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A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Including the Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861-1865, Volume I/Biographical Sketch of Alexander H. Stephens

< A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Including the Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861-1865, Volume I
Alexander H. Stephens

Alexander H. Stephens.

Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born near Crawfordsville, Ga., on February 11, 1812. His grandfather, Alexander Stephens, was an Englishman and an adherent of Prince Charles Edward, and came to this country in 1746. He settled in the Penn colony, was in several conflicts with the Indians, and was a captain in the Revolutionary War. After the war was over he removed to Georgia. At the age of fifteen Alexander Hamilton became an orphan and was given a place in the school in Washington, Ga., that was being taught by Rev. Alexander Hamilton Webster, a Presbyterian minister, from whom he took his middle name. With the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister himself, he accepted the offer of their educational society to attend college. He entered Franklin College (afterwards the State University) in 1828, and graduated therefrom in 1832 with the first honors. Having determined not to become a minister, he subsequently taught school, earned the money, and repaid the indebtedness for his education. On July 22, 1834, he was admitted to the bar. In 1836 was elected to the State Legislature, after bitter opposition because of his fight against nullification. This opposition was repeated until 1841, when he declined reëlection. As a member, he favored liberal appropriations for railroads in his State, and, by his advocacy, a charter for the female college at Macon, Ga., was secured, the first in the world for the regular graduation of young women in the classics and sciences; was a delegate to the Charleston Commercial Convention of 1839; was elected to Congress in 1843, on a general State ticket, but supported an act requiring the States to be divided into Congressional districts. He remained in Congress for sixteen years. In 1838-39 he favored the annexation of Texas by resolution of Congress, but opposed President Tyler's treaty of 1844, and also opposed Mr. Polk's Mexican War policy. In 1848, in a personal difficulty with Judge Cone, in Atlanta, growing out of a political dispute, he was severely cut in the right hand. He supported General Taylor for President in 1848. In 1850, he opposed secession, and wrote what was called the "Georgia Platform," which declared "the American Union secondary in importance only to the rights and principles it was designed to perpetuate." He declined to support General Scott for President in 1852, but, with a few other prominent Whigs, voted for Mr. Webster after he was dead. In 1854, he defended "Popular Sovereignty," as formulated by Mr. Douglas in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He aided in electing President Buchanan in 1856, although he had formerly opposed him, and during his term of office he placed himself in antagonism to his administration. He resigned his seat in Congress in 1859, and in 1860 supported Mr. Douglas for President. He did not regard the election of Mr. Lincoln of itself a justification for secession, and on November 14, 1860, made a Union speech which attracted attention throughout the country. He was elected a member of the Georgia Convention of 1861, and sought to delay the passage of the Secession Ordinance. His objections were to the expediency of immediate secession and not at all to the right of his State to withdraw from the Union. When the State Convention of Georgia adopted the Ordinance of Secession, however, he at once yielded obedience and was chosen a delegate to the Provisional Congress which had been appointed to assemble at Montgomery, Ala., by which he was chosen Vice President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States. He was sent as a commissioner on behalf of the Confederacy to treat with Virginia on the subject of her union with the Confederacy and to negotiate and advise with her. He assisted earnestly in framing the Constitution for the new Government, and believed it was a great improvement on the Constitution of the United States. He said of it that "the whole document utterly negatives the idea which so many have been active in endeavoring to put in the enduring form of history, that the convention at Montgomery was nothing but a set of 'conspirators' whose object was the overthrow of the principles of the Constitution of the United States and the erection of a great 'Slave Oligarchy' instead of the free institutions thereby secured and guaranteed. This work of the Montgomery Convention, with that of the Constitution for a Provisional Government, will ever remain not only as a monument of the wisdom, foresight, and statesmanship of the men who constituted it, but an everlasting refutation of the charges which have been brought against them. These works together show clearly that their only leading object was to sustain, uphold, and perpetuate the fundamental principles of the Constitution of the United States." He favored the "peace policy" which was manifested by the sending of commissioners by the Confederacy to Washington in 1861, and said he was astonished at the treatment they received there, and charged Mr. Seward with duplicity in dealing with them.

At the election in November, 1861, he was chosen by a unanimous vote Vice President of the Confederate States, on the ticket with President Davis; was inaugurated on February 22, 1862, and filled this position throughout the life of the Confederacy. He was called upon and made numerous addresses to the people at critical periods during the war, in all of which he characterized the invasion of the South as an unjust war for conquest and subjugation.

