after Reconstruction) and as the 50th Governor of Georgia from 1882 until his death in 1883. He was an old Whig Party friend and ally of Abraham Lincoln; they met in the closing days of the Civil War but could not come to terms.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Alexander H. Stephens was born on February 11, 1812.[2] His parents were Andrew Baskins Stephens and Margaret Grier.[3]

The Stephenses lived on a farm near present-day Crawfordville, Taliaferro County, Georgia. At the time of Alexander Stephens's birth, the farm was part of Wilkes County. Taliaferro County was created in 1825 from land in Greene, Hancock, Oglethorpe, Warren, and Wilkes counties.[4]

His father, a native of Pennsylvania, came to Georgia at 12 years of age, in 1795. According to the Biographical Sketch of Linton Stephens (Linton Stephens being Alexander Stephens's half-brother), Andrew B. Stephens was "endowed with uncommon intellectual faculties; he had sound practical judgment; he was a safe counselor, sagacious, self-reliant, candid and courageous."[5]

His mother, a Georgia native and sister of Grier's Almanac founder Robert Grier,[6] died in 1812 at the age of 26;[7] Alexander Stephens was only three months old. In the introduction to Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, there is this about his mother and her family: "Margaret came of folk who had a liking for books, and a turn for law, war, and meteorology."[8] The introduction continues: "In her son's character was a marked blending of parental traits. He [Alexander Stephens] was thrifty, generous, progressive; one of the best lawyers in the land; a reader and collector of books; a close observer of the weather, and father of the Weather Bureau of the United States."[9]

In 1814, Andrew B. Stephens married Matilda Lindsay, daughter of Revolutionary War Colonel John Lindsay.[10]

In 1826, when Alexander Stephens was 14 years old, his father, Andrew,[11] and stepmother, Matilda,[12] died only days apart in May of that year. Their deaths caused him and several siblings to be scattered among relatives. He grew up poor and in difficult circumstances.

Not long after the deaths of his father and his stepmother, Alexander Stephens was sent to live with his mother's other brother, General Aaron W. Grier, near Raytown (Taliaferro County), Georgia. General Grier had inherited his own father's library, said to be "the largest library in all that part of the country."[13] Alexander Stephens, who read voraciously even as a youth, mentions the library in his "Recollections."

Stephens as a young man

Frail but precocious, the young Stephens acquired his continued education through the generosity of several benefactors. One of them was the Presbyterian minister Alexander Hamilton Webster, who presided over a school in Washington (Wilkes County), Georgia. Out of respect for his mentor, Stephens adopted Webster's middle name, Hamilton, as his own. Stephens attended the Franklin College (later the University of Georgia) in Athens, where he was roommates with Crawford W. Long and a member of the Phi Kappa Literary Society. He graduated at the top of his class in 1832.

After several unhappy years teaching school, he took up legal studies, passed the bar in 1834, and began a successful career as a lawyer in Crawfordville. During his 32 years of practice, he gained a reputation as a capable defender of the wrongfully accused. None of his clients charged with capital crimes were executed. One notable case was that of a slave woman accused of attempted murder. Stephens volunteered to defend her. Despite the circumstantial evidence presented against her, Stephens won an acquittal for the woman.

Stephens was extremely sickly throughout his life. Though his adult height was 5 feet 7 inches, he often weighed less than 100 pounds.[14]

As his wealth increased, Stephens began acquiring land and slaves. By the time of the Civil War, Stephens owned 34 slaves and several thousand acres. He entered politics in 1836, and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, serving there until 1841. In 1842, he was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

Congressional career[edit]

Stephens served in the U.S. House from October 2, 1843, to March 3, 1859, from the 28th Congress through the 35th Congress. In 1843, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Whig, in a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mark A. Cooper. This seat was at-large, as Georgia did not have House Districts until the next year. Stephens was re-elected from the 7th District as a Whig in 1844, 1846, and 1848, as a Unionist in 1851, and again as a Whig (from the 8th District) in 1853. In 1855 and 1857, his re-elections came as a Democrat.

