Alexander H. Stephens

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Alexander H. Stephens

Born February 11, 1812
Crawfordsville, Georgia
Died March 4, 1883
Atlanta, Georgia

Vice president of the Confederate
States of America

Despite his office, he became
one of the most vocal critics of Confederate
president Jefferson Davis

The Confederacy's "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 moral condition.

As a prominent Georgia politician, Alexander H. Stephens opposed his state's decision to secede (withdraw) from the Union at the beginning of the Civil War. Nevertheless, he actively participated in forming the Confederate government and ended up becoming the vice president of the new Southern nation. Shortly after taking office, however, Stephens began disagreeing with Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) over the need to create a strong central government to manage the war effort effectively. Stephens believed that the right of individual states to decide issues within their borders for themselves was more important than the needs of the Confederacy. "He could not understand that if the war were to be won, great powers must be entrusted to those who had the task of waging the nation's war," Rudolph Von Abele explained in Alexander H. Stephens: A Biography. As a result, Stephens became one of Davis's most vocal critics at a time when the president needed his assistance the most.

Overcomes poverty and the death of his parents

Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born on February 11, 1812, in rural Georgia. His father, Andrew Baskins Stephens, struggled to support the family as a store clerk. His mother, Margaret Grier Stephens, died shortly after he was born. His father eventually remarried, but then both his father and stepmother died when Alexander was a young teen. At this point, Stephens and his siblings were sent away to live with relatives. Alexander was taken in by his maternal uncle, Aaron Grier, who helped him get an education.

Stephens attended Franklin College (which later became the University of Georgia) and graduated first in his class in 1832. He taught school for a while, then studied law. He soon became a successful attorney. As his wealth increased, he showed his generosity by helping his poor relatives. He even adopted his half-brother, Linton, and paid for his education. The two men remained extremely close for the rest of their lives.

Stephens also used some of his money to buy slaves. Beginning in the 1600s, black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country and became an important part of the region's economy and culture.

Growing up in Georgia, Stephens came to believe that slavery offered the best possible life for black people. He felt that blacks were incapable of living on their own, so they needed white people to give them food, clothing, shelter, and religion. He thought that black people in Africa lived as savages, while black slaves in the South were relatively civilized. Compared to many other slaveowners, Stephens treated his slaves well. He never whipped or beat them, and he never sold family members separately.

Enters politics and supports states' rights

Within a short time, Stephens had become a prominent member of his community. He grew interested in politics and won election to the Georgia state legislature in 1836. He remained in office until 1840, then was elected to one more term in 1842. During this time, Stephens earned the respect of his fellow lawmakers and voters with his intelligence and biting speeches. The local press gave him the nickname "Little Ellick" because he was so small, weighing only ninety pounds.

In 1843, Stephens was elected to represent his region of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives. He remained in office for the next fifteen years. During this time, the Northern and Southern sections of the country engaged in a heated debate over slavery and the power of the national, or federal, government to regulate it. Like many other Southerners, Stephens defended slavery and supported states' rights. People who supported states' rights wanted to limit the power of the federal government. They wanted individual states to have the right to decide important issues for themselves without interference from the national government.

In the eyes of Stephens and other Southern politicians, one of the most important issues that should be decided by the states was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong, and they urged the federal government to take steps to limit it. Some people wanted to outlaw slavery altogether, while others just wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, Stephens and many other Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.

By the late 1850s, several Southern states were threatening to secede from the United States because of this ongoing dispute. Unlike many other Southern politicians, Stephens opposed the idea of secession. He felt that the Southern states should remain in the Union and continue to work out their differences with the North. In fact, he tried unsuccessfully to form a new political party dedicated to the principles of the Union, along with fellow lawmakers Robert A. Toombs (1810–1885) and Howell Cobb (1815–1868). Stephens worried that the North would not allow the South to leave without a fight, so the result of secession would be civil war. "Men will be cutting one another's throats in a little while. In less than twelve months we shall be in a war, and that the bloodiest in history," he warned. "There are not virtue [moral goodness] and patriotism and sense enough left in the country to avoid it."

By 1860, it became clear that the issue of secession depended on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. If Democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) won, then the Southern states might remain in the Union. But if Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) won, the Southern states would almost certainly secede. Lincoln opposed slavery, so many Southerners felt that his government could not possibly represent their views. Despite the fact that Lincoln was an old friend of his, Stephens campaigned for Douglas. But Lincoln won the election. Just as Stephens had feared, the Southern states reacted by seceding from the United States and forming a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. With their enemies in control of the U.S. government, they felt that the only way they could protect their rights as independent states was to leave the Union.

Elected vice president of the Confederacy

In January 1861, Stephens's home state of Georgia held a convention to decide whether it should join the Confederacy. Stephens argued against the idea of Georgia seceding. "In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office [president of the United States], is sufficient cause for any state to separate from the Union," he stated. "Let us not be the ones to commit the aggression." Despite Stephens's pleas, the men at the convention voted to secede. Once the decision had been made, however, Stephens threw his support behind the Confederacy.

In February 1861, representatives from each of the secessionist states met in Montgomery, Alabama, to design the government of their new nation. Stephens acted as a delegate (representative) to the convention and helped establish the Confederate Constitution. The delegates then selected Jefferson Davis as president and Stephens as vice president of the Confederate States of America. For the next six weeks, Davis and Stephens tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the North. They still wanted to avoid a war if possible. One of the issues they hoped to resolve was the presence of Federal troops at Fort Sumter, located in the middle of the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. They viewed these troops as a symbol of Northern authority and asked Lincoln to remove them. When negotiations failed, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The Confederacy gained control of the fort, but the Civil War had begun.

