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ALEXANDER HAMILTON STEPHENS (1812-1883)

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Originally appearing in Volume V25, Page 888 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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ALEXANDER HAMILTON STEPHENS (1812-1883), American statesman, vice-president of the Confederate States during the Civil War, was born in Wilkes (now Taliaferro) county, Georgia, on the 11th of February 1812. He was a weak and sickly child of poor parents, and from his sixth to his fifteenth year, when he was left an orphan, he worked on a farm. After his father's death he went to live with an uncle in Warren county. The superintendent of the local Sunday school sent him to an academy at Washington, Wilkes county, for one year and in the following year (1828) he was sent by the Georgia Educational Society to Franklin College (university of Georgia), where he graduated in 1832. Deciding not to enter the ministry, he paid back the money advanced by the society. He was a schoolmaster for about two years, and then, after studying law for less than four months, was admitted to the bar in 1834. Although delicate in health, his success at the bar was immediate and remarkable. In 1836 he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives after a campaign in which he was vigorously opposed because he had attacked the doctrine of nullification, and because he had opposed all extra-legal steps against. the abolitionists, He was annually re-elected until 1841; in 1842 he was elected to the state Senate, and in the following year, on the Whig ticket, to the National House of Representatives. In this last body he urged the annexation of Texas, chiefly as a means of achieving more power for the South in Congress. He was denounced as a traitor to his party because of his support of annexation, but he later became the leader of the Whig opposition to the war with Mexico. He vigorously supported the Compromise Measures in r85o, and continued to act with the Whigs of the North until they, in 1852, nominated General Winfield Scott for the presidency without Scott's endorsement of the Compromise. Stephens and other Whigs of the South then chose Daniel Webster, but a little later they joined the Democrats. In 1854 Stephens helped to secure the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. Before the Georgia legislature in November 186o, and again in that state's secession convention in January 1861, he strongly opposed secession, but when Georgia seceded he " followed his state," assisted in forming the new government, and was elected vice-president of the Confederate States. He greatly weakened the position of the Confederacy by a speech delivered at Savannah (March 21, 1861) in which he declared that slavery was its corner-stone. Throughout the war, too, he was so intensely concerned about states' rights and civil liberty that he opposed the exercise of extra-constitutional war powers by President Jefferson Davis lest the freedom for which the South was fighting should be destroyed. His policy was to preserve constitutional government in the South and strengthen the anti-war party in the North by convincing it that the Lincoln administration had abandoned such government; to the same end he urged, in 1864, the unconditional discharge of Federal prisoners in the South. Stephens headed the Confederate commission to the peace conference at Hampton Roads in February 1865. In the following May, after the fall of the Confederacy, he was arrested at his home and taken to Fort Warren, in Boston harbour, where he was confined until the 12th of October. He accepted the result of the war as a practical settlement of the question of secession, exercised a beneficent influence on the negroes of his section, and promoted reconciliation between the North and the South. In 1866 he was elected to the United States Senate, but was not permitted to take his seat. He was a representative in Congress, however, from 1873 to 1882, and was governor of Georgia in 1882–1883, dying in office, at Atlanta, on the 4th of March 1883. He was remarkable for both his moral and physical courage, and in politics was notable for his independence of party. From 1871 to 1873 he edited the Atlanta Daily Sun, and he published A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States (2 vols., 1868–187o), perhaps the best statement of the southern position with reference to state sovereignty and secession; The Reviewers Reviewed (1872), a supplement to the preceding work; and A Compendium of the History of the United States (1875; new ed., 1883). See Louis Pendleton, Alexander H. Stephens (Philadelphiia, 1908) ; R. M. Johnston and W. H. Browne, Life of Alexander H. Stephens (Philadelphia, 1878 ; new ed., 1883) ; and Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens in Public and Private, with Letters and Speeches (Philadelphia, 1866).
End of Article: ALEXANDER HAMILTON STEPHENS (1812-1883)
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