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 Alexander Hamilton Stephens

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Alexander Hamilton Stephens

US Congressman, Civil War Confederate Vice President, and Governor of Georgia. He served in the US Congress as a representative from Georgia from October 1843 until March 1859 and again from December 1873 until November 1882, as a member of the Whig party (1843 to 1851 and 1853 to 1855), the Unionist party (1851 to 1853), and as a Democrat (1855 until 1883). He served as the Confederate Vice President from February 1861 until the end of the Civil War. Born near Crawfordsville, Georgia, his father was a farmer. His mother died when he was three months old and his father and stepmother died when he was 14 and he went to live his uncle on his mother's side. Frail but precocious as a child (he would remain sickly throughout his entire life), he acquired his continued education through the generosity of several benefactors, one of them being Presbyterian minister Alexander Hamilton Webster, who presided over a school in Washington, Georgia. Out of respect for his mentor, he adopted Webster's middle name, Hamilton, as his own. He attended Franklin College (later the University of Georgia) in Athens, Georgia, and graduated at the top of his class in 1832. After several unhappy years teaching school, he took up legal studies, passed the bar in 1834, and began a successful career as a lawyer in Crawfordville, gaining a reputation as a capable defender of the wrongfully accused. As his wealth increased, he began acquiring land and slaves and by the time of the Civil War, he owned over 30 slaves and several thousand acres of land. In 1836 he entered politics and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, serving there until 1841. In 1842 he was elected to the Georgia State Senate before being elected to the US House of Representatives in a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mark A. Cooper. He quickly rose to prominence as one of the leading Southern Whigs in the House. He supported the annexation of Texas in 1845, vehemently opposed the Mexican-American War, and later become an equally vigorous opponent of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred the extension of slavery into territories that were acquired from Mexico after the war. He also controversially tabled the Clayton Compromise, which would have excluded slavery from the Oregon Territory and left the issue of slavery in New Mexico and California to the Supreme Court. This would later nearly kill him in 1848 when he argued with Associate Georgia Supreme Court Judge Francis H. Cone, who stabbed him repeatedly in a fit of anger at the Atlanta Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. He was physically outmatched by his larger assailant, but he remained defiant during the attack, refusing to recant his positions even at the cost of his life and only the intervention of others saved him. His wounds were serious, and he returned home to Crawfordville to recover. He supported the Compromise of 1850 though they opposed the exclusion of slavery from the territories on the theory that such lands belonged to all of the people. Disillusioned with the Whig party due to its northern wing having proved obstinate to Southern interests, he and fellow Georgia politicians formed the Constitutional Unionist Party, which proved to be short-lived. In 1854 US Senator Stephen A. Douglas moved to organize the Nebraska Territory, all of which lay north of the Missouri Compromise line, in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This legislation aroused fury in the North because it applied the popular sovereignty principle to the Territory, in violation of the Missouri Compromise. Without Stephens help, (He employed an obscure House rule to bring the bill to a vote.) the bill would have probably never passed in the House of Representatives. In 1858 he did not seek re-election to Congress and he became increasingly critical of Southern extremists. In 1861 he was elected as a delegate to the Georgia Secession Convention to decide Georgia's response to the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln. During the convention, as well as during the 1860 presidential campaign, he called for the South to remain loyal to the Union, likening it to a leaking but fixable boat. During the convention he reminded his fellow delegates that Republicans were a minority in Congress (especially in the Senate) and, even with a Republican President, they would be forced to compromise just as the two sections had for decades. He voted against secession in the convention but asserted the right to secede if the federal government continued allowing northern states to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law with "personal liberty laws." On March 21, 1861, he gave his famous Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia in which he declared that slavery was the natural condition of blacks and the foundation of the Confederacy. He was elected to the Confederate Congress and was chosen by the Congress as Vice President of the provisional government. He was then elected Vice President of the Confederacy in November 1861 and served in that capacity until his arrest on May 11, 1865. After the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, he moved to the new Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, and took part in administrative preparations for the war effort. During this time, he played an influential role in drafting the Confederacy's new constitution and advocated that the Confederacy delay large-scale military action in order to properly plan and equip itself for prolonged war. He was unenthusiastic about his position as vice president, which granted him little power and largely relegated him to the role of passive observer over the Confederate Congress. However, he was reelected to his post in February 1862 after his one-year provisional appointment expired. In 1862 he first publicly expressed his opposition to Confederate President Jefferson Davis' administration. Throughout the war he denounced many of Davis' policies, including various financial and taxation issues, and his military strategy. Disillusioned and feeling unneeded, he regularly left the Confederate capital to spend extended periods away at his home in Crawfordsville, Georgia. In mid-1863 Davis sent him on a fruitless mission to Washington DC to discuss prisoner exchanges, but the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg made the Lincoln Administration refuse to receive him. As the war continued and the fortunes of the Confederacy sank lower, he became even more outspoken in his opposition to the administration. On March 16, 1864, he delivered a speech to the Georgia Legislature that was widely reported in both the North and the South, in which he excoriated the Davis Administration for its support of conscription and suspension of habeas corpus, and supported a block of resolutions aimed at securing peace. From then until the end of the war, as he continued to press for actions aimed at bringing about peace, his relations with Davis, which were never warm to begin with, turned completely sour. On February 3, 1865, he was one of three Confederate commissioners who met with President Lincoln on the steamer "River Queen" at the Hampton Roads Conference, a fruitless effort to discuss measures to bring an end to the fight. On May 11, 1865 he was arrested at his Georgia home and imprisoned in Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts until October 1865, when he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. In 1866, he was elected to the United States Senate by the first legislature convened under the new Georgia State Constitution, but was not allowed to take his seat because of restrictions on former Confederates. In 1873 he was elected to the US House of Representatives as a Democrat from the 8th District to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Ambrose R. Wright. He was subsequently re-elected to the 8th District for four more consecutive terms. On November 4, 1882, he resigned from Congress when he was elected and took office as Governor of Georgia. His tenure as governor proved brief, as he died in Atlanta, Georgia at the age of 71, four months after taking office. He is the author of "A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States" (1867-1870, 2 volumes) and "History of the United States" (1871 and 1883). In Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln" (2012), he is portrayed by actor Jackie Earle Haley.

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 10 Feb 1999
  • Find A Grave Memorial 4505
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Alexander Hamilton Stephens (11 Feb 1812–4 Mar 1883), Find A Grave Memorial no. 4505, citing Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .