Alexander H. Stephens

Alexander H. Stephens

Alexander Hamilton Stephens (1812-1883) served as vice president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War (1861-65). A career politician, he served in both houses of the Georgia legislature before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843. At the outset of the Civil War Stephens was elected to the Confederate Congress and chosen as the vice president of the Confederate States of America. He then famously gave the “Cornerstone Speech,” in which he announced that the new government was founded on the idea that blacks were inferior to whites. Outwardly critical of President Jefferson Davis throughout his tenure in the Confederate high command, Stephens was arrested and imprisoned after the war’s end. He was reelected to Congress in 1873 and served as governor of Georgia starting in 1882. He died in office in 1883 at the age of 71.

Alexander Stephens: Early Life and Political Career

Alexander Stephens was born in Crawfordville, Georgia, on February 11, 1812. He grew up destitute and was raised by relatives after both his parents died by the time he was 14. Stephens then attended Franklin College and graduated in 1832. After an unhappy stint as a schoolteacher, he studied law and then served as a successful defense lawyer in Crawfordville starting in 1834.

Stephens first entered politics in 1836, when he won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. He served in this position until 1841 and was then elected to the Georgia Senate the following year. During this time Stephens fostered what would become a lifelong friendship with Robert Toombs, a fellow Georgia assemblyman. The two would remain political allies for the rest of their careers.

In 1843 Stephens was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He would go on to win reelection seven consecutive times, serving consistently until 1859. Stephens was a strong supporter of states’ rights and regularly switched political parties whenever he felt they drifted too far from his principles. While he began his career as a Whig, he would later serve as both a Democrat and a Constitutional Unionist.

A frail and sickly man who weighed less than 100 pounds, Stephens was nevertheless a political force, and by the mid-1840s he became a leading Southern statesman. In 1848 he was attacked and stabbed multiple times by Francis H. Cone, a Democratic judge who was enraged by Stephens’ opposition to the Clayton Compromise, a bill that addressed the legality of slavery in territories won in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Stephens attended a political rally only days later, using the attack to disparage the Democratic Party and encourage voters to elect the Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor.

While Stephens vehemently supported the institution of slavery, he was also committed to preserving the Union. Among other moderate measures, he was a supporter of the Compromise of 1850, a package of bills that helped stave off Southern secession. At the same time, Stephens worked to maintain a balance between free and slave states as new territories were introduced into the Union. One of his greatest victories in this respect came in 1854, when Stephens helped pass Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. This allowed settlers in these new territories to choose whether or not to permit slavery.

Alexander Stephens: Vice President of the Confederacy

Stephens continued to argue against secession during the lead-up to the Civil War. Despite these misgivings, he was chosen to be the first vice president of the Confederate States of America during the Confederate Congress in February 1861. For many in the Confederacy, Stephens’ reputation as a moderate and a unionist—albeit a strong supporter of slavery—was seen as a valuable tool in winning border states over to the Southern cause.

After taking office Stephens played an influential role in drafting the Confederacy’s new constitution. He then introduced the new government during a stump speech in Savannah on March 21, 1861. In what became known as the “Cornerstone Speech,” Stephens argued that the new Confederate government was based upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”

After the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Stephens moved to the new Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, and took part in administrative preparations for the war effort. During this time he repeatedly advocated that the Confederacy delay large-scale military action in order to properly plan and equip itself for prolonged war. Stephens 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. Nevertheless, he was reelected to his post in February 1862 after his one-year provisional appointment expired.

Starting in 1862 Stephens began the first of many arguments with President Jefferson Davis over the management of the war effort. A staunch proponent of limited government, Stephens took issue with Davis’s suspension of habeas corpus, which allowed arrests without charge. In September 1862 he published an unsigned letter in a Georgia newspaper condemning the policy of conscription, which gave the Confederate government the power to draft troops ahead of their state militias. He would later clash with Davis over both impressment and the Confederate combat strategy. Disillusioned with Davis’ policies and feeling unneeded, Stephens regularly left the Confederate capital to spend extended periods away at his home in Georgia.

