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Civil War Encyclopedia >> People - Confederate Political
This diminutive Georgia politician, who was good friends with Abraham Lincoln, agreed to serve as Vice-President of the Confederate States of America when drafted by the provisional Confederate congress in 1861. He had been involved in the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act before the war, returning to the House of Representatives after Reconstruction. He briefly served as Governor of the state of Georgia in 1882-83.
A few months after his birth in February, 1812, Alexander Stephens mother died. His father remarried and "Little Aleck" was raised by his stepmother on a farm near Crawfordville, Georgia. In 1824 his father died from pneumonia and a week later his stepmother died from the same disease. The Stephens family was split, and Alex and his nearest brother went to live with an uncle in Warren County, west of Augusta. Stephens health was questionable, and while he could do the farmwork of a young boy, the farmwork of a young man proved too much for him, and in 1827 he left Warren County for an academy in Washington, Georgia, where he resumed his studies in Latin and other subjects.
His benefactor in Washington was Alexander Hamilton Webster, a young Presbyterian minister that became a father figure to Stevens. The boy took Hamilton as his middle name to honor the pastor. Alexander attended Franklin College (today's University of Georgia) in Athens, attending with such Georgia notables Howell Cobb (U. S. House majority leader) and Herschel V. Johnson (Stephen Douglas's Vice-Presidential candidate in The Election of 1860). He graduated in 1832 and moved to Madison, Georgia, eventually returning to Crawfordville, the nearest town to his family farm in Warren County.
Battling a myriad of diseases, the most painful of which was crippling rheumatoid arthritis and a pinched nerve in his back, he taught school and studied law. In an interesting turn of events, his bar exam was administered by William H. Crawford, once a powerful senator, Secretary of State under James Madison and twice a presidential candidate, including the hotly contested Election of 1824.
Fellow lawyer Robert Toombs entered his life shortly after Alexander Stephens passed the bar exam. Toombs was vibrant, full of life, wealthy, tall and healthy, in short, the exact opposite of Stephens. In 1836 Stephens began a two-month journey north to Washington, Baltimore and New York that introduced him to national politics and the North. He returned home and was elected to the state legislature as a member of the States Rights Party. His first issue was convincing Milledgeville (then the Georgia state capital) to support railroads.
As national parties were breaking up and realigning in the late 1830's and early 1840's, Alexander Stephens' States Rights Party became part of the newly-formed Whig Party, a national cover party for what were the anti-Jacksonians. Lumped in the party were such widely separated men as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and young Abraham Lincoln. Clay became the de facto head of the party although his "American System" of protective tariffs, a strong Central Bank and internal improvements paid for by the sale of land had opponents even within the Whigs.
In 1843 a state election handed the Whigs a sweep of the governorship and both branches of the legislature. In the sweep, Stephens was sent to his first term in the U. S. House. but there was a problem with the election. Congress had mandated the use of a district system but Georgia used an "at large" system to elect Stephens and other representatives. In his first speech, Stephens rose to debate the legality of his own election. It was a debate Stephens lost when Congress accepted the credentials of the Georgia delegation. In 1844 Georgia adopted the district elections required by Congress.
Stephens and the Georgia Whig Party supported Henry Clay in the Election of 1844 but when the smoke cleared Georgia voted Democratic, sending James Polk to the White House. Georgia Whigs had two problems with Clay: he did not take a strong pro-Annexation stand on Texas and many were afraid his tariffs would be protectionist. Stephens had numerous problems with Polk, whom he bitterly despised.
In Congress on January 13, 1845 Stephens spoke for an hour in support of the annexation of Texas. Stephens would lead a small group of Whigs voting for the annexation resolutions in Congress, which easily passed. Polk immediately began pushing the Oregon issue, which was not popular in the South. Before the issue could be settled, war broke out with Mexico.
In America, Mexico was looked upon as a second rate power not close to equaling the United States. Democrats pressed for the war under the banner of Manifest Destiny, but Stephens led the Whigs, opposing President Polk on the floor of the House in the spring of 1846. The war had been brought by design, according to Stephens, and he was probably right.
