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Alexander Stephens

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Alexander Stephens

Alexander Hamilton Stephens (February 11, 1812March 4, 1883) was Vice President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War.

Contents

Biography

Stephens was born near Crawfordville, Taliaferro County, Georgia. He grew up poor and acquired his education through the generosity of several benefactors. He graduated at the top of his class from the University of Georgia at Athens in 1832.

After an unhappy couple of years teaching school, he studied law, passed the bar, and began a successful career as a lawyer in Crawfordville. As his wealth increased, Stephens began acquiring the requisite symbols of power in Southern society: land and slaves. By the time of the Civil War, Stephens owned 34 slaves and several thousand acres. Bitten by the political bug in the early 1830s, Stephens began what became a lifelong career in public service in 1836 when he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. He served there until moving on to the Georgia Senate in 1842. From there was then elected as a Whig to the United States House of Representatives to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mark A. Cooper. 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 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. Stephens along with his friend, fellow Georgia congressman Robert Toombs, worked diligently to secure the election of Zachary Taylor in 1848. He was reelected to the Twenty-ninth through Thirty-first Congresses, as a Unionist to the Thirty-second Congress, as a Whig to the Thirty-third Congress and as a Democrat to the Thirty-fourth and Thirty-fifth Congresses, serving October 2, 1843 to March 3, 1859.

Stephens did not run for renomination in 1858. In 1861 he served as a Delegate to the Georgia convention that voted to secede from the United States. 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.

On the brink of the Civil War, Stephens gave his famous Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861. In it he reaffirmed that "African Slavery ... was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution". He went on to assert that the US Constitution with its "assumption of the equality of races" was "fundamentally wrong". "Our new [Confederate] government is founded ... 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", and also: "With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system."

Stephens suffered from illness and disease throughout his life, and 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.

In 1865 he served as one of the commissioners representing the Confederacy at the Hampton Roads conference which attempted to come to a peaceful ending to the Civil War.

After the war 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 State constitution, but did not present his credentials, as the State had not been readmitted to the Union. He was elected as a Democrat to the Forty-third Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Ambrose R. Wright, and was reelected to the Forty-fourth and to the three succeeding Congresses, serving from December 1, 1873 until his resignation on November 4, 1882.

Stephens was elected Governor of Georgia in 1882 and served until his death in Atlanta. He was interred in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, then reinterred on his estate, "Liberty Hall," near Crawfordville.

See also

Reference

  • Harper's Weekly, February 23, 1861 Biography on Stephens
  • Thomas E. Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (1988);
  • Rudolf Von Abele, Alexander H. Stephens (1946)

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