In a speech delivered during the second year of the war, he said: "The States south had done nothing but what was their right — their inalienable right to do, the same as their ancestors did, in common with the North, when they severed their connection with the British Government. This war was waged by the North in denial of this right, and for the purpose of conquest and subjugation. It was, therefore, aggressive, wanton, and unjust. Such must be the judgment of mankind, let its results be what they may. The responsibility, therefore, for all its sacrifices of treasure and blood, heretofore or hereafter to be made in its prosecution, rests not upon us. What is all this for? Why this array of armies? Why this fierce meeting in mortal combat ? What is all this carnage and slaughter for? Why the prolongation of this conflict? Why this lamentation and mourning going up from almost every house and family from Maine to the Rio Grande, and from the Atlantic and Gulf to the Lakes, for friends and dear ones who have fallen by disease and violence in this unparalleled struggle? The question, if replied to by the North, can have but one true answer. What is all this for, on their part, but to overturn the principle upon which their own Government, as well as ours, is based — to reverse the doctrine that governments derive 'their just powers from the consent of the governed?' What is it for but to overturn the principles and practice of their own Government from the beginning? That Government was founded and based upon the political axiom that all States and peoples have the inalienable right to change their forms of government at will. This principle was acted on in the recognition by the United States of the South American republics. It was the principle acted on in the recognition of Mexico. It was acted on in the struggle of Greece to overthrow the Ottoman rule. On that question, the great constitutional expounder of the North, Mr. Webster, gained his first laurels as an American statesman. This principle was acted on in the recognition of the Government of Louis Philippe, on the overthrow of Charles X. of France; and again in the recognition of the Lamartine Government, on the overthrow of Louis Philippe in 1848. The same principle was again acted upon without dissent in 1852, in the recognition of the Government of Louis Napoleon; and in the recognition of Texas, when she seceded, or withdrew, from the Government of Mexico. Well may any and every one, North or South, exclaim, What is all this for? What have we done to the North? When have we ever wronged them? We quit them, it is true, as our ancestors and their ancestors quit the British Government. We quit as they quit — upon a question of constitutional right. That question they determined for themselves, and we have but done the same. What, therefore, is all this for? Why this war on their part against the uniform principles and practice of their own Government? It is a war, in short, on their part against right, against reason, against justice, against nature. If asked on our side what is all this for, the reply from every honest breast is that it is for home, for firesides, for our altars, for our birthrights, for property, for honor, for life — in a word, for everything for which freemen should live, and for which all deserving to be freemen should be willing, if need be, to die."

He opposed earnestly some of the financial measures of the administration of Mr. Davis during the war, as he also did the Conscription Act and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, but his friendly intercourse with President Davis and Cabinet was not broken. He said "these differences, however wide and thorough as they were, caused no personal break between us," a statement concurred in by Mr. Davis. When Mr. Davis was charged with being guilty of cruel treatment of Northern prisoners of war, Mr. Stephens vigorously defended him and characterized all such charges as one of "the boldest and baldest attempted outrages upon the truths of history which has ever been essayed; not less so than the infamous attempt to fix upon him and other high officials on the Confederate side the guilt of Mr. Lincoln's assassination." A final effort was made to secure peace by means of a Commission, in February, 1865, of which Mr. Stephens was the head, his associates being John A. Campbell and R. M. T. Hunter. This Commission met Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward in Hampton Roads, on February 3, and Mr. Stephens was the chief spokesman. The effort failed, and with the other Confederate commissioners he returned to Richmond, and subsequently gave a full statement of his recollections of all that occurred in the Conference. Soon after returning to Richmond, he left for his home, where he remained in retirement until his arrest, on May 11, 1865. He was sent as a prisoner to Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, where he was kept in confinement for five months. In October, he was released on his own parole. In February, 1866, he was elected to the Senate of the United States by the Legislature of Georgia, but was refused his seat by the Senate. In 1867, he published the first volume of his "War between the States." He was chosen Professor of Political Science and History in the University of Georgia in December, 1868; but declined to accept, on account of failing health. He published the second volume of his "War between the States" in 1870, and later published "A School History of the United States." In 1871, he taught a law class and became the editor and part proprietor of a newspaper in Atlanta. He was a candidate, in November, 1871, for the United States Senate, but failed of election. In 1874, he was elected to the House of Representatives, and remained in Congress until 1882, when he resigned. The same year, he was elected Governor of his State, by a majority of more than 60,000 over Gen. L. J. Gartrell, a lawyer and an ex-Confederate officer. His last speech was made at the Georgia Sesquicentennial Celebration, in Savannah, on February 12, 1883. In personal appearance Mr. Stephens was slender and boyish-looking, and his voice was weak and piping. He was a chronic sufferer from illness, and weighed less than one hundred pounds. During his last years of service in Congress he was crippled by a fall and by rheumatism, was compelled to use crutches, and was moved from place to place in a wheel chair. Notwithstanding his infirmity and great physical weakness, his mind and intellect were perfectly clear and keen, and he was still a vigorous thinker, participating quite prominently in the debates. He enjoyed in an unusual degree the confidence of both sides of the House, and always when he spoke, as he was compelled to do from his invalid chair, the members of either side clustered about him in order that they might catch every word which fell from his lips. A tribute such as this from his political opponents on the floor of the House of Representatives was the more marked and noticeable when bestowed upon Mr. Stephens, because he had been, next to Mr. Davis, the most conspicuous officeholder in the Confederacy, and at that time the bitterness engendered by the Civil War was still very pronounced in that body. He died while still in the office of Governor, on March 4, 1883, and was buried at Atlanta.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).