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Alexander Hamilton Stephens

Vice-President of the Confederate States of America

Alexander Hamilton Stephens

Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born in Wilkes County (now Taliafero County), Tennessee, on February 11, 1812. Both of his parents had died by the time he was 14, and he was subsequently raised by relatives. He received his primary education in the local schools, graduated from Franklin College in 1832, taught school for eighteen months, studied law at the University of Georgia, and was admitted to the bar at Crawfordsville, Georgia, in 1834.

Stephens would have been quite content to spend his life practicing law, but his friends and neighbors elected him to the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1836, and he ultimately served in that body until 1841. Although he refused to be re-elected to the State House, he found himself elected to the State Senate, where he served until being elected to fill the U.S. House of Representatives seat vacated by the resignation of Mark A. Cooper. Throughout his tenure in the State Legislature, Stephens was diligent in protecting all common interests, and in advancing the State's material welfare.

Despite his initial reluctance to enter politics, Stephens took his seat in the U.S. House on October 2, 1843, and served until March 3, 1859, leaving only because he refused to run for another term. A strong supporter of states’ rights, he regularly switched political parties whenever he felt they drifted too far from his principles. First elected as a Whig, he later served as both a Democrat and a Constitutional Unionist. In 1848, he was attacked and stabbed multiple times by Francis H. Cone, a Democratic judge who was enraged by Stephens’ opposition to the Clayton Compromise, a bill that addressed the legality of slavery in territories won in the Mexican-American War. Stephens attended a political rally only days later, and used the attack to disparage the Democratic Party and encourage voters to elect the Whig presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor.

While Stephens vehemently supported the institution of slavery, he was also committed to preserving the Union, and was an ardent supporter of the Compromise of 1850, a package of bills that helped stave off Southern secession. He also worked to maintain a balance between free and slave states as new territories were introduced into the Union. In furtherance of the latter, he pushed for passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed settlers in these new territories to choose whether or not to permit slavery.

Despite opposing secession during the immediate lead-up to the Civil War, Stephens accepted election to the Confederate Congress, which subsequently elected him Vice-President of the Provisional Confederate government and then of the Confederate States of America. On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, he introduced the Confederate government in what has become known as the "Cornerstone Speech," in which he argued it was based upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” After the war officially began, Stephens moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he took part in administrative preparations for the war effort. During this time he repeatedly advocated that the Confederacy delay large-scale military action in order to properly plan and equip itself for prolonged war, and was repeatedly rebuffed. Unenthusiastic about his position as Vice President, which granted him little power and largely relegated him to the role of passive observer over the Confederate Congress, he nevertheless accepted re-election after his provisional appointment expired in February 1862.

Stephens was a frequent and vocal critic of Confederate President Jefferson Davis' management of the war effort. A staunch proponent of limited government, he took issue with Davis’s suspension of habeas corpus, which allowed arrests without charge, and in September 1862 he published an unsigned letter in a Georgia newspaper condemning the policy of conscription, which gave the Confederate government the power to draft troops ahead of their state militias. Disillusioned with Davis’ policies and feeling unneeded, he regularly left the Confederate capital to spend extended periods away at his home in Georgia.

In July 1863, Stephens was sent to Washington, D.C., on a mission to discuss prisoner exchanges with the Union. Anxious to end the war, he also hoped to broach the subject of reaching a peace agreement. He only made it as far as Newport News, Virginia, however, as he was informed at that time that the U.S. government would not consider opening negotiations with him (the Union had just won the Battle of Gettysburg).

In March 1864, Stephens gave a speech to the Georgia State Legislature outlining his criticisms of Davis, and was denounced by many Southerners as a traitor. His opposition to Davis became so pronounced that in late 1864 he received a letter from Union General William T. Sherman, who was then undertaking his "March to the Sea," encouraging Stephens to meet and discuss the possibility of Georgia forming an independent peace agreement with the Union. Stephens refused the invitation, but his relationship with Davis remained strained for the rest of the war.

Stephens' last attempt to negotiate for peace came on February 3, 1865, when he (as the head of a Confederate delegation) met with U. S. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War William Seward at Hampton Roads, Virginia. In that meeting, he pressed the two men to agree to an armistice so that the Union and Confederacy could jointly work to drive Emperor Maximilian out of Mexico. It was Stephen's hope that such an armistice would lead to a peaceful restoration of the Union, but both Lincoln and Seward insisted that the disbanding of all armies and the installation of Federal authority everywhere was absolutely the preliminary to any cessation of hostilities. Failing to secure an armistice, Stephens then requested a statement of conditions upon which the war might end, with the South remaining independent. This request was also denied.

Following the failure at Hampton Roads, Stephens returned to his home in Georgia, where he was arrested on May 11, 1865. He was imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, for five months before being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in October 1865. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1866 by the first legislature convened under the new Georgia State Constitution, but the move proved controversial in the North and he never took office. Stephens then devoted himself to writing his memoirs of the war, and later composed a history of the United States. In 1873, he was chosen to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, and served until being elected Governor of Georgia in 1882 (December 1, 1873-November 4, 1882). He served in the latter capacity until his death, on March 4, 1883.


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See Also

Mexican-American War
Zachary Taylor
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Jefferson Davis
William T. Sherman
President Abraham Lincoln
William Seward
President Andrew Johnson

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The Robinson Library >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 27, 2018.