Biography of Alexander H. Stephens

STEPHENS, Alexander Hamilton, statesman, was born in Taliaferro county, near Crawfordville, Ga., Feb. 11, 1812; son of Andrew B. and Margaret (Grier) Stephens, and grandson of Alexander Stephens, a native of England, who immigrated to Pennsylvania about 1746; served in the Colonial army under Braddock, and in the Continental army during the Revolution; removed to Georgia in 1789-90, and settled on a plantation in what became Taliaferro county, and died in 1813. His maternal grandfather, Aaron Grier, was the father of Robert Grier, the maker of "Grier's Almanac," popular in Georgia for many [p.7] years. Andrew B. Stephens died in 1826, and Alexander was left an orphan, his mother having died some years before. He inherited about $444, and this with a small legacy from his grandfather was spent upon his education. He lived with his uncle, Charles C. Mills, of Washington, Wilkes county, a man of wealth and influence. He was sent to the high school at that place, taught by the Rev. Alexander Hamilton Webster, pastor of the Presbyterian church, through whose influence Alexander (who then first made use of the middle name Hamilton in respect for his teacher and friend) received an offer from the Presbyterian Educational society to loan him the money for a college course, and he matriculated at Franklin college (University of Georgia) in 1828, and was graduated in 1832, but refused to pay two dollars for a diploma. He taught school to repay his indebtedness to his benefactors, 1832-34, and determining to adopt the profession of law, he was admitted to the bar, July 22, 1834, having given but two months' time to prepare for his examination. W.H. Crawford and J. H. Lumpkin, his examiners, both declared it to be the best examination they had ever witnessed. He lived frugally, and soon earned sufficient money to purchase his father's plantation in 1839, and the estate which became Liberty Hall, his future home in Crawfordville. He was a states rights Whig, but opposed to nullification, and he was elected a representative to the Georgia legislature in 1836, against a determined opposition, and after a heated canvass of the district. He took a front rank in the house, and his presentation to the state of the earning capacity of a railroad from Atlanta to Chattanooga secured the appropriation for the Western and Atlantic railroad, which became known as the state road. He also secured the first charter ever granted in the United States for a college for the regular graduation of women in classics and the sciences, the Georgia Female college at Macon, chartered in 1836, and opened, Jan. 7, 1839, with six professors and as many assistants. He was re-elected to the legislature in 1837, and each following year until 1841, when he declined a re-election, but was sent to the state senate in 1842-43. He was a delegate to the Charleston commercial convention in 1839, and in 1843 was elected a representative from Georgia to the 28th congress (to complete the term of Hark A. Cooper, who resigned to run for governor of the state) by 3000 majority. At this time Georgia had not formed congressional districts, and after he had taken his seat he addressed the house on the question of his right to be seated when Georgia had not conformed to the Federal act requiring the state to divide into districts instead of electing representatives from the state at large on the general ticket. His right to a seat was sanctioned by the committee on elections, and Georgia thereafter complied with the law. He was re-elected from the seventh district to the 29th-32d congresses, and from the eighth district to the 33d-35th congresses, serving continuously, 1839-59, when he declined further Office, and announced his retirement from public life in a speech at Augusta, Ga., July 2, 1859. He had supported Harrison in 1840, Clay in 1844, and Taylor in 1848. He urged the admission of Texas, and in February, 1847, introduced in the house resolutions opposing the prosecution of the war against Mexico, as a violation of the constitution and carried on for conquest, but the house refused to consider the resolutions. In 1848 he opposed the Clayton compromise against the opinions of his constituents, and the protests of the citizens of the whole state. When he appeared in Atlanta he was attacked and nearly killed in the public street by Judge Francis Cone, a prominent citizen of his own district, who sought to force him to retract his words spoken in opposition to the measure. He also sought to settle a dispute with Herschel V. Johnson and with Benjamin H. Hill by challenging them to meet him on the field of honor, but neither would accept the call. He opposed the policy of President Taylor; supported the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854; opposed Know-nothingism in 1855; advocated the doctrine of Senator Douglas, and in 1856 supported James Buchanan. During the presidential canvass of 1860 he supported the candidacy of Stephen A. Douglas for President, and was an elector-at-large for Georgia on the Douglas and Johnson ticket. On Nov. 30, 1860, a letter passed from Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Ill., to Mr. Stephens at Crawfordville, which led to a correspondence in which the views of both statesmen were fully expressed, but as Mr. Lincoln had marked his second letter "For your own eye only," this correspondence was not made public until after the close of the war. Mr. Stephens opposed secession, but proposed the state convention of Jan. 16, 1861, that a full voice of the people might be obtained, and he voted against secession with 88 other delegates, 208 voting for the measure. He was appointed by this convention a member of the proposed Provisional congress to assemble at Montgomery, Ala., Feb. 4, 1861, and was then chosen provisional Vice-President of the proposed Confederacy, with Jefferson Davis as President. On March 21, he spoke in Savannah in favor of the upholding of the new Confederate States constitution, declaring that its chief corner stone was slavery; and in April he urged upon the Virginia state convention assembled at Richmond the adoption of the ordinance of secession. The regular election for President and [p.8] Vice-President of the Confederate States under the constitution was held, Nov. 6, 1861, and Davis and Stephens were unanimously re-elected for a term of six years. Mr. Stephens differed with President Davis on the question of conscription in 1862, and formed a peace party in Georgia in 1864, Gov. Joseph E. Brown and Gen. Robert