As a national lawmaker during the crucial decades before the Civil War, Stephens was involved in all of the major sectional battles. He began as a moderate defender of slavery but later accepted the prevailing Southern rationale utilized to defend the institution.

Stephens quickly rose to prominence as one of the leading Southern Whigs in the House. He supported the annexation of Texas in 1845. Along with his fellow Whigs, he vehemently opposed the Mexican-American War, and later become an equally vigorous opponent of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred the extension of slavery into territories that were acquired after the war. He also controversially tabled the Clayton Compromise, which would have excluded slavery from the Oregon Territory and left the issue of slavery in New Mexico and California to the Supreme Court. This would later nearly kill Stephens when he argued with Judge Francis H. Cone, who stabbed him repeatedly in a fit of anger.[15] Stephens was physically outmatched by his larger assailant, but he remained defiant during the attack, refusing to recant his positions even at the cost of his life. Only the intervention of others saved him. Stephens' wounds were serious, and he returned home to Crawfordville to recover. He and Cone reconciled before Cone's death in 1859.

Stephens and fellow Georgia Representative Robert Toombs campaigned for the election of Zachary Taylor as President in 1848. Both were chagrined and angered when Taylor proved less than pliable on aspects of the Compromise of 1850. Stephens and Toombs both supported the Compromise of 1850 though they opposed the exclusion of slavery from the territories on the theory that such lands belonged to all of the people. The pair returned from the District of Columbia to Georgia to secure support for the measures at home. Both men were instrumental in the drafting and approval of the Georgia Platform, which rallied Unionists throughout the Deep South.

Stephens and Toombs were not only political allies but also lifelong friends. Stephens was described as "a highly sensitive young man of serious and joyless habits of consuming ambition, of poverty-fed pride, and of morbid preoccupation within self," a contrast to the "robust, wealthy, and convivial Toombs. But this strange camaraderie endured with singular accord throughout their lives."[16]

Alexander Stephens

By this time, Stephens had departed the ranks of the Whig party, its northern wing having proved obstinate to Southern interests. Back in Georgia, Stephens, Toombs, and Democratic Representative Howell Cobb formed the Constitutional Union Party. The party overwhelmingly carried the state in the ensuing election and, for the first time, Stephens returned to Congress no longer a Whig. Stephens spent the next few years as a Constitutional Unionist, essentially an independent. He vigorously opposed the dismantling of the Constitutional Union Party when it began crumbling in 1851. Political realities soon forced the Union Democrats in the party to affiliate once more with the national party, and by mid-1852, the combination of both Democrats and Whigs, which had formed a "party" behind the Compromise, had ended.

The sectional issue surged to the forefront again in 1854, when Senator Stephen A. Douglas, from Illinois, moved to organize the Nebraska Territory, all of which lay north of the Missouri Compromise line, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This legislation aroused fury in the North because it applied the popular sovereignty principle to the Territory, in violation of the Missouri Compromise. Had it not been for Stephens, the bill would have probably never passed in the House. He employed an obscure House rule to bring the bill to a vote. He later called this "the greatest glory of my life."

From this point on, Stephens voted with the Democrats. Until after 1855, Stephens could not be properly called a Democrat, and even then, he never officially declared it. In this move, Stephens broke irrevocably with many of his former Whig colleagues. When the Whig Party disintegrated after the election of 1852, some Whigs flocked to the short-lived Know-Nothing Party, but Stephens fiercely opposed the Know-Nothings both for their secrecy and their anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic position.

Despite his late arrival in the Democratic Party, Stephens quickly rose through the ranks. He even served as President James Buchanan's floor manager in the House during the fruitless battle for the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas Territory in 1857. He was instrumental in framing the failed English Bill after it became clear that Lecompton would not pass.

Stephens did not seek re-election to Congress in 1858. As sectional peace eroded during the next two years, Stephens became increasingly critical of southern extremists. Although virtually the entire South had spurned Douglas as a traitor to southern rights because he had opposed the Lecompton Constitution and broken with Buchanan, Stephens remained on good terms with Douglas and even served as one of his presidential electors in the election of 1860.