In July 1863 Stephens was sent to Washington, D.C., on a mission to discuss prisoner exchanges with the Union. Anxious to end the war, Stephens also hoped to broach the subject of reaching a peace agreement. His journey only took him as far as Newport News, Virginia, where—following the crucial Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg—he was informed that the U.S. government would not consider opening negotiations with him.

Stephens next redoubled his efforts to oppose Davis, who he believed had become too powerful. In March 1864 he gave a speech to the Georgia state legislature outlining his criticisms of Davis, and was denounced by many Southerners as a traitor. His opposition to Davis became so pronounced that in late 1864 he received a letter from Union General William T. Sherman—then undertaking his “March to the Sea”—encouraging Stephens to meet and discuss the possibility of Georgia forming an independent peace agreement with the Union. Stephens refused the invitation, but his relationship with Davis remained strained for the rest of the war.

Stephens maintained his states’ rights philosophy into 1865, when he made another failed attempt to negotiate peace with the U.S. government. He then returned to his home in Georgia, where he was arrested on May 11, 1865. He was imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, for five months before being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in October 1865.

Alexander Stephens: Later Years

After his release from prison, Stephens returned to Georgia and soon rejoined the political arena. In 1866 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, but the move proved controversial in the North and he never took office. Stephens then devoted himself to writing his memoirs of the war, and later composed a history of the United States. He regained a seat in Congress in 1873, when he was chosen to represent Georgia in the U.S. He served in this capacity until 1882, when he was elected as the governor of Georgia. He died in office in 1883 at the age of 71.


Alexander H. Stephens - HISTORY

There is no need to be careful about this. Anyone who served in the armies of the Confederate States of America was a traitor to the United States anyone who led those armies all the more so. They were part of an armed rebellion against the U.S., which is the definition of treason.

That in itself is enough. But the fact that Confederates were fighting to protect and advance slavery, to create a slave state, means their rebellion was not just political, against the political entity that was the United States, but ethical, moral, and philosophical. They specifically rebelled against the U.S. move to end slavery of black Americans, and just as American abolitionists and antislaveryites based their work to end slavery on moral principle enshrined in the Constitution—that “all men are created equal”–American proslaveryites based their work to continue and expand slavery on a rebellion against that American principle.

The Confederacy was explicitly founded to protect and promote slavery. Its leaders made absolutely no secret of that at the time (see Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion for all the evidence from primary sources that you need). As Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens said in his famous “Cornerstone speech“,

…the new constitution 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. [Thomas] 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. …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. …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. [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 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. 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 were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just — but their premise 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 mechanics, I 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. [our emphasis]

We quote Stephens at nauseating length to show that the Confederacy was explicitly dedicated to the anti-American principle that non-white people are biologically inferior to white people. The Confederates themselves expressed it this way, as a rejection of and rebellion against the Founders’ plan and hope that slavery would inevitably end the United States because it was “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically”, and the United States would not tolerate this because the nation was founded on the principle of equality.

Why does this matter now, on August 16, 2017? Because Stephens still has followers in this country. The Confederacy still has supporters. There are still people living in this country who do not support our Constitution or our law, or any of our founding principles. They call themselves Americans, and most were born here, but they are not. Americans are dedicated to the founding principles of the United States of America, which include the premise that all men are created equal. Anyone who fights this is not American.

And the man currently holding the title of President of the United States is one of them. Donald Trump is no American. He is, clearly, a Confederate president, taking up the torch from Alexander Stephens. In his press conference after a white supremacist/KKK/Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA in which one woman was killed while protesting against the racist rally, Trump said that Americans protesting fascism were just as bad, and in some ways worse, than Nazis posing as Americans, and he took the fascist side:

What about the people of the alt-left, as they came charging at the alt-right, as you call them? [shouts] What about the fact that they came charging, they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day… wait a minute I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day. …I will tell you, I watched this closely, more closely than any of you people, and you had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. I think there’s blame on both sides and I don’t have any doubt about it and you don’t have any doubt either.

