||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Stephens, Alexander Hamilton (February 11, 1812 – March
Alexander Hamilton Stephens was a U.S. congressman (1843–1859; 1873–1882) and
Confederate vice president (1861–1865).
Alexander Stephens was born near the town of Washington, Georgia, on February
11, 1812, to Margaret Grier Stephens and Andrew Stephens. His mother died
shortly after his birth, and his father remarried in 1813. His father and
stepmother died when Stephens was 14. He and an older brother then moved in
with their uncle’s family in Raytown, Georgia. At the age of sixteen, Stephens
entered Franklin College (today, the University of Georgia), where he graduated
first in his class. While working as a schoolteacher, he taught himself the
law, and passed the Georgia bar in 1834. Stephens was very short in height,
weighed about 90 pounds, had a large head with sunken features, and suffered
from numerous illnesses during his life. When his appearance made him the
target of insults, Stephens challenged his detractors to duels (none
In 1836, Stephens won a seat in the Georgia state legislature on an
anti–Andrew Jackson ticket that evolved into the Whig Party. During his six
years in the legislature (five in the house, one in the senate), he advocated
the Whig policy of state funding for internal improvements, and earned a
reputation as a skilled parliamentarian. In 1843, Stephens was elected as a
Whig to Congress, where he supported protective tariffs, but opposed the
annexation of Texas until he acquiesced to pressure from other Southern Whigs.
He also considered the War with Mexico (1846–1848) to be a mistake, and,
although voting to supply American troops, he worked unsuccessfully to ban the
acquisition of territory from Mexico.
When Northern Whigs urged President Zachary Taylor to allow California and
New Mexico to enter the Union as free states, a horrified Stephens and Robert
Toombs, a fellow Georgia congressman, drafted a resolution against any federal
law banning slavery in the new territories or the slave trade in Washington,
D.C. When the Whig caucus failed to pass the resolution, the two men renounced
their party membership. Stephens, though, worked behind the scenes with Henry
Clay and Stephen Douglas to craft the Compromise of 1850, which recognized
California as a free state, opened the New Mexico territory to slavery, banned
the slave trade in the nation’s capital, and enacted a law facilitating the
return of runaway slaves.
In Georgia, Stephens and Toombs teamed with Democrat Howell Cobb to found the
Constitutional Union Party in order to fight the rising tide of secessionist
sentiment. The new party was successful in the 1850 elections, sending Cobb to
the governorship and Toombs to the U.S. Senate. The victory, however, was short
lived. When the turmoil created by the Compromise of 1850 settled, Cobb
returned to the Democrats, and Stephens joined him in 1852 as the Whig Party was
collapsing over the slavery issue.
In 1854, Stephens was instrumental in generating Southern support for the
Kansas–Nebraska Act (which opened those territories to slavery if local voters
approved), and ensuring the bill’s passage in the U.S. House. As the entwined
questions of slavery and statehood in Kansas loomed large in the late 1850s,
Stephens labored to make Kansas a slave state or to keep it out of the Union (it
entered as a free state in 1861). At the height of his influence, Stephens
chose to resign, assuring his constituents in his farewell address of July 1859
that the Union and the institution of slavery were both secure.
After Abraham Lincoln’s victory in November 1860, Stephens publicly insisted
that the new Republican president did not threaten the South, and that no action
had occurred justifying secession. In private, though, he concluded that the
Southern slave states would leave the Union. He and other anti–secessionist
leaders in Georgia exerted little effort to influence the state convention,
which passed a resolution of secession, 166–130. In early 1861, Stephens was a
delegate to the Confederacy’s provisional congress in Montgomery, Alabama, where
he was elected vice president of the Confederate States of America.
In March 1861, Stephens delivered a speech in which he proclaimed that the
Confederate cause was not states’ rights or Southern interests, but the
preservation of the idea of white supremacy and the institution of slavery.
Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, publicly disagreed with
Stephens’s assessment. Subsequent differences between the two men over how the
war was being fought resulted in Stephens leaving the Confederate capital of
Richmond, Virginia, and returning to his home in Georgia.
In Georgia, Stephens selectively criticized Confederate policies, including
governmental reliance on loans rather than taxation, the military draft, and
violations of civil liberties (e.g., suspension of habeas corpus and arbitrary
arrests). In 1864, he went a step further by concurring with Governor Joseph
Brown that the Confederate government was acting tyrannically toward the
states. Following Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864, Stephens returned to
Richmond, where he tried to salvage the sagging Confederate cause. He met with
General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in
February 1865, but the peace conference came to naught.
At the end of the Civil War, Stephens was arrested and imprisoned until
President Andrew Johnson paroled him in October 1865. Stephens’s election in
early 1866 to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate helped convince congressional
Republicans that President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan was far too lenient.
Stephens and others elected from the former Confederate states were not allowed
to take their seats.
In early 1866, Stephens urged the Southern states to accept the abolition of
slavery and to grant basic civil rights to the freedmen. Yet, a few months
later, he argued against ratification of the 14th Amendment, which was a federal
guarantee of those rights. He soon resisted Congressional Reconstruction and
opposed the “New Departure” movement in the Democratic Party, which sought to
accept Reconstruction and move on to other issues. In 1873, he lost a
senatorial election to a New Departure Democrat, but was elected to Congress
with the help of Republicans who wanted to undermine the New Departure
In 1874, Stephens endorsed Republican President Ulysses S. Grant for a third
term. The next year, Stephens stridently opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
He was reelected to three more terms in Congress, but the aging and infirm
Georgian was not a key player in the House. He resigned from Congress on
November 4, 1882, after winning the governorship of Georgia by a landslide.
Alexander Stephens died on March 4, 1883, a few months after taking office.
Source consulted: Michael Perman, “Stephens, Alexander Hamilton,”
American National Biography (online).