According to Bruce Catton, he was "given one of the most haunting nicknames ever worn by an American politician: 'The Little Pale Star from Georgia.'"[17]

Vice President of the Confederacy[edit]

In 1861, Stephens was elected as a delegate to the Georgia Secession Convention to decide Georgia's response to the election of Abraham Lincoln. During the convention, as well as during the 1860 presidential campaign, Stephens, who came to be known as the sage of Liberty Hall,[18] called for the South to remain loyal to the Union, likening it to a leaking but fixable boat. During the convention he reminded his fellow delegates that Republicans were a minority in Congress (especially in the Senate) and, even with a Republican President, they would be forced to compromise just as the two sections had for decades. Because the Supreme Court had voted 7–2 in the Dred Scott case, it would take decades of Senate-approved appointments to reverse it. He voted against secession in the convention but asserted the right to secede if the federal government continued allowing northern states to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law with "personal liberty laws." He was elected to the Confederate Congress and was chosen by the Congress as Vice President of the provisional government. He was then elected Vice President of the Confederacy in November 1861. He took the provisional oath of office on February 11, 1861, then the 'full term' oath of office on February 22, 1862 and served until his arrest on May 11, 1865. Stephens officially served in office eight days longer than President Jefferson Davis; he took his oath seven days before Davis' inauguration and was captured the day after Davis.

Stephens in his later years

On March 21, 1861, Stephens gave his famous Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia. In it he declared that slavery was the natural condition of blacks and the foundation of the Confederacy. He declared, "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."[19]

On the eve of the outbreak of the Civil War, he counseled delay in moving militarily against the Northern-held Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens so that the Confederacy could build up its forces and stock resources.[20]

In 1862, Stephens first publicly expressed his opposition to the Davis administration.[21] Throughout the war he denounced many of the president's policies, including conscription, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, impressment, various financial and taxation policies, and Davis' military strategy.

In mid-1863, Davis dispatched Stephens on a fruitless mission to Washington to discuss prisoner exchanges, but the Union victory of Gettysburg made the Lincoln Administration refuse to receive him. As the war continued and the fortunes of the Confederacy sank lower, Stephens became more outspoken in his opposition to the administration. On March 16, 1864, Stephens delivered a speech to the Georgia Legislature that was widely reported in both the North and the South. In it, he excoriated the Davis Administration for its support of conscription and suspension of habeas corpus, and supported a block of resolutions aimed at securing peace. From then until the end of the war, as he continued to press for actions aimed at bringing about peace, his relations with Davis, never warm to begin with, turned completely sour.

On February 3, 1865, he was one of three Confederate commissioners who met with Lincoln on the steamer River Queen at the Hampton Roads Conference, a fruitless effort to discuss measures to bring an end to the fight. Stephens and Lincoln had been close friends and Whig political allies in the 1840s.[22]

Post-bellum career[edit]

John White Alexander's portrait of Alexander Stephens

Stephens was arrested at his home in Crawfordville, on May 11, 1865. He was imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, for five months until October 1865. In 1866, he was elected to the United States Senate by the first legislature convened under the new Georgia State Constitution, but was not allowed to take his seat because of restrictions on former Confederates.

In 1873, Stephens was elected US Representative as a Democrat from the 8th District to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Ambrose R. Wright. Stephens was subsequently re-elected to the 8th District in 1874, 1876, 1878, and 1880. He served in the 43rd through 47th Congresses, from December 1, 1873 until his resignation on November 4, 1882. On that date, he was elected and took office as Governor of Georgia. His tenure as governor proved brief; Stephens died on March 4, 1883, four months after taking office.

Almost all of his emancipated slaves chose to remain working with him, some for little or no money. These servants were with him upon his death. Although old and infirm, Stephens continued to work on his house and plantation. According to a former slave, a gate fell on Stephens while he and another black servant were repairing it, "and he was crippled and lamed up from that time on 'til he died."[23]

He was interred in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, then re-interred on his estate, Liberty Hall, near Crawfordville.