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

Our quotes for all but the last paragraph were taken from video on Fox News’ website. So far as we saw the Fox News coverage did not include the last statement. Their commentator did describe these statements by Trump as part of a “brave and honest press conference, he pulled no punches… brutally honest, maybe too honest.”

Honest. We can’t help thinking of Stephens gloating that the premise that all people are created equal had finally been debunked as a fantasy, as fanaticism. If it’s “honest” to say that American protesting fascism are the criminals, and the fascists are the true Americans, innocent Americans, then we have entered a second civil war—or a second Confederate States of America, brought into being without a shot fired in official war.

For over 150 years, the citizens of the United States perpetrated a dangerous wrong by allowing statues of traitors who fought against the U.S. politically and morally, traitors who were dedicated to the lie that all people are not created equal, to stand. “Oh, it’s not about slavery,” people would say “it’s just their culture.” We once heard someone say there are no statues to Nazi leaders in Germany. Why are there memorials to Confederate leaders in the United States? Now we see the result of 150 years of dedicated fighting after Appomattox by people who will never be real Americans, and a concentrated effort over the last 50 years, since the Civil Rights movement, to revive the Confederate States of America.

Needless to say, we can’t give in. While Trump has basically invited and urged Nazis to show up when the statue of Jackson is taken down, and has given new hope and excitement to Nazis in America, we Americans have to fight. It’s much harder to fight a guerrilla war than it was to go into actual battle during the Civil War. Right now the best path is to meet the Nazis wherever they go, and not remain a silent majority.


Statue of Alexander H. Stephens

Alexander H. Stephens is a marble sculpture commemorating the American politician of the same name by Gutzon Borglum, [1] installed in the United States Capitol as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. [2] The statue was gifted by the state of Georgia in 1927. [3]

Stephens earned his place in the National Statuary Hall Collection by being elected to the US House of Representatives both before and after the Civil War and serving as the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America. [4] At the unveiling of Stephen's statue on December 8, 1927, William J. Harris said of him, "His public career shows him time and again placing his loyalty to principles above subservience to political party time and again refusing to follow where he thought principles were being set aside for party purposes." [5]

On March 31, 1861, Stephens delivered the Cornerstone Speech which defended slavery as a just result of the inferiority of the "black race". [6] Because of this, in 2017, some of Stephens's descendants asked that the statue be removed from the Capitol. [7]

  1. ^ Taliaferro, John (9 October 2007). Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore. PublicAffairs. ISBN9781586486112 . Retrieved 24 August 2017 – via Google Books.
  2. ^
  3. Ford, Matt. "Why Are Confederate Statues Still Displayed in the Capitol?". The Atlantic . Retrieved 24 August 2017 .
  4. ^
  5. "Alexander Hamilton Stephens". Architect of the Capitol . Retrieved August 23, 2017 .
  6. ^ Viles, Philip H., National Statuary Hall: Guidebook for a Walking Tour, Published by Philip H. Viles, Tulsa, OK, 1997 p. 51
  7. ^ Murdock, Myrtle Chaney, National Statuary Hall in the Nation's Capitol, Monumental Press, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1955 p. 27
  8. ^
  9. "Modern History Sourcebook: Alexander H. Stephens (1812–1883): Cornerstone Address, March 21, 1861". Fordham University . Retrieved 31 May 2020 .
  10. ^
  11. Suggs, Ernie (25 August 2017). "Descendants of Confederate VP Want His Statue Out of US Capitol". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . Retrieved 31 May 2020 .

This article about a sculpture in the United States is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.


Letter to Alexander H. Stephens, December 22, 1860

Select the Student Version to print the text and Text Dependent Questions only. Select the Teacher Version to print the text with labels, Text Dependent Questions and answers. Highlighted vocabulary will appear in both printed versions.

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 7.

Your obliging answer to my short note is just received, and for which please accept my thanks. I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight of responsibility on me.

Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.

The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.


Who is Responsible for the War?