Democrats tried unsuccessfully to unseat Stephens in the 1846 elections. However, with the Georgian back in the House, Polk responded with a general attack on critics claiming they gave aid and comfort to the enemy. Shortly after this attack, Northern Whigs decided to introduce the Wilmot Proviso to a $2 million dollar appropriation bill Polk wanted. It was not the first time the House had seen the bill. It had been introduced on another appropriations bill late in the session in 1846, but Congress ended before the Senate could vote on the measure.
In 1847, almost the entire North voted for the Proviso. To Alexander Stephens, this spelled trouble. Even winning the Mexican American War did not cool Stephens fiery temper. Although the proviso never became law, the stage had been set with the first North-South battle.
Once again, Henry Clay decided to try for the Whig nomination for President in the Election of 1848. Stephens realized electing Clay would be hopeless, and instead supported Zachery Taylor, in spite of a number of highly publicized gaffes by the hero of Buena Vista turned politician. Taylor had supported a free-soiler suggestion that the Ordinance of 1787 be extended to all territories (it banned slavery), and claimed he was too busy to study protective tariffs and a national bank. Stephens was strongly against Democrat Lewis Cass and his "squatter sovereignty" platform.
Before adjoining for the Election of 1848, the question of organizing the Oregon Territory rose. On July 27, 1848 Senators of varying beliefs including Jefferson Davis, John C. Calhoun, John Berrien and Lewis Cass voted for the Clayton Compromise, a bill that would essentially put the question of slavery in the territories to the courts, postponing the battle over slavery now brewing in Washington. Stephens proceeded to have the motion tabled in the House, setting the stage for the Compromise of 1850.
Many were not happy with Stephens' tabling of the Clayton Compromise. Returning to Georgia, Alexander Stephens worked hard to ensure Zachary Taylor's success in Georgia. In September, 1848, Stephens journeyed to a Whig rally in Macon, then returned through Atlanta, where he met Judge Francis Cone in front of the Thompson Hotel. The judge was among those angry at Stephens for tabling the compromise and began an ugly feud at a political barbecue in August. After the judge hurled an insult, Stephens struck his walking cane across Cone's face. Cone drew a knife, slashing Stephens repeatedly in the arms and face. Bystanders restrained Judge Cone and Stephens was moved to the hotel where three doctors patched him up.
Unwittingly, Alexander Stephens had done much to help the Presidential campaign of Zachery Taylor. The incident swept the nation and Cone was pictured as a "desperate wild-eyed Democrat" trying to injure "...one of the purest statesmen alive, - oh, and don't forget to vote for Old Zack."
Shortly after the election of Zachary Taylor the House called for California and New Mexico to join the Union as free states. Talk of "disunion" rose to a deafening pitch. Alexander Stephens did not like such talk and steered a course towards keeping the United States together, putting him at direct odds with John C. Calhoun, who was trying to form a Southern Party. He did not hold out hopes things would get better after Taylor was inaugurated.
In October, 1849, the Georgia legislature authorized a slate of delegates to the Nashville Convention. By this time Taylor seemed under the control of abolitionist William Seward. Taylor was pushing for the admittance of California and an end to the slave trade in Washington. The South was divided in its response to the proposed legislation, but Stephens, for the first time, realized a sectional war was the inevitable outcome of the situation.
In a meeting with President Taylor on his plan to admit California, Stephens, Robert Toombs and North Carolina Whig Thomas Clingman urged the president to veto any bill. They brought up the possibility of disunion if California was admitted. President Taylor informed the group that he would personally lead the army against traitors and hang them.
Henry Clay's bills that became the Compromise of 1850 owes much to two men, Stephen Douglas in the Senate and Alexander Stephens in the House.
While Douglas oversaw first the Omnibus Bill and later the individual bills in the Senate, Alexander Stephens helped to guide them through the House. In exchange for this help the provisions contained wording that permitted the states to change their mind about slavery in the future.
