Alexander Hamilton Stephens Biography

Alexander Hamilton Stephens


The Spalding County GAGenWeb Project

Alexander Stephens (1812-1883)

Most famous for serving as the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Hamilton Stephens was a near-constant force in state and national politics for a half century. Born near Crawfordville on February 11, 1812, the young Stephens was orphaned at fourteen, which intensified his already melancholic disposition. He graduated from Franklin College (later the University of Georgia) in 1832 and gained admittance to the bar two years later. There followed a steady and uninterrupted rise to political prominence.

Early Career

Frail and sickly, the lifelong bachelor poured his nevertheless considerable vigor into public life. Elected as a Whig to the state legislature in 1836, he served there for seven years. During his political apprenticeship Stephens made a lifelong friend and ally in a man who was in many ways his opposite, the robust and blustery Robert Toombs. He moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843, where he remained until 1859. Like most southern Whigs, Stephens maintained a delicate balance between supporting states' rights and backing the party's nationalist program. An ardent defender of slavery, he favored the annexation of Texas but also played a critical role in getting the Compromise of 1850 passed. In the early 1850s, Stephens and Toombs seized leadership of the state party from the less politically adroit John M. Berrien. The team later put their weight behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and both men resisted secession before U.S. president Abraham Lincoln's election. Unlike Toombs, though, Stephens continued to oppose separation right up to the time it became a fait accompli for Georgia in January 1861.

Confederate Vice President

Despite grave misgivings, Stephens ultimately signed Georgia's ordnance of secession. To his consternation, the recently retired congressman was then selected with nine others to represent his home state at the Provisional Confederate Congress in Montgomery, Alabama, in February. There his status as the South's most outspoken former Unionist won him the vice presidency.

By so elevating Stephens, the Montgomery delegates hoped to solidify support for the new nation among cooperationists and other moderate elements.

Initially, Confederate president Jefferson Davis consulted his vice president frequently, and Stephens appeared to be part of the president's inner circle. That changed, however, once military concerns began to consume the administration's attention. "Little Aleck" was no military man, and Davis found little time for him after hostilities began in earnest. Stephens likewise had less and less use for the Richmond, Virginia, government, and the amount of time he spent in the Confederate capital decreased commensurately. He grew disaffected with Davis's nationalist bent and lent encouragement to Georgia's governor, Joseph Brown, who was a vigorous advocate of states' rights.

Still, Stephens continued to perform some governmental function, and in 1863 he attempted to initiate an exchange of prisoners with the North. That effort failed, but the diminutive vice president used the correspondence with his Northern counterparts to begin to push for a negotiated end to the war. There was little enthusiasm for such a solution in either the North or the South, but Stephens persisted in his hope that diplomacy could prevail. When a meeting with Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward was arranged at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865, Davis—who, significantly, did not attend—sent Stephens to head the Southern delegation. Of course, the North could accept no terms that allowed the Confederacy to continue to exist, and the negotiations came to nothing. In general, then, Stephens's tenure as the Confederate vice president may be characterized as a rarely broken string of frustrations and disappointments.

Postwar Career

After the war Stephens was imprisoned for five months at Boston's Fort Warren. Upon his release, Georgia's citizens in 1866 elected him to the U.S. Senate under President Andrew Johnson's forgiving Reconstruction scheme. Northerners were naturally dismayed by the prospect of the vice president of the Confederacy sitting in the Senate chambers a year after the Civil War ended in 1865, and congressional Republicans refused to seat Stephens. He used the resulting hiatus from public life to pen A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States  (1868-70), his turgid, two-volume apology for the Confederacy.

Although not a member of the Bourbon Triumvirate that ruled over a "redeemed" Georgia, Stephens rose once more to political prominence after Reconstruction. Georgians returned Stephens to the House of Representatives in 1877, and he served there until 1882. That same year he was elected governor of the state but died in office on March 4, 1883.

~  The New Georgia Encyclopedia, published 9.27.2004

Chad Morgan, University of North Carolina

Photo of Alexander Hamilton Stephens
Political Cartoon from the 1860s
Robert Toombs
Reverend Obediah C. Gibson House




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