Alexander Stephens was born on February 11, 1812. His parents were Andrew Baskins Stephens and Margaret Grier, who were married in 1807. The Stephenses lived on a farm near present-day Crawfordville, Georgia. At the time of Alexander Stephens's birth, the farm was part of Wilkes County. His father, a native of Pennsylvania, came to Georgia at 12 years of age, in 1795. His mother, a Georgia native, died in 1812 at the age of 26; Alexander Stephens was only three months old.
In 1814, Andrew B. Stephens married Matilda Lindsay, daughter of Revolutionary War Colonel John Lindsay. In 1826, when Alexander Stephens was 14 years old, his father, Andrew, and stepmother, Matilda, died only days apart in May of that year. Their deaths caused him and several siblings to be scattered among relatives. He grew up poor and in difficult circumstances. Not long after the deaths of his father and his stepmother, Alexander Stephens was sent to live with his mother's other brother, General Aaron W. Grier, near Raytown (Taliaferro County), Georgia. Stephens was extremely sickly throughout his life. He often weighed less than 100 pounds.
Frail but precocious, the young Stephens acquired his continued education through the generosity of several benefactors. One of them was the Presbyterian minister Alexander Hamilton Webster, who presided over a school in Washington (Wilkes County), Georgia. Out of respect for his mentor, Stephens adopted Webster's middle name, Hamilton, as his own. Stephens attended the Franklin College in Athens, where he 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. During his 32 years of practice, he gained a reputation as a capable defender of the wrongfully accused. None of his clients charged with capital crimes were executed. One notable case was that of a slave woman accused of attempted murder. Stephens volunteered to defend her. Despite the circumstantial evidence presented against her, Stephens won an acquittal for the woman.
Stephens served in the U.S. House from October 2, 1843, to March 3, 1859, from the 28th Congress through the 35th Congress. As a national lawmaker during the crucial decades before the Civil War, Stephens was involved in all of the major sectional battles. He began as a moderate defender of slavery but later accepted the prevailing Southern rationale utilized to defend the institution.
Stephens quickly rose to prominence as one of the leading Southern Whigs in the House. He supported the annexation of Texas in 1845. Along with his fellow Whigs, he vehemently opposed the Mexican-American War. He was an equally vigorous opponent of the Wilmot Proviso, which would have barred the extension of slavery into territories acquired by the United States during the war with Mexico.
His political opponent, Judge Francis H. Cone, stabbed him repeatedly in a fit of anger. Stephens 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. Only the intervention of others saved him. Stephens' wounds were serious, and he returned home to Crawfordville to recover. He and Cone reconciled before Cone's death in 1859.
Stephens and fellow Georgia Representative Robert Toombs campaigned for the election of Zachary Taylor as president in 1848. Stephens and Toombs were not only political allies but also lifelong friends. Stephens was described as "a highly sensitive young man of serious and joyless habits of consuming ambition, of poverty-fed pride, and of morbid preoccupation within self," a contrast to the "robust, wealthy, and convivial Toombs. But this strange camaraderie endured with singular accord throughout their lives."
In 1861, Stephens was elected as a delegate to the Georgia special convention to decide on secession from the United States. During the convention, as well as during the 1860 presidential campaign, Stephens 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. Because the Supreme Court had voted 7–2 in the Dred Scott case, it would take decades of Senate-approved appointments to reverse it. 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 "personal liberty laws."
He was elected to the Confederate Congress and was chosen by the Congress as Vice President of the provisional government. He was elected Vice President of the Confederacy in November 1861. He took the provisional oath of office on February 11, 1861, then the 'full term' oath of office on February 22, 1862 and served until his arrest on May 11, 1865.
On March 21, 1861, Stephens gave his famous Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia. In it, he declared that slavery was the natural condition of blacks and the foundation of the Confederacy:
We are in the midst of one of the greatest epochs in our history. . . . This new Constitution . . . amply secures all our ancient rights, franchises, and privileges. . . . No citizen is deprived of life, liberty, or property. . . The great principle of religious liberty, which was the honor and pride of the old Constitution, is still maintained and secured.
. . . Allow me to allude to one other-though last, not least: the new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among 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 an 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 the time. The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used 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 idea of a Government built upon it-when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 moral condition. [Applause.]
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 is 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. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind; from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity.
One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is, forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics: their conclusions are right if their premises are.
They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights, with the white man.... 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 man. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds we should succeed, and that he and his associates in their crusade against our institutions would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as well as in physics and mechanics, I admitted, but told him 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.
|"Peace Conference" Carton|
Almost all of his emancipated slaves chose to remain working with him, some for little or no money. These servants were with him upon his death. Although old and infirm, Stephens continued to work on his house and plantation. According to a former slave, a gate fell on Stephens while he and another black servant were repairing it, "and he was crippled and lamed up from dat time on 'til he died."