Select the Student Version to print the text and Text Dependent Questions only. Select the Teacher Version to print the text with labels, Text Dependent Questions and answers. Highlighted vocabulary will appear in both printed versions.

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 7.

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WAR?

WHO ACCOUNTABLE FOR ITS HORRORS AND DESOLATIONS?

EXTRACTS from a Speech by ALEXANDER H. STEPHENS (now Vice-President of the Confederate States), delivered in the Secession Convention of Georgia, on the 31st day of January, 1861:

“THIS step [the secession of Georgia], once taken, can never be recalled and all the baleful and withering consequences that must follow (as you will see) will rest on the Convention for all coming time. When we and our posterity shall see our lovely South desolated by the demon of war which this act of yours will inevitably invite and call forth when our green fields of waving harvests shall be trodden down by the murderous soldiery and fiery car of war sweeping over our land,—our temples of justice laid in ashes, all the horrors and desolations of war upon us,—who but this Convention will be held responsible for it? and who but him who shall have given his vote for this unwise and ill-timed measure (as I honestly think and believe) shall be held to strict account for this suicidal act, by the present generation, and probably cursed and execrated by posterity for all coming time, for the wide and desolating ruin that will inevitably follow this act you now propose to perpetrate?

“Pause, I entreat you, and consider for a moment what reasons you can give that will even satisfy yourselves in calmer moments, what reasons you can give to your fellow-sufferers in the calamity that it will bring upon us. What reason can you give to the nations of the earth to justify it? They will be the calm and deliberate judges in the case and to what cause or one overt act can you name or point, on which to rest the plea of justification? What right has the North assailed? what interest of the South has been invaded? what justice has been denied? and what claim, founded in justice and right, has been withheld? Can either of you to-day name one governmental act of wrong, deliberately and purposely done by the Government of Washington, of which the South has a right to complain? I challenge the answer! While, on the other hand, let me show the facts (and believe me, gentlemen, I am not here the advocate of the North but I am here the friend, the firm friend and lover, of the South and her institutions and for this reason I speak thus plainly and faithfully, for yours, mine, and every other man’s interest, the words of truth and soberness,) of which I wish you to judge, and I will only state facts which are clear and undeniable, and which now stand as records authentic in the history of our country.

“When we of the South demanded the slave-trade, or the importation of Africans for the cultivation of our lands, did they not yield the right for twenty years? When we asked a three-fifths representation in Congress for our slaves, was it not granted? When we asked and demanded the return of any fugitive from justice, or the recovery of those persons owing labor or allegiance, was it not incorporated in the Constitution, and again ratified and strengthened in the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850?

“But do you reply, that, in many instances, they have violated this compact, and have not been faithful to their engagements? As individuals and local communities, they may have done so but not by the sanction of Government for that has always been true to Southern interests. Again, gentlemen: look at another fact. When we have asked that more territory should be added, that we might spread the institution of slavery, have they not yielded to our demands in giving us Louisiana, Florida and Texas?—out of which four States have been carved, and ample territory for four more to be added in due time, if you by this unwise and impolitic act do not destroy this hope, and perhaps by it lose all, and have your last slave wrenched from you by stern military rule, as South America and Mexico were or by the vindictive decree of a universal emancipation, which may reasonably be expected to follow.

