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  Name:  Alexander Hamilton Stephens
  Born:  February 11, 1812
  Died:  March 4, 1883

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Stephens, Alexander Hamilton (February 11, 1812 – March 4, 1883)

Alexander Hamilton Stephens was a U.S. congressman (1843–1859; 1873–1882) and Confederate vice president (1861–1865). 

Alexander Stephens was born near the town of Washington, Georgia, on February 11, 1812, to Margaret Grier Stephens and Andrew Stephens.  His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father remarried in 1813.  His father and stepmother died when Stephens was 14.  He and an older brother then moved in with their uncle’s family in Raytown, Georgia.  At the age of sixteen, Stephens entered Franklin College (today, the University of Georgia), where he graduated first in his class.  While working as a schoolteacher, he taught himself the law, and passed the Georgia bar in 1834.  Stephens was very short in height, weighed about 90 pounds, had a large head with sunken features, and suffered from numerous illnesses during his life.  When his appearance made him the target of insults, Stephens challenged his detractors to duels (none accepted).  

In 1836, Stephens won a seat in the Georgia state legislature on an anti–Andrew Jackson ticket that evolved into the Whig Party.  During his six years in the legislature (five in the house, one in the senate), he advocated the Whig policy of state funding for internal improvements, and earned a reputation as a skilled parliamentarian.  In 1843, Stephens was elected as a Whig to Congress, where he supported protective tariffs, but opposed the annexation of Texas until he acquiesced to pressure from other Southern Whigs.  He also considered the War with Mexico (1846–1848) to be a mistake, and, although voting to supply American troops, he worked unsuccessfully to ban the acquisition of territory from Mexico.

When Northern Whigs urged President Zachary Taylor to allow California and New Mexico to enter the Union as free states, a horrified Stephens and Robert Toombs, a fellow Georgia congressman, drafted a resolution against any federal law banning slavery in the new territories or the slave trade in Washington, D.C.  When the Whig caucus failed to pass the resolution, the two men renounced their party membership.  Stephens, though, worked behind the scenes with Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas to craft the Compromise of 1850, which recognized California as a free state, opened the New Mexico territory to slavery, banned the slave trade in the nation’s capital, and enacted a law facilitating the return of runaway slaves.

In Georgia, Stephens and Toombs teamed with Democrat Howell Cobb to found the Constitutional Union Party in order to fight the rising tide of secessionist sentiment.  The new party was successful in the 1850 elections, sending Cobb to the governorship and Toombs to the U.S. Senate.  The victory, however, was short lived.  When the turmoil created by the Compromise of 1850 settled, Cobb returned to the Democrats, and Stephens joined him in 1852 as the Whig Party was collapsing over the slavery issue.

In 1854, Stephens was instrumental in generating Southern support for the Kansas–Nebraska Act (which opened those territories to slavery if local voters approved), and ensuring the bill’s passage in the U.S. House.  As the entwined questions of slavery and statehood in Kansas loomed large in the late 1850s, Stephens labored to make Kansas a slave state or to keep it out of the Union (it entered as a free state in 1861).  At the height of his influence, Stephens chose to resign, assuring his constituents in his farewell address of July 1859 that the Union and the institution of slavery were both secure.

After Abraham Lincoln’s victory in November 1860, Stephens publicly insisted that the new Republican president did not threaten the South, and that no action had occurred justifying secession.  In private, though, he concluded that the Southern slave states would leave the Union.  He and other anti–secessionist leaders in Georgia exerted little effort to influence the state convention, which passed a resolution of secession, 166–130.  In early 1861, Stephens was a delegate to the Confederacy’s provisional congress in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was elected vice president of the Confederate States of America.

In March 1861, Stephens delivered a speech in which he proclaimed that the Confederate cause was not states’ rights or Southern interests, but the preservation of the idea of white supremacy and the institution of slavery.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, publicly disagreed with Stephens’s assessment.  Subsequent differences between the two men over how the war was being fought resulted in Stephens leaving the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and returning to his home in Georgia.  

In Georgia, Stephens selectively criticized Confederate policies, including governmental reliance on loans rather than taxation, the military draft, and violations of civil liberties (e.g., suspension of habeas corpus and arbitrary arrests).  In 1864, he went a step further by concurring with Governor Joseph Brown that the Confederate government was acting tyrannically toward the states.  Following Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864, Stephens returned to Richmond, where he tried to salvage the sagging Confederate cause.  He met with General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865, but the peace conference came to naught.

At the end of the Civil War, Stephens was arrested and imprisoned until President Andrew Johnson paroled him in October 1865.  Stephens’s election in early 1866 to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate helped convince congressional Republicans that President Johnson’s Reconstruction plan was far too lenient.  Stephens and others elected from the former Confederate states were not allowed to take their seats.  

In early 1866, Stephens urged the Southern states to accept the abolition of slavery and to grant basic civil rights to the freedmen.  Yet, a few months later, he argued against ratification of the 14th Amendment, which was a federal guarantee of those rights.  He soon resisted Congressional Reconstruction and opposed the “New Departure” movement in the Democratic Party, which sought to accept Reconstruction and move on to other issues.  In 1873, he lost a senatorial election to a New Departure Democrat, but was elected to Congress with the help of Republicans who wanted to undermine the New Departure Democrats.  

In 1874, Stephens endorsed Republican President Ulysses S. Grant for a third term.  The next year, Stephens stridently opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1875.  He was reelected to three more terms in Congress, but the aging and infirm Georgian was not a key player in the House.  He resigned from Congress on November 4, 1882, after winning the governorship of Georgia by a landslide.  Alexander Stephens died on March 4, 1883, a few months after taking office.

Source consulted:  Michael Perman, “Stephens, Alexander Hamilton,” American National Biography (online).


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