A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF ALEXANDER STEPHENS
One of the most neglected characters of the great drama that transformed our country from a federal union of republics into a centralized single nation is Alexander H. Stephens. It is sad that few Americans would even recognize his name even though he was the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America. This fact seems odd when one realizes that Stephens is considered by some to be the greatest constitutional scholar of his day after the passing of John C. Calhoun, and that he was one of the most influential congressmen of the 19th century. A. H Stephens is politically incorrect to our generation because he was a defender of African slavery. This may explain why he is rarely mentioned in American History. Not that he approved of slavery but like R. L. Dabney he sought to tell the South’s side of the issue.
He left behind two great scholarly works, and a diary of his experiences in prison after the war. These are largely unknown in our day, but are filled with brilliant analysis and profound insight into the issues of the American system of government and the causes of the conflict that destroyed it. The first of these is his two-volume work entitled A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States published in December of 1867 and 1870. The second is A Comprehensive and Popular History of the United States, published in 1882. These should be read and studied by all loyal Southern patriots. His diary of imprisonment entitled Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, is a literary masterpiece filled with humor, pathos, and wisdom. In this personal diary he uses literary devices that are seldom used today, but provide delightful pleasure to the reader.
PEDIGREE, CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born on his father’s farm in Crawfordville, Georgia on 11 February 1812. He was the third of three children. His mother was the former Margaret Grier whose brother founded and published the famous Grier’s Almanac. One of her cousins rose to the Supreme Court of the United States. His name was Robert Grier. His (Stephens) father, Andrew Stephens was a yeoman farmer who purchased the East Georgia farm with money he saved from a small teaching salary. Alexander grew up learning the lessons of life associated with hard work, self-sufficiency, and responsibility. This lifestyle engenders love of family and Alexander deeply loved his family, but none more than his father whom he not only loved but also greatly admired. His letters and conduct throughout life reflected the lessons and advice his father taught him by the bright light of pine knot fires in the evening after the day’s work was finished. It was at this time he loved to hear stories of his paternal grandfather whom he never knew but who had lived a most adventurous life. From these stories he learned to hold courage and bravery as precious character traits; and from his father he learned the value of wisdom, honour and convictions.
Alexander Stephens’ grandfather and namesake was born in England, and at an early age fought on the side of “Bonnie Prince Charles” in the last Jacobite attempt to regain the British throne for the Stuart family in 1745. His grandfather was a brave man and soldier who participated in three wars. When the Stuart forces were defeated he fled to America to avoid prosecution, living in Pennsylvania with Indians. At some point he left the Indians, married the daughter of a wealthy ferry owner despite her father’s objections, and began a family. Later he fought on the side of the English in the French and Indian War where he met and served under the young George Washington. Later during the War for American Independence, he served under Washington again and rose to the rank of Captain. Alexander (the grandfather) moved his family to Georgia late in life where he and his wife died. Both are buried near Kettle Creek.
Mr. Stephens, the subject of this sketch, was a sickly child and remained sickly, small, and frail all of his life. It is said that he never weighed over 100 pounds his entire life. Moreover, his countenance remained that of a teenage boy most of his life plus his face was very pale which caused people to remark that he resembled a corpse. His mother, who was also a small and frail person, died three months after his birth. His father Andrew remarried soon after, but died when Alexander was only 14 years of age, but not before he added three more children to the family including Alexander’s half brother Linton to whom he was very devoted. His stepmother died one week after his father leaving all their children orphans.
Young Alexander Stephens went to work on his uncle’s farm after the deaths of his parents and later enrolled in college at Franklin College in Athens, Georgia. He graduated from this school, which later became the University of Georgia, but did not have enough money to pay the two-dollar graduation fee and did not receive a diploma.
Then he returned to Crawfordville to study law passing the bar in 1834. During this time he was so poor he did not even own a horse, but actually walked carrying an umbrella in case of sudden rain. Remembering his father’s advice that the first impressions in public are very important he declined cases until there arose a great legal dispute between a poor woman and her rich and prominent father-in-law over custody of the woman’s daughter who was the rich man’s grand daughter. Her husband had died, and she remarried out of necessity. However the grandfather did not approve of the new husband and wished to take legal custody of his granddaughter. Every one who knew the details of the case sided with the grandfather. Stephens took the case in behalf of the poor woman however and much to the astonishment of the vast crowd assembled, not only won the case, but convinced all present by a “strain of passionate eloquence” in the validity of this woman’s claim. This made his reputation and soon he had more legal work than he could handle.
He also received many invitations to speak at public functions and celebrations which he accepted with great seriousness and performed with great credit to himself and family. His first speech was on states’ rights, and was delivered with a powerful oratory which soon became the talk of the region. This led to an invitation to run for state office. He was elected to the Georgia State Legislature in the autumn of 1836.
PUBLIC LIFE AND RECORD
His first speech in the legislature was on behalf of a bill for the construction of the first railroad in Georgia. After speeches had been made on both sides and all who were in favour of the bill had despaired that it could be passed, “a clear shrill voice” called out “Mr. Speaker!” Stephens arose and delivered a triumph of oratory, sound logic and progressive views which carried the bill, and put him as one of the foremost orators and debaters in the State. Later he was instrumental in the establishment of the first women’s college in the world to confer degrees on women. This college is located in Macon, Georgia and is now known as Wesleyan College. In 1841 he was elected to the Georgia State Senate but soon ran for the U. S. Congress in 1843 due to a sudden vacancy in the Georgia delegation. He was elected and took his seat in December of that year.