“But again, gentlemen: what have we to gain by this proposed change of our relation to the General Government? We have always had the control of it and can yet, if we remain in it, and are as united as we have been. We have had a majority of the Presidents chosen from the South, as well as the control and management of most of those chosen from the North. We have had sixty years of Southern Presidents to their twenty-four thus controlling the Executive department. So of the Judges of the Supreme Court we have had eighteen from the South, and but eleven from the North. Although nearly four-fifths of the judicial business has arisen in the Free States, yet a majority of the Court has always been from the South. This we have required, so as to guard against any interpretation of the Constitution unfavorable to us. In like manner, we have been equally watchful to guard our interests in the Legislative branch of Government. In choosing the presiding Presidents (pro tem.) of the Senate, we have had twenty-four to their eleven. Speakers of the House, we have had twenty-three, and they twelve. While the majority of the representatives, from their greater population, have always been from the North, yet we have so generally secured the Speaker, because he, to a great extent, shapes and controls the legislation of the country. Nor have we had less control in every other department of the General Government. Attorney-Generals we have had fourteen, while the North have had but five. Foreign ministers we have had eighty-six, and they but fifty-four. While three-fourths of the business which demands diplomatic agents abroad is clearly from the Free States, from their greater commercial interests, yet we have had the principal embassies, so as to secure the world markets for our cotton, tobacco, and sugar, on the best possible terms. We have had a vast majority of the higher offices of both army and navy, while a larger proportion of the soldiers and sailors were drawn from the North. Equally so of clerks, auditors, and comptrollers filling the Executive department the records show for the last fifty years, that, of the three thousand thus employed, we have had more than two-thirds of the same, while we have but one-third of the white population of the Republic.”

“Leaving out of view, for the present, the countless millions of dollars you must expend in a war with the North, with tens of thousands of your sons and brothers slain in battle, and offered up as sacrifices upon the altar of your ambition: and for what, we ask again? Is it for the overthrow of the American Government, established by our common ancestry, cemented and built up by their sweat and blood, and founded on the broad principles of Right, Justice, and Humanity? And, as such, I must declare here, as I have often done before, and which has been repeated by the greatest and wisest of statesmen and patriots in this and other lands, that it is the best and freest Government, the most equal in its rights, the most just in its decisions, the most lenient in its measures, and the most inspiring in its principles to elevate the race of men, that the sun of heaven ever shone upon.

“Now, for you to attempt to overthrow such a Government as this, under which we have lived for more than three-quarters of a century,—in which we have gained our wealth, our standing as a nation, our domestic safety while the elements of peril are around us, with peace and tranquility, accompanied with unbounded prosperity and rights unassailed,—is the height of madness, folly, and wickedness, to which I can neither lend my sanction nor my vote.”


About this Collection

The papers of Alexander Hamilton Stephens (1812-1883), lawyer, journalist, governor of Georgia, member of both houses of the United States Congress, and vice president of the Confederate States of America, span the years 1784-1886, with the bulk of the material concentrated in the period 1850-1883. The collection consists primarily of correspondence, supplemented by an autobiography and journal and miscellaneous memoranda, legal documents, and clippings. The papers are organized in three series: General Correspondence, Letters from Servants, and Autobiography and Journal.

The correspondence, mainly letters received, touches on virtually all aspects of Stephens&rsquos private and public life, focusing on the divisive issues leading to the Civil War, the operation of the Confederate government, and postwar problems and issues in the South. Specific topics discussed include plantation management, slavery, Texas annexation, territorial expansion, political parties, states&rsquo rights, the compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, secession, formation of the Confederate government, the conduct of the Civil War, Reconstruction in the South, and the disputed election of 1876. Broader subjects include transportation, the tariff, education, and social, economic, and literary matters.

Prominent correspondents include Francis Preston Blair (1791-1876), Joseph E. Brown, Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, Henry Cleveland, Howell Cobb, Martin Crawford, A. H. Garland, John. B. Gordon, Paul Hamilton Hayne, William H. Hidell, Henry R. Jackson, Herschel V. Johnson, Richard Malcolm Johnson, L. Q. C. Lamar, James Ryder Randall, J. Henley Smith, Robert Augustus Toombs, James Iredell Waddell, and Ambrose R. Wright.


Further Reading

The recent account of Stephens is Rudolph R. Von Abele, Alexander H. Stephens (1946), a critical study not always scholarly in documentation. Eudora Ramsay Richardson, Little Aleck: A Life of Alexander H. Stephens, the Fighting Vice-president of the Confederacy (1932), emphasizes Stephens's personal life but lacks satisfactory analysis. The political background and Stephens's role are well covered in Burton. J. Hendrick, Statesmen of the Lost Cause: Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet (1939), and Rembert W. Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet (1944).


