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Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens




Alexander StephensOne of the most singular figures in American history was the Southern statesman, A. H. Stephens. Of puny, sickly frame, he yet, by sheer force of intellect, held his own in the great can. test which rent the Union in twain, and after being Vice--President of the Southern Confederacy returned to take prominent part in legislation for the restored Union to which he cheerfully renewed his fealty. Of all the soldiers on the Southern side he most enjoyed the confidence and respect of the North, and made frequent, if ineffectual, attempts to end the war.


Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born near Crawfordsville, Georgia, on the nth of February, 18r2. He was descended from an Englishman who, having been an adherent of the Pretender, came to America in 1746, served as captain ill the Revolutionary army, and afterwards settled in Georgia. Alexander was early left an orphan, but on account of his promising talent was sent to Franklin College by friends to be educated for the Presbyterian ministry. He graduated in 1832 with the first honor, and having determined to study law, he earned money by teaching to repay his college expenses. After being admitted to the bar he quickly won competence and reputation. In t836 he was elected to the State legislature and showed a liberal spirit in securing appropriations for railroads and for Mason Female College, the first established for the classical education of women. In 1843 he was elected to Congress on a general State ticket, but did not hesitate to support all act requiring the States to be divided into Congressional districts. He became a leader of the Southern Whigs, and advocated the annexation of Texas by Congressional action. He supported Henry Clay for the presidency in 1844, and opposed the policy of President Polk in regard to the Mexican War. In 1848, in consequence of a political dispute, Stephens recklessly engaged in a personal encounter with Judge Cone at a hotel in Atlanta and was severely cut in the right hand. Stephens assisted in securing the election of Zachary Taylor as President in 1848. Secession was first strongly advocated in the South in 1850, but Stephens set himself sternly in opposition, and drew up the" Georgia platform," which declared "the American Union secondary in importance only to the rights and principles it was designed to perpetuate." In 1852, General Winfield Scott, the Whig candidate for President, refused to endorse this p1atform, and Stephens, with other Southern Whigs, issued a card withdrawing from him their support.


In 1854 Stephens defended "popular sovereignty," as formulated by S. A. Douglas in the Kansas-Nebraska act. He aided in electing Buchanan to the presidency in 1856, though he had formerly been his antagonist. He soon found Buchanan's policy dangerous, and, like Douglas, sought to oppose it. Finding his opposition ineffectual and leading to misunderstanding among the Southern people, he resigned from Congress ill 1859. Douglas 'was his choice for the presidency in 1860, yet when Lincoln was elected, he refused to regard that fact as a justification for Southern secession. Both before and after that election, Stephens' bold and eloquent advocacy of the Union, as guaranteeing all the constitutional rights of the Southern States, raised high hopes throughout the whole country that the secession would be defeated when brought directly to the decision of the people. His Union speech of November 14th, 1860, seemed to assure his continued resistance to the secession of Georgia. Yet when the State Convention adopted the ordinance of secession, Stephens at once yielded obedience, and his declaration to that effect caused him immediately to be chosen Vice-President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States.


The heartiness of his support of the Confederacy was shown in his speech of March 21, 1861, in which he declared slavery to be the corner·stone of the new government. During the war, Stephens had but little opportunity for action or expression of opinion. Yet his view of State rights set him in opposition to President Davis. In Georgia in 1864, there was a peace movement which finally led to a Peace Commission, of which Stephens was a member, being appointed by the Confederate government. A conference was held with President Lincoln and Secretary Seward at Hampton Roads in February, 1865, but as the Commission was not authorized to grant the terms which Lincoln laid down as preliminary, it came to naught. When the Confederacy was overthrown, Stephens was arrested at his home, Liberty Hall. He was confined for six months in Fort Warren, in Boston harbor, but in October, 1865, was released on parole.


Stephens at once set to work to heal the breaches caused by the great national struggle. He was soon elected to the United States Senate by the Georgia legislature under the proclamation issued by President Andrew Johnson, but Congress refused to recognize the validity of the President's act apart from previous legislation. Stephens employed his leisure in the preparation of his history of" The War Between the States 2 vols.., 1867-70. He then compiled a School History of the United States" 1871. Though defeated in an attempt to secure a seat in the Senate in 1871, he was elected to the House of Representatives ill r874, and continued to serve till 1882, when he resigned. Throughout his term be was severely crippled by rheumatism, being obliged to use crutches, and later to be moved in a wheel·chair. Yet the people of Georgia had confidence in the veteran statesman, and elected him governor by 60,000 majority. His last public speech was made at Savannah on the 12th of February, 1883, in the Georgia sesqui-centennial celebration.


Stephens was in person slender and boyish.looking. His voice was shrill and piping. He suffered from chronic illness, and weighed barely a hundred pounds. Yet he was always bold in expressing his opinions, and was disposed to take moderate views, which aroused antagonism from both extremes. He was generally on friendly terms with his political

opponents, and ready to acknowledge their merits on fitting occasions_ His speech on the unveiling of Carpenter's painting, "The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation," was a splendid tribute to the virtues of those statesmen who were concerned in that important measure. He died at Atlanta, Ga., March 4, 1883·




From a Speech at Savannah, March 21 , 1861.


The new Constitution of the Confederate States has put at rest,forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution-African slavery as it exists amongst us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split. He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was all evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that. somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the Constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence to argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the" storm came and the wind blew. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man that slavery-subordination to the superior race-is his natural and normal condition.


This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white mall. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just-but their premises being wrong, their whole argument fails.


I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the Northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics that the principle would ultimately prevail That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that, upon his own grounds, we should ultimately succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanic, admitted but told him that it was he and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.


Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of his ordinances, or to question them. For his own purposes, he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made "one star to differ from another star in glory."


The great objects of humanity arc best attained when there is conformity to his laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders .is become the chief of the corner"-the real "corner-stone" -in our new edifice.


I have been asked, What of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph. -A. H. STEPHENS.




From all Address, February 12, 1878.


During the conflict of arms frequently almost despaired of the liberties of our country, both North and South. The Union of these States, at first, I always thought was founded upon the assumption that it was the best interest of all to remain united, faithfully performing, each for itself, its own constitutional obligations under the compact. ·When secession was resorted to as a remedy, I went with my State, holding it my duty to do so, but believing, all the time, that if successful, when the passions of the hour and of the day were over, the great law which produced the Union at first, "mutual interest and reciprocal advantage," would reassert itself, and that at no distant day a new Union of some sort would again be formed.


And now, after the severe chastisement of war, if the general sense of the whole country shall come back to the acknowledgment of the original assumption, that it is for the best interests of all the States to be so united, as I trust it will, the States being" separate as the billows, but one as the sea, this thorn in the body-politic being now removed, I can perceive no reason why, under such a restoration, the flag no longer waving over provinces, but States, we, as a whole, with peace, commerce, and holiest friendship with all nations and entangling alliances with none, may not enter upon a new career, exciting increased wonder in the Old World, by grander achievements hereafter to be made, than any heretofore attained, by the peaceful and harmonious workings of our matchless system of American federal institutions of self government.-A. H. STEPHENS.


Alexander Stephens

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