Alexander Stephens was born February 11, 1812 in Georgia.
His mother died when Alexander was only 3 months old.
Alexander’s father remarried, and then in May of 1826, both his father and stepmother died only days apart leaving the 14 year old orphan with poverty and difficult circumstances to overcome.
Frail, yet precocious, young Alexander ended up living with his maternal uncle Aaron W. Grier.
The local Presbyterian minister, Alexander Hamilton Webster, also presided over a local school. Webster mentored the young Alexander with generosity and guidance. Out of respect, Alexander Stephens adopted Webster’s middle name, Hamilton, as his own.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens set off to attend Franklin College (now the University of Georgia), where he roomed with Crawford W. Long.
Alexander graduated at the top of his class in 1832.
Upon graduation, Alexander taught a couple years while studying law; passing the bar in 1834 and building a successful career as a lawyer in Crawfordville, Georgia.
Alexander prided himself as the capable defender of the wrongfully accused over the next 32 years. Not a single client of his, charged with a capital crime, was ever executed. One notable historical case was that of a slave woman accused of attempted murder. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, a slave owner himself, volunteered to defend her, despite the circumstantial evidence presented against her. Stephens fought and won an acquittal for the woman.
In 1836, Stephens was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, serving there until 1841. Then in 1842, he was elected to the Georgia State Senate.
In 1843, Stephens was appointed to a seat at-large with the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Whig party. He replaced Mark A.Cooper who had resigned. He went on to be re-elected several times, holding the office from October 2, 1843 to March 3, 1859.
During his years as a lawmaker leading up to the Civil War, Stephens began as a moderate defender of slavery but later accepted the prevailing Southern rationale utilized to defend the institution of slavery.
Stephens was a vigorous opponent of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred the extension of slavery into new territories acquired by the United States. While arguing this with Judge Francis H. Cone, Stephens was stabbed repeatedly by Cone in a fit of anger. Stephens was physically outmatched by Cone, but remained defiant during the attack, refusing to recant his positions even at the cost of his life.
Other lawyers stepped in to save Stephens, whose wounds were serious. No charges were brought up against Cone, who reconciled with Stephens sometime before Cone’s death in 1859 (and we think politics are brutal today).
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.
Then in 1854, Illinois 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, in violation of the Missouri Compromise. Had it not been for Stephens, the bill would have probably never passed in the House. Stephens employed an obscure House rule to bring the bill to a vote.
Stephens would later call this “the greatest glory of my life.”
Stephens rose through the ranks, even serving as President James Buchanan’s floor manager in the House during the fruitless battle for the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas Territory in 1857. Stephens was also instrumental in framing the failed English Bill after it became clear that Lecompton would not pass.
Even so, Stephens did not seek re-election to Congress in 1858.
As 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.
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, 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.”
Then 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.”
On the eve of the outbreak of the Civil War, Stephens 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.
In November of 1861, Stepehens was formally elected Vice President of the Confederacy. He took the provisional oath of office on February 11, 1862, then the ‘full term’ oath of office on February 22, 1862.
In 1862, Stephens first publicly expressed his opposition to the Jefferson 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, Confederate President Davis dispatched Vice President 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 Jefferson Davis, never warm to begin with, turned completely sour.
On February 3, 1865, Stephens 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.
Then on May 11, 1865, Stephens was arrested at his home in Crawfordville.
Stephens had 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.
He was imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, for five months until October 1865.
In 1866, Stephens was again 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 November 4, 1882, Stephens was elected as the 50th Governor of Georgia, though his tenure as governor proved brief.
Although old and infirm, Stephens had continued to work on his house and plantation.
Almost all of Stephens emancipated slaves chose to remain working with him, some for little or no money.
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 dat time on ’til he died.”
These servants were with him upon his death, March 4, 1883.
Stephens was interred in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, then re-interred on his estate, Liberty Hall, near Crawfordville.
Now WE know em
- The highest-ranking officer killed in the American Civil War was born today in 1803. Now WE know em (carl-leonard.com)
- This Confederate brigadier general commanded his “Army of Liberation” at the Battle of Belmont November 7, 1861 against a superior force commanded by Ulysses S. Grant for what is considered a Confederate victory. Now WE know em (carl-leonard.com)