Descendants of Alexander Stephens Speak Out

Over the past few weeks I’ve written a couple of posts concerning the issue of Confederate monuments. Two of those posts dealt with the perspectives of Robert E. Lee and the descendants of a few prominent Confederates. Well, I can add one more to the list: the descendants of Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy.

For those of you who do not know much about Alexander Stephens (CSA), I recommend reading this biography of him on the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Of course, no reading on Alexander Stephens (CSA) would be complete without a brief view of the “Cornerstone Speech,” which he delivered in Savannah, GA on March 21, 1861. It’s a good idea to form an decent understanding of Stephens and his views before diving into the statement below. I feel like the context adds a certain gravitas to their letter.

Yesterday the AJC published a story about two brothers, Alexander and Brendan Stephens. The two brothers claim to be great, great, great grand-nephews of A. Stephens (CSA). According to them, they are the most direct descendants of A. Stephens who never had children. Please click on the link above to read the story but I’ll recycle of few of the quotes below.

The brothers stated this about the monuments in an open letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assesmbly:

Confederate monuments need to come down. Put them in museums where people will learn about the context of their creation, but remove them from public spaces so that the descendants of enslaved people no longer walk beneath them at work and on campus.

… Some of our relatives may disagree with our proposal, but they instilled values in us that made it possible for us to write these words: remove the statue of Alexander H. Stephens from the U.S. Capitol. (my emphasis)

In regards to growing up in the South and hearing the stories and myths that helped form their heritage, the brothers had this to say.

We both grew up with a deep appreciation of our family history. We independently had experiences that led us to a process of unlearning the history growing up. What we were learning didn’t fit with the stories that we learned when we were children. As we became more dedicated to unraveling this myth, we learned the reality…

It is not as if we grew up idolizing the Confederacy, but it was state of cognitive dissonance…Slavery was wrong, but maybe some of the people who supported it were not so bad. We were taught to look away from it. It was a family tradition that was passed along. (my emphasis)

I really enjoy the self analysis included as well as the references to growing up under the Lost Cause fable.


Post-bellum career [ edit | edit source ]

John White Alexander's portrait of Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens gravesite memorial at Liberty Hall

Stephens was arrested at his home in Crawfordville, on May 11, 1865. He was imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, for five months until October 1865. In 1866, he was elected to the United States Senate by the first legislature convened under the new Georgia state constitution, but did not present his credentials, as the state had not been readmitted to the union. In 1873, he was elected U.S. Representative as a Democrat from the 8th District to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Ambrose R. Wright, and was re-elected in 1874, 1876, 1878, and 1880. He served in the 43rd through 47th Congresses, from December 1, 1873 until his resignation on November 4, 1882. On that date, he was elected and took office as governor of Georgia. His tenure as governor proved brief Stephens died on March 4, 1883, four months after taking office. According to a former slave, a gate fell on Stephens "and he was crippled and lamed up from dat time on 'til he died." ΐ]

He was interred in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, then re-interred on his estate, Liberty Hall, near Crawfordville.

He is the author of: A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States,(1867–70, history, 2 Vols.) History of the United States (1871), and History of the United States (1883).

He is pictured on the CSA $20.00 banknote (3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th issues).

Stephens County, Georgia, bears his name, as does a state park near Crawfordville.


Reconsidering Alexander H. Stephens

Limited by a popular and academic culture at the beginning of the 21st century that denigrates the past and places too much confidence in the present, the thoughtful student of Georgia politics and history should not be surprised that Alexander Stephens (February 11, 1812-March 4, 1883), Confederate Vice-President and American statesman, has often been neglected. One possible remedy to the neglect is to reconsider the statesman’s life and work.