He is the author of A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States (1867–70, 2 vol.) and History of the United States (1871 and 1883).

He is pictured on the CSA $20.00 banknote (3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th issues).

Stephens County, Georgia, bears his name, as does A. H. Stephens Historic Park, a state park near Crawfordville.

A collection of Stephens' personal papers has been digitized and is available at the Rubenstein Library, Duke University.[24]

Portrayal[edit]

In Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, Alexander H. Stephens is portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley. The film depicts him attending the Hampton Roads Conference.

A sculpture of him appears in the National Statuary Hall Collection representing one of two figures from Georgia history, the other being Crawford W. Long.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Alexander Stephens gravesite memorial at Liberty Hall
  1. ^ Chris DeRose (2013). Congressman Lincoln. Simon and Schuster. p. 116. 
  2. ^ Memoirs of Georgia (Atlanta: Southern Historical Association, 1895), Vol. I, p. 238.
  3. ^ Biographical Sketch of Linton Stephens (Atlanta: Dodson & Scott, 1877), p. 3.
  4. ^ "Taliaferro County | New Georgia Encyclopedia". Georgiaencyclopedia.org. 2006-08-30. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 
  5. ^ Biographical Sketch of Linton Stephens, p. 3.
  6. ^ "Grier's Almanac | New Georgia Encyclopedia". Georgiaencyclopedia.org. 2013-08-13. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 
  7. ^ "Margaret T. Grier Stephens (1786 - 1812) - Find A Grave Memorial". Findagrave.com. 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 
  8. ^ Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens: His Diary Kept When a Prisoner... (New York: Doubleday, 1910), p. 3.
  9. ^ Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, pp. 3-4.
  10. ^ Biographical Sketch of Linton Stephens, pp. 3-4.
  11. ^ "Andrew B. Stephens (1782 - 1826) - Find A Grave Memorial". Findagrave.com. 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 
  12. ^ "Matilda Lindsay Stephens (1789 - 1826) - Find A Grave Memorial". Findagrave.com. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 
  13. ^ Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, p.3.
  14. ^ James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), p. 74, gives his weight as 90 pounds.
  15. ^ "Alexander Stephens". Ourgeorgiahistory.com. 1905-08-18. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 
  16. ^ William Y. Thompson, Robert Toombs of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966, p. 13
  17. ^ Catton, Bruce, The Coming Fury, p 46. Pocket Books, New York. 1961
  18. ^ Candler, Allen Daniel (1909). The Confederate records of the State of Georgia, Volume 1. Atlanta, GA: C. P. Byrd publishing. ISBN 978-1147068887. p. 16. Retrieved July 22, 2013.
  19. ^ "Behind the Jeffersonian Veneer". Reason.com. Retrieved 2013-11-10. 
  20. ^ Allan Nevins, The Improvised War, 1861–1862 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959), p. 73.
  21. ^ Schott, Thomas E. (1988). Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia. pp. 357 ff. 
  22. ^ Chris DeRose (2013). Congressman Lincoln. Simon and Schuster. p. 116. 
  23. ^ Hornsby, Sadie B. (August 4, 1938). Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Interview with Georgia Baker. Library of Congress. p. 51. Retrieved February 15, 2011. 
  24. ^ Alexander H. Stephens Papers, 1823-1954, Rubenstein Library, Duke University 

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Mark Cooper
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's At-large congressional district
(Seat 1)

1843–1845
Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's 7th congressional district

1845–1853
Succeeded by
David Reese
Preceded by
Robert Toombs
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's 8th congressional district

1853–1859
Succeeded by
John Jones
Preceded by
John Jones
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's 8th congressional district

1873–1882
Succeeded by
Seaborn Reese
Political offices
New office Vice President of the Confederate States
1861–1865
Position abolished
Preceded by
Alfred Colquitt
Governor of Georgia
1882–1883
Succeeded by
James Boynton