That Alexander Stephens filled the vice-presidency of the Confederate States of America, during a time of bitter warfare, seems difficult to understand. He was a moderate on the subject of slavery and argued vehemently against secession during the crisis following Lincoln`s election. But his character and moral courage made him a Southern leader nevertheless.
Born into a poor Georgia farming family on February 11, 1812, he was given a scholarship to the University of Georgia by a Presbyterian society that expected him to enter the ministry. After graduation in 1832, he declined that path and spent two years teaching to repay the expense of his education. After studying the law for a few months, he was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1834 and became a successful lawyer.
Beginning in 1836, Stephens involved himself in politics, opposing nullification and extralegal measures taken against abolitionists. Although these were not popular positions, he was elected to the Georgia Assembly, where he served until being elected to Congress in 1843. He supported the annexation of Texas but not the War with Mexico. He stayed with the Whig Party on national issues, particularly the Compromise of 1850, but broke with them in 1852, switching to the Democratic Party.
After finishing his Congressional career in 1858, Stephens continued in the public debate over the South`s future. His response to the growing sentiment for secession was to depict the federal government as a leaking boat, flawed but fixable. The debate in the Georgia legislature in November 1860, where his position was opposed to that of his colleague and friend Robert Toombs, gave Stephens a chance to argue for a political solution. He reasoned:
In this way our sister Southern states can be inducted to act with us, and I have but little doubt that the state of New York and Pennsylvanian and Ohio, and other Western states, will compel their legislatures to recede from their hostile attitudes if the others do not. Then, with these, we would go on without New England if she chose to stay out ...
In January 1861, he was elected as a delegate to the Georgia convention which would decide the issue of separation. He voted against secession but the convention decided otherwise, and on a majority for on January 19, Georgia seceded. When the Confederate States of America were organized the next month, Stephens was elected vice-president, serving from February 11, 1861 until his arrest on May 11, 1865. During his time in office, Stephens publicly criticized the administration of Jefferson Davis, on a range of issues including conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus.
After the war, Stephens was quickly elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia, but his election was not recognized by that body. He later served as a U.S. Representative and briefly as governor of Georgia before his death on March 4, 1883.
Stephens was himself a slave owner before the Civil War and believed that the South`s "peculiar institution" was justified by the natural inferiority of the black race to the white. His moderation was in the realm of political reality, where his correct view was that Lincoln`s election did not mean the end of Southern influence or of slavery in Southern states.
He retired from Congress in 1859 and return to the practice of law.---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Alexander H. Stephens.
But I will say no more. I fear it will all come to nought ; that it is too late
to do anything ; that the people are run mad. They are wild with passion
and frenzy, doing they know not what.
Regarding the prospect of Southern secession
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Secession Debated: Georgia's Showdown in 1860 by William W. Freehling.
The critical northern antebellum debate matched the rhetorical skills of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in an historic argument over the futur...