Stephens was named for his grandfather, Alexander Stephens, a native of Scotland and veteran of the revolutionary war who settled in Georgia in the early 1790s. As the only child of the elder Alexander to remain in Georgia, Andrew Stephens was a successful farmer and educator. He married Margaret Grier in 1806. Within months of Stephens’ birth in 1812, his mother died as the result of pneumonia. His father quickly remarried Matilda Lindsey, a daughter of a local war hero. Matilda would exert great influence upon her stepson’s life, but the greatest inspiration to the young “Aleck” was his father. While not exhibiting any initial fondness for academic study, by 1824 Alexander was consumed with an interest in biblical narrative and history, and he began to read widely. In 1826, his mentor and teacher, Andrew Stephens, died from pneumonia the stepmother soon died from the same affliction. Alexander was overcome by his grief, and he became disconsolate and fell into a state of melancholy. The siblings were divided, with Alexander and his brother Aaron moving in with their uncle Aaron Grier. While living with his uncle, Alexander was befriended by two Presbyterian ministers, Reverend Williams and Reverend Alexander Hamilton Webster, and these men would greatly aid his personal and intellectual development. Out of Alexander’s respect and devotion to Rev. Webster, he would eventually change his middle name to Hamilton. As the result of the encouragement offered by the clerics and others, the young Alexander entered Franklin College, which would become the University of Georgia. At Franklin, Stephens was guided in his studies by the eminent educationist, Reverend Moses Waddel, the brother-in-law and teacher of John C. Calhoun, and many of the emerging leaders of South Carolina. Waddel also played an important role in the spiritual development of the young man.

Graduating first in his class at Franklin in 1832, he had distinguished himself as a scholar and capable debater. Stephens accepted a position as a tutor and began an independent study of the law. After passing the bar examination, Stephens was elected to the state legislature he would spend six years in the state house and senate. It was becoming apparent that Stephens possessed the qualities necessary for political success.

Initially refusing the request to run for the U. S. House, his political coalition merged with the Whig Party, and he decided to run for Congress in 1843. As a candidate, he defended the Whig Party’s positions on the national bank and tariffs. In a wave of Whig political success in Georgia, Stephens was elected to Congress, although sorrow would soon replace his joy. Within a brief period after his election, he received news that his brother Aaron had died. Stephens was again stricken with a profound sense of loss. After arriving in Washington to assume his seat, he was so sick that he was unable to attend legislative sessions. On February 9, 1844, in his first speech as a member of Congress, he challenged his own election. Stephens would become a Whig stalwart, campaigning for various Whig candidates and related causes, including Henry Clay’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1844. The major issue before Congress was the annexation of Texas. In opposition to many southern congressmen who viewed the annexation of Texas as essential to the preservation of a political equilibrium that protected slavery, Stephens opposed expansion. Eventually, Stephens was forced to see the benefits of annexation for the South and the Whig Party, but he opposed the measure if based solely on the extension of slavery.

Troubled by President Polk’s “bad management,” including greater tensions with England regarding Oregon, and the situation with Mexico, Stephens became an outspoken critic of the administration. Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande and a conflict transpired, prompting Polk to state that a war had been initiated. While Congress provided a declaration of war, Stephens agreed with Calhoun that the war could escalate into a greater conflict. In conjunction with other Whigs, Stephens tried to limit his support of the war and to prevent Congress from acquiring territory as the spoils of the contest. He introduced legislation aimed at limiting the aggrandizing policies of the Polk administration. By 1847 Stephens had become a central figure in the Young Indians Club, a group of congressmen who were supporting the presidential candidacy of General Zachary Taylor, who he believed shared the worldview of southern Whigs.

After Taylor’s election, Stephens was forced to reconsider his support of Old Zack. Stephens found the doctrine of popular sovereignty more palatable because it was a countervailing force against the northern Whigs who wanted to admit California and New Mexico as free states. Working with his fellow Georgian and friend, Robert Toombs, they challenged their Whig colleagues to adopt resolutions forbidding Congress from ending the slave trade in the territories, but the effort failed. Within a short period of time, Stephens had moved from being a valued supporter of the administration to a critic and congressional opponent. He was forced to leave the Whig Party, but he maintained his legislative base of support in Georgia. In joining forces against the Whigs during a period of electoral realignment, he would assist in the formation of the Constitutional Union Party in Georgia.

