Alexander Stephens was an American politician born near Crawfordville, Georgia, on February 11, 1812. During his childhood, he fell ill easily and also suffered the loss of both parents. After studying law, he served in the Georgia legislature and then as the state's governor. Stephens is most known as the Confederate vice president during the American Civil War. After the war, Stephens was imprisoned. Upon his release, he worked as a U.S. congressman. He died on March 4, 1883, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born on February 11, 1812, to Andrew Baskins Stephens and Margaret Grier, in a log cabin on a farm near Crawfordville, Georgia. His mother died a few months after his birth, and his father then remarried. In 1824, his father passed away from pneumonia, as did his stepmother a week later. Stephens and one brother moved in with an uncle in Warren County while other siblings were disbursed among other relatives.
Alexander Stephens was a sickly boy, but had a bright mind and performed well in private and public schools. He then entered Franklin College (later called the University of Georgia), where he graduated in 1832 with high honors. He taught school for 18 months before studying law and passing the bar in 1834. He practiced law over the next couple of years, and, during this time, gained an interest in politics.
Stephens's political career started in 1836, when Georgia voters elected him to the state legislature as a member of the States Rights Party (later changed to the Whig Party). His tenure lasted until 1841, and the following year, he began a one-year term in the Georgia Senate.
Stephens's next role was as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a position he filled from 1843 to 1859. Like most members of his party, he supported states' rights to allow slavery. He also backed the annexation of Texas and drafted the Compromise of 1850 (regarding the status of territories obtained during the Mexican-American War). The Compromise passed, thus defusing a four-year conflict between Southern and Northern states. Stephens's self-proclaimed biggest political victory was the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which created new territories and allowed settlers to determine whether they would allow slavery.
Stephens climbed to higher political prominence in 1861, with his election as vice president of the Confederacy. Around this time, he delivered his famous "Cornerstone Speech," which defended slavery and discussed the differing viewpoints of how to govern between the North and the South.
With Confederate President Jefferson Davis, over the next couple years, the Confederate government held its stance as long as possible during the Civil War. However, the South took many grave losses, including those at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863. Stephens attempted to negotiate a prisoner exchange around this time, but President Abraham Lincoln and his staff refused to compromise.
Stephens pushed to negotiate the end of the Civil War, and in February 1865, Davis appointed him to represent the Southern delegation in a meeting in Hampton Roads, Virginia, with President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. The meeting proved to be fruitless, with discussions coming to a standstill, and Stephens left with no progress made.
The Civil War ended in April 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. A month later, Stephens was arrested for treason and imprisoned for five months in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor.
The 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, proposed by Northern leaders such as U.S. Congressman James Mitchell Ashley, was implemented. Subsequently, four million African Americans gained their freedom.
After Stephens's release in 1866, he returned to Georgia, where voters elected him to the U.S. Senate. He served until his resignation in 1882. Georgians continued to support Stephens and elected him as governor that same year. Just 119 days after taking office, on March 4, 1883, Stephens died after suffering a sudden illness in Atlanta. He was buried near his home, called Liberty Hall, which he built in 1872, in Crawfordville, Georgia.
Throughout his life, Stephens fell ill easily—a trait carried from childhood to adulthood. He was confined to a wheelchair during much of his career, and rarely weighed more than 95 pounds. His physical limitations did not mar his intellect; those who worked with him viewed Stephens as a sharp thinker.
Stephens never married or had children. He lived at Liberty Hall with his slaves, many of whom remained loyal after gaining their freedom, choosing to stay with Stephens for little or no money. Many of those slaves were with Stevens until his death in 1883.
Stephens is still honored and remembered today in the state of Georgia. Both Stephens County and the A.H. Stephens Historic Park were named after him.
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