During the first year of the war, Stephens found that he disagreed with President Davis on a number of important issues. For example, Davis wanted to establish a conscription (military draft) program to register Southern men for service in the Confederate Army. He thought that the government should require men to serve in the military. The president also wanted to suspend the legal provision known as habeas corpus, which prevented government officials from imprisoning people without charging them with a crime. Davis knew that some people in the South did not support the war effort, and he wanted the power to put these people in prison to stop them from helping the North.

Stephens and many members of the Confederate Congress opposed these policies. After all, the Southern states had seceded from the Union in order to assert their right to make important decisions for themselves, without interference from the national government. Yet Davis wanted broad new powers for the Confederate government. He felt he needed to create a strong central government for the Confederacy in order to manage the war effectively. The South would have no chance of winning against larger, better organized Union forces if each state insisted on fighting on its own. But Davis's opponents believed that states' rights and individual freedom were more important than the needs of the Confederacy as a whole. "Away with the idea of getting independence first, and looking after liberty afterward," Stephens stated. "Our liberties, once lost, may be lost forever."

By 1862, Stephens had become one of Davis's most vocal critics. He even argued that the president should give up the war effort and try to negotiate peace with the North. Because of his disagreements with Davis, Stephens eventually moved away from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and returned to Georgia. He only accepted two official missions as vice president during this time. Most of his wartime service to the Confederacy consisted of visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals and promoting the exchange of Union prisoners of war for equal numbers of Confederate prisoners.

Remains in politics after the war

The Civil War ended in defeat for the Confederacy in early 1865. But the United States continued to struggle with complicated issues in the period after the war. For example, Union authorities had to decide whether to punish Confederate leaders, what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much help to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. This difficult period in American history came to be known as Reconstruction (1865–77). Immediately after the war ended, Union officials charged Stephens with treason (betraying his country) and put him in prison in Boston, Massachusetts. But they released him after only six months and allowed him to return home to Georgia.

During this time, President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; see entry)—who took office after Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865—controlled the Reconstruction process. He pardoned many Confederate leaders and established lenient (easy) conditions for the Southern states to return to the Union. Many Northerners worried that Johnson's Reconstruction policies would allow Confederate leaders to return to power in the South and continue to discriminate against blacks. Georgia set up a new state government that met the president's conditions. In January 1866, Stephens was elected to represent the state's interests in the U.S. Senate. But many Northerners were outraged by this turn of events. They felt that Stephens should have been punished more severely for his role in causing the Civil War. They pointed to his election to the Senate as proof that the South had not learned anything from its defeat.

At this point, members of the Republican political party in the U.S. Congress decided to take over control of Reconstruction from the president. They established new, stricter conditions for the Southern states to rejoin the Union, and they sent federal troops into the South to enforce their policies. They also refused to allow Stephens or any other Southern representatives to take their seats in the federal government. As a result, Stephens became a vocal opponent of Congress's Reconstruction policies over the next few years.

Denied a chance to serve in the Senate, Stephens resumed his legal practice in Georgia. He finally regained his former seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1872 and served for the next ten years. He also wrote a two-volume history of the Civil War called A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. The book became a best-seller, and Southerners adopted "War between the States" as their unofficial name for the conflict. In 1882, Stephens put the finishing touch on his political career by being elected governor of Georgia. He only served one year in office, however, before he died on March 4, 1883.

Where to Learn More

Schott, Thomas Edwin. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Stephens, Alexander Hamilton. Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens: His Diary Kept When a Prisoner at Fort Warren, Boston Harbour, 1865. New York: Doubleday, 1910. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Von Abele, Rudolph. Alexander H. Stephens: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1946. Reprint, Westport, CT: Negro Universities Press, 1971.


"Slavery Is the Cornerstone of the Confederacy"

Stephens made probably his best-known speech in 1861, shortly after the Confederacy was formed. In this speech, which was published under the title "Slavery Is the Cornerstone of the Confederacy," he explained his view that slavery was the founding principle of the Southern nation and the main cause of the Civil War. Stephens began by discussing the U.S. Constitution, which did not address the issue of slavery directly. The authors of the Constitution believed that slavery was wrong, but most thought the practice would eventually end on its own, without action by the Federal government. Stephens, on the other hand, claimed that slavery was right and natural because the races were not created equal. In fact, he believed that by making slavery the foundation of their society, the founders of the Confederacy were fixing an error that had been made by the founders of the United States. The following is an excerpt from Stephens's speech:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas [of equality between the races]; 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 moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. . . .

It is the first Government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination [commandment] of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many Governments have been founded upon the principles of certain classes; but the classes thus enslaved, were of the same race, and in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. The negro by nature . . . is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material—the granite—then comes the brick or marble. The substratum [underlying support layer] of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity [harmony] with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances or to question them. For His own purposes He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another in glory."

The great objects of humanity are best attained, when conformed to his laws and degrees, in the formation of Governments as well as in all things else. Our Confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders "is become the chief stone of the corner" in our new edifice [building]. . . .


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Alexander H. Stephens

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