In the midst of the turmoil, Stephens eventually joined the Democratic Party he supported the Compromise of 1850 and was instrumental in the adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Stephens thought the acceptance of Kansas-Nebraska was the “mission” of his life, and that “his cup of ambition was full.” After unsuccessfully supporting various measures that attempted to secure the position of the South, Stephens announced that he was retiring from Congress. He was weary and tired of confronting “restless, captious, and fault-finding people.” He did not support extremist measures offered by his colleagues from the South, but remained an advocate of states’ rights nevertheless. Even as southern radicals encouraged secession after the election of Lincoln in 1860, Stephens urged restraint, pleading with his follow Georgians to evince “good judgment,” and arguing that the ascendancy of Lincoln did not merit secession. In a celebrated exchange with the new president, he reminded Lincoln that “Independent, sovereign states” had formed the union and that these states could reassert their sovereignty. When Georgia convened a convention in January 1861, Stephens voted against secession, but when secession was approved by a vote of 166-130, he was part of the committee that drafted the secession ordinance.

As the Confederacy evolved, Stephens was selected as a delegate and to many he appeared to be a good candidate for the vice presidency. He assumed an important role in the drafting of the Confederate Constitution and in other affairs, eventually accepting the vice presidency. Early in his tenure as Vice President, on March 21, 1861, he gave his politically damaging “Cornerstone” address in Savannah, where he defended slavery from a natural law perspective. President Jefferson Davis was greatly disturbed, as Stephens had shifted the basis of the political debate from states’ rights to slavery. Stephens was convinced that slavery was a necessity. The estrangement between Davis and Stephens increased, and by early 1862 the vice president was not intimately involved in the affairs of state. Accordingly, he returned to his home in Crawfordville. Pursuing actions he thought might assist in the denouement of the conflict, Stephens attempted several assignments, including a diplomatic sojourn to Washington. Returning to Richmond in December 1865, he introduced proposals to strengthen the Confederacy while presiding over the Senate.

Following the conclusion of the war, Stephens faced arrest and imprisonment at Fort Warren, Massachusetts. After his release, he would devote the remainder of his life to composing A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, a two-volume defense of southern constitutionalism which appeared in 1868 and 1870. According to Stephens, the foremost theoretical and practical distillation of authority and liberty was found within the American political tradition. The original system was predicated upon reserving the states’ sphere of authority. For Stephens, this original diffusion, buttressed by a prudent mode of popular rule, was the primary achievement of American politics.

Sean Busick also contributed to this essay.

About H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Professor of Political Science and the former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at East Georgia State College. Dr. Cheek also directs the College's Correll Scholars Program. He received his bachelor's degree from Western Carolina University, his M.Div. from Duke University, his M.P.A. from Western Carolina University, and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. As a senior minister in the United Methodist Church (Western North Carolina Conference) for thirty years, Cheek has served as a parish minister, visiting cleric, and U.S Army chaplain. Dr. Cheek's books include Political Philosophy and Cultural Renewal (Transaction/Rutgers, 2001 reprinted, Routledge, 2018 [with Kathy B. Cheek]) Calhoun and Popular Rule, published by the University of Missouri Press (2001 paper edition, 2004) Calhoun: Selected Speeches and Writings (Regnery, 2003) Order and Legitimacy (Transaction/Rutgers, 2004 reprinted, Routledge, 2017) an edition of Calhoun's A Disquisition on Government (St. Augustine's, 2007 reprinted, 2016) a critical edition of W. H. Mallock's The Limits of Pure Democracy (Transaction/Rutgers, 2007 reprinted, Routledge, 2017) Confronting Modernity: Towards a Theology of Ministry in the Wesleyan Tradition (Wesley Studies Society, 2010) an edition of the classic study, A Theory of Public Opinion (Transaction/Rutgers, 2013 reprinted, Routledge, 2017) Patrick-Henry Onslow Debate: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought (Lexington, 2013) and, The Founding of the American Republic (Notre Dame University Press, 2022 [forthcoming]). More from H. Lee Cheek, Jr.


Watch the video: Secession by Alexander H Stephens