He was elected as a Whig and was considered as one of the leaders of the party although he held few sentiments in common with the national party. From 1844 until 1858 he became one of the major characters in all debates and the great events of his time. John Quincy Adams who rarely listened to speeches rose and shook Stephen’s hand after his first speech in the U. S. Congress. In this speech Stephens said, “the permanency of our institutions can only be preserved by confining the actions of the state and federal governments each in its own proper sphere.” This quote came to define his congressional career, which can be described as an endeavor to preserve the Union under the Constitution. His influence became so great that one newspaper said, “What he wants passed, gets passed, and what he wants defeated gets defeated.”
Soon he was engaged in the admission of Texas disputes, and the Oregon question which was a boundary dispute with Great Britain. He came out against the Mexican War saying that it was a war of conquest. He said he was in favor of expansion, but against imperialism, and that to fulfill the destiny of the U.S. from sea to sea was good, but should not be accomplished by the sword but by voluntary accessions. “Fields of blood and carnage may make men brave and heroic, but seldom tend to make nations either good, virtuous, or great.” Later he became the minority leader in the House of Representatives taking a major role in the debates, questions, and issues of the early part of the Republic. His reputation and status grew to the point that he was considered for the candidacy of the U. S. presidency. This he refused so that he might retire from public life and return to Georgia. One must remember that he was plagued with poor health and did not expect to live to old age.
He returned home in 1858, however he was soon caught up in the tide of events and swept back into public affairs. By 1860 he had become an active Democrat. Despite all of Mr. Stephens’ efforts to prevent it, there was a serious split in the party on the national level at the convention in Charleston, S.C. This resulted in the nomination of four major candidates for president that year. With the democrats split, the election turned in favor of the Republicans who had nominated Abraham Lincoln. The election of Lincoln led to the secession of South Carolina and the call for state conventions all over the South. Stephens had previously made a very passionate speech to the legislature strongly urging them to remain in the union saying, “Though new storms now howl around us, and the tempest beats heavily against us, I say to you, don’t give up the ship, —-don’t abandon her yet.” When the state convention met to consider the ordinance of secession which repealed the original ordinance of ratification of the 1787 constitution Mr. Stephens voted against it. However after the ordinance passed, he signed the ordinance in an act of loyalty to his home state.
Soon he became the chief architect of the Confederate Constitution, and accepted the office of Vice-President of the provisional government until a permanent government could be elected. He was loved and trusted by many, but suspected by others because of his opposition to secession. Some called him a “Laodicean Confederate”, meaning they considered him to be lukewarm. However he was among the most consistent men in the government, and probably held the strongest convictions. His strong convictions and inflexible beliefs led to conflicts with Jefferson Davis. When Davis and the Confederate Congress suspended Habeas Corpus, Stephens knew his relationship with Davis would eventually end. Later it was said that Lincoln wanted most to save the Union, and Jefferson Davis wanted most to save the Confederacy, but Stephens wanted most to save the Constitution. Even so, President Davis sent Mr. Stephens to a conference with Lincoln, Seward and Grant for the purpose of ending the war in February 1865. This conference, known as the Hampton Roads Conference was not successful due to the stubborn unwillingness of Lincoln to compromise for the sake of peace. So then, the only interview the Confederate government was able to obtain with Lincoln ended in failure. Toward the end Stephens left Richmond and went home to await the defeat. Soon after Lee’s surrender, he was arrested and imprisoned in Boston Harbor without charges nor trial. When he was released after five months, he returned home to Crawfordville with the view to retire once again from public life. This was not to be.
In 1866 he was elected to the United States Senate, but was not allowed to take his seat. Later in 1872 he was elected to the U S House of Representatives, and served for ten years in that office. In 1883 he was elected Governor of Georgia but died in office a few months later. He is buried in the front yard of his home “Liberty Hall” in Crawfordville.
THINGS TO REMEMBER ABOUT A. H. STEPHENS
A. H. Stephens is politically incorrect to our generation because he was a defender of African slavery. This fact may explain why he is rarely mentioned in American History. One should read his arguments before writing him off as an evil man. It is easy to misjudge a great man by misunderstanding the day and times in which he lived. The cornerstone speech for which he has been so often condemned was not a rant in the defense of slavery, but was given off the cuff and with out preparation by request to explain the differences between the new Confederate Constitution and the old USA one of 1787.
I close with the following quotation from Alexander H. Stephen: A Comprehensive and Popular History of the United States, page 915. The underline was not in the original:
“Rome, in the acme and splendor of her glory, after five centuries of growth and development, from the expulsion of her Kings, did not surpass the point of national greatness to which these States had attained in less than one, from the time they freed themselves from the British Crown. Rome, the most renowned of ancient Republics, it is said fell at last by the weight of Empire. This under her system was inevitable. She was a single Republic. In her growth she did not recognize the Federative principle. In extending her jurisdiction over neighboring States, by not adopting this principle and securing the sovereign right of local self-government to all Peoples thus falling within her limits, but by assuming absolute dominion over them, she necessarily became a Centralized Empire, with ultimate despotism as a necessary consequence. The United States, on the contrary, are founded on the directly opposite principle. They do not constitute a single Republic, but a Federal Republic. Under their system of Federative Union, no apprehension need arise for the safety and security of liberty from any extent of either their boundaries or their numbers.
“Now, therefore, that the chief cause which led to the late war between them is forever removed, if they shall adhere to the principle of the sovereign right of local self-government, on the part of the States respectively, which lies at the foundation of the whole fabric, then there is no perceived reason why they should not go on in a still higher career in all that constitutes true greatness in human development and achievement. But if this principle shall be abandoned, then all that is so glorious in the past and so hopeful in the future will, sooner or later, be lost in the same inevitable despotism of a Consolidated Centralized Empire, which eventuated in the overthrow and destruction of the liberties of Rome.”
James R. Schoolfield, Member, The Society of Independent Southern Historians.