- This is an article about the Confederate Vice President. For the shipbuilding company, see Alexander Stephen and Sons
Alexander Hamilton Stephens (February 11, 1812 – March 4, 1883) was an American politician from Georgia. He was 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.
Early life and career[edit | edit source]
Stephens was born on a farm near Crawfordville, Taliaferro County, Georgia, to Andrew B. and Margaret Grier Stephens. He grew up poor and acquired his education through the generosity of several benefactors, one of whom was the Presbyterian minister Alexander Hamilton Webster. 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 an unhappy couple of years teaching school, he pursued 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 black slave woman accused of attempted murder. Stephens volunteered to defend her. Despite the circumstantial evidence presented against her, Stephens persuaded the jury to acquit the woman, thus saving her life.
Stephens was sickly throughout his life; he weighed only 96 pounds. While his voice was described as shrill and unpleasant, at the beginning of the Civil War a northern newspaper described him as "the Strongest Man in the South" because of his intelligence, judgment, and eloquence. His generosity was legendary; his house, even when he was governor of Georgia, was always open to travelers or tramps, and he personally financed the education of over 100 students, black and white, male and female. So prodigious was his charity, that he died virtually penniless.
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. Stephens entered politics in 1836, when he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. He served there until 1841. In 1842, he was elected to the Georgia State Senate.
Congressional career[edit | edit source]
In 1843, Stephens was elected U.S. Representative as a Whig, in a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mark A. Cooper. This seat was an at-large seat, as Georgia did not have House districts until 1844. In 1844, 1846, and 1848, Stephens was re-elected Representative from the 7th District as a Whig. In 1851 he was re-elected as a Unionist, in 1853 as a Whig (from the 8th District), and in 1855 and 1857 as a Democrat. He served from October 2, 1843 to March 3, 1859, in the 28th Congress through the 35th Congress.
As a national lawmaker during the crucial two decades before the Civil War, Stephens was involved in all the major sectional battles. He began as a moderate defender of slavery, but later accepted all of the prevailing Southern rationales used 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. He was an equally vigorous opponent of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred the extension of slavery into territories acquired by the United States during the war with Mexico. This debate would later nearly kill him when he argued the issue with Judge Cone, who stabbed him in a fit of anger. While serious, the attack was not fatal and Stephens returned home to Crawfordville for recovery; he and Cone reconciled before Cone's death in 1851. 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, and then returned 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.
By this time, Stephens had departed the ranks of the Whig party — its northern wing proving inimical 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 a number of both Democrats and Whigs, which had formed a "party" behind the Compromise, had come undone.
The sectional issue surged to the forefront again in 1854, when Senator Stephen A. Douglas 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, thereby negating 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. Not until after the Congressional elections of 1855 could Stephens be properly called a Democrat, although 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 to 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 and passing the so-called English bill after it became clear that Lecompton would never 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 the Illinois Senator and served as one of his presidential electors in the election of 1860.
Vice President of the Confederacy[edit | edit source]
In 1861, Stephens was elected as a delegate to the Georgia special convention to decide on secession from the United States. During the convention, as well as during the 1860 presidential campaign, Stephens 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, would be forced to compromise just as the two sections had for decades. And, 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. He took the oath of office on February 11, 1861, 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.
On the brink of the Civil War, 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.
In 1862, Stephens first publicly expressed his opposition to the Davis administration. 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 in the immediate aftermath of the Federal victory of Gettysburg, the Lincoln administration refused 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 both North and South. In it, he excoriated the Davis administration for its support of conscription and suspension of habeas corpus, and further, he 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.
Post-bellum career[edit | edit source]
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 did not present his credentials, as the state had not been readmitted to the union. In 1873, he was elected U.S. Representative as a Democrat from the 8th District to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Ambrose R. Wright, and was re-elected 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. According to a former slave, a gate fell on Stephens "and he was crippled and lamed up from dat time on 'til he died." 
He is the author of: A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States,(1867–70, history, 2 Vols.); History of the United States (1871), and History of the United States (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 state park near Crawfordville.
See also[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
- Schott, Thomas E. (1988). Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia. pp. 357 ff..
- Rudolph R. von Abele, Alexander H. Stephens: A Biography (1946)
- Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private, with Letters and Speeches (1866)
- William C. Davis, The Union that Shaped the Confederacy: Robert Toombs & Alexander H. Stephens (2002)
- Richard Malcolm Johnston & William Hand Browne, Life of Alexander H. Stephens (1878).
- Louis Pendleton, Alexander H. Stephens (1908)
- Thomas E. Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (1988)
- W. P. Trent, Southern Statesmen of the Old Régime (1897)
- Jon L. Wakelyn, Biographical Dictionary of the Confederacy
- Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (1962) ch 11, on his book
- Biographical article from Harper's Weekly, February 23, 1861.
[edit | edit source]
|40x40px||Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Alexander H. Stephens|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about: Alexander H. Stephens|
- Alexander H. Stephens at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress Retrieved on 2009-03-22
- Timeline and biography of Alexander Stephens
- The Life and Work of Alexander Stephens
- "Cornerstone" Speech
- What I Really Said in the Cornerstone Speech Stephens clarifies his statements
- Another explanation
- A. H. Stephens State Historic Park
Template:Start box |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #cccccc" | United States House of Representatives Template:USRepSuccessionBox Template:USRepSuccessionBox Template:USRepSuccessionBox Template:USRepSuccessionBox
|width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Representative to the Provisional Confederate Congress from Georgia
1861 Template:S-non |- |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Vice President of the Confederate States of America
February 11, 1861 – May 11, 1865
|- style="text-align: center;"
|width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
Alfred H. Colquitt |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Governor of Georgia
1882 – 1883 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
James S. Boynton |- |- | colspan="3" style="background:#bebebe; color:#000000;" | Notes and references |- | colspan="3" style="text-align:left;"| 1. Because of Georgia's secession, the House seat was vacant for over twelve years before Jones succeeded Stephens. |}
ca:Alexander Hamilton Stephens de:Alexander Hamilton Stephens et:Alexander Stephens es:Alexander Hamilton Stephens fr:Alexander Stephens it:Alexander Hamilton Stephens la:Alexander Hamiltonius Stephens ja:アレクサンダー・スティーヴンズ pl:Alexander Stephens ru:Стивенс, Александр Гамильтон