Sadly, it was Taylor's death in 1850 that gave the Compromise new life. Two weeks after the President's death the Omnibus bill died as well, but it was broken up by Douglas to be passed in pieces rather than a whole. As the Compromise moved through the Congress, Stephens began to realize that the Whig Party was so deeply split on the question of slavery that it could no longer exist. Northern Whigs were more frequently siding with Freesoilers, a union the Southern Whigs could not participate in. When Stephens returned to Georgia in August, 1850, he was surprised at what he found. The traditional Democrat/Whig parties had become shells of their former selves, replaced by a new "southern rights" movement, even with the failure of the Nashville Convention. Opposing the nationalistic "southern rights" movement, Howell Cobb formed a Constitutional Union party, which Stephens joined.
After returning to Washington to conclude work on the Compromise, Stephens returned to Georgia with Cobb and Toombs to sell the plan in this divisive environment. Tempers frequently flared, but in a referendum held on November 25, 1850, Georgians overwhelmingly supported Stephens and his friends. That December, a convention in Milledgeville ended supporting the Georgia Platform.
After successful elections for the Union Party in 1851 the Southern Rights party started calling themselves Regular Democrats and made moves to rejoin the national party. Georgia's Constitutional Union party shopped for a national party as well. It was a move Stephens and Toombs rejected and at the Constitutional Union convention in Milledgeville on August 17, 1852, Stephens, Toombs and others walked out rather than support Franklin Pierce for President. Papers called them the "tertium quids," a renegade third party intent on supporting Daniel Webster for President (Stephens hated Whig candidate Winfield Scott). Webster's candidacy ended before the election; he died in late October.
Pieces of the Constitutional Union Party, including Stephens and his supporters, slowly joined the Democrats following the Election of 1852, and Stephens brother Linton was elected to the Georgia assembly from Hancock County in 1853. 1854 would be a watershed year for the Georgia politician.
Western expansion had brought settlers to the Nebraska territory for many years. Attempts to make the territory a state had always fallen by the wayside because of other important issues, but in 1854 Stephen Douglas felt the time was right. With the Whig Party in steep decline and other parties deeply factionalized, Douglas clearly had his eye on a presidential run in 1856. On March 21, 1854, the bill came up before the House Committee on Territories, but the Democrats were divided on the bill, now known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but was defeated. Stephens and committee chairman William Richardson succeeded in reviving the bill on May 8. After a "riotous" session that featured Senator Douglas lobbying House members, the vote on the bill was set for May 20. The act, however, appeared doomed in the House until Stephens came up with a complex parliamentary tactic that involved seldom invoked Rule 119. When the bill passed 113-100 opponents realized they had been outmaneuvered by the Georgia congressman. He considered the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the House his greatest political victory.
Alexander Stephen's victory of passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act soured as the saga of Bleeding Kansas played out in front of a mournful nation. By the Election of 1856 the nation was so fed up with the concept of "popular sovereignty" that it nearly elected a Republican, but James Buchanan won as a minority president. Buchanan selected Stephens friend, Howell Cobb, for Secretary of the Treasury.
The Dred Scott decision validated many of Alexander Stephens beliefs on slavery, but the Lecompton Constitution would dash many of his hopes on the Union. He sided against the Douglas Democrats, hoping Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state to no avail. Lecompton was quickly invalidated and there was little Stephens could do but watch the country disintegrate over the next two years. When the Democratic Convention met in Charleston, South Carolina in April, 1860. Northern interests controlled the resolutions committee. Democrat proposals of allowing courts to decide the question of who could make laws governing slavery enraged the Fire-eaters and the convention broke apart early in May. Southern Democrats held a meeting in Richmond, Virginia on June 11, 1860, but Stephens proposed returning to the regular convention in Baltimore. The return of the Southern Democrats was a disaster, with Northern Democrats no closer to changing the offending planks, although at one point Stephen Douglas offered to withdraw from the race, to be replaced by Alexander Stephens.
Ironically, it would be the election of his old Whig friend Abraham Lincoln that would spell the end of the Union. Stephens spoke strongly against secession, and many people listened. In the vote to hold a secessionist convention, held in Georgia on January 1, 1861, most Georgians voted against seceding, but Governor Joseph Brown announced that Georgia had voted to hold the secessionist convention (he would not supply the actual totals until 4 months later). Once in the hands of nationalistic politicians, secession was a foregone conclusion.
At the Montgomery Convention representatives chose outspoken nationalist leader Jefferson Davis as President and Unionist Alexander Stephens as Vice President. By now, however, Stephens had left his pro-Union concepts in the dust and fully supported the demands for southern nationalism. Stephens fell quickly into the anonymity afforded to all vice-presidents, rarely included in decisions made by the authoritarian Davis. A secret discussion of replacing President Davis in the Confederate House ended when Stephens was not acceptable to some of those unhappy with the Confederate loss at Fort Donelson. He returned to his Georgia home in 1862, following his election in November, 1861 and his inauguration the following February.
Alexander Stephens felt the hopes of the Confederacy laid in France and England joining the war against the United States on the side of the South, but about the time of Antietam he gave up on that hope with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Of the Confederate leaders only Stephens realized that this document spelled an end to the peaceful settlement of the Civil War. Stephens strongly opposed conscription, the military rule of civilians, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and impressment, but he took some comfort in the defeat of the Republicans in the off-year elections of 1862 in the North. One of his saddest losses during the war was that of his beloved white Spanish poodle, Rio.
Early in July, 1863, the outlook turned bleak for the South with losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. At noon on July 3 Alexander Stephens left Richmond on the Torpedo, making contact with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Newport News. His mission was to negotiate a prisoner exchange and discuss other matters of "illegal warfare," but Lincoln and his cabinet refused to meet with the Georgian.
In February, 1864, Stephens was contacted by a peace movement in the western U. S. under former Ohio governor Clement Vallandigham, then exiled to Canada. The representative had entered the South, been caught and moved to Camp Sumter, the Confederate Prison in Andersonville. Jefferson Davis successfully duped Stephens into thinking he was paying attention to the matter while letting the man die in the notorious prison camp. That fall, Lincoln was re-elected President by a wide margin.
Starting in 1864, Alexander Stephen's name repeatedly arose for discussions of an armistice with the North. When Frank Blair arrived in Richmond, Virginia with a proposal of a peace conference, Davis summoned Stephens for the meeting. Stephens recommended that Davis himself go, but the following day the Vice President found out that Davis and his cabinet had selected Stephens, R. M. T. Hunter and John Campbell to attend the conference.
The three traveled to Petersburg and crossed Union lines to meet Ulysses S. Grant at his headquarters in City Point, where they waited a couple of days for Lincoln and William Seward to arrive. Lincoln and Stephens quickly renewed their old friendship, asking about mutual friends, but when the meeting got down to business Lincoln and Seward insisted on restoration of the Union and an end to the rebellion as non-negotiable parts of an end to fighting. The conference was over almost as quickly as it began.
Stephens returned to Georgia and waited for the war to end. His arrest for treason on May 11, 1865 in Crawfordville, Georgia came a day after Jefferson Davis's arrest, also in Georgia. Davis, Stephens and other political prisoners were detained in Augusta before heading north to Fortress Monroe. While Davis was detained at Fortress Monroe, Alexander Stephens was taken to Boston for a much more comfortable stay than the Confederate president.
Upon returning to Georgia he was prohibited from holding national political office. His health declined and his brother Linton died in 1872. He campaigned for Horace Greeley that year, but Greeley lost to Ulysses S. Grant. The following year Stephens returned to Congress, where he drank heavily and performed ineffectively over the next 6 years, making his last address on February 12, 1878. He successfully ran for governor of Georgia in November, 1882 serving a total of 119 days before his death in Atlanta on March 4, 1883.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens
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Alexander Stephens was last changed on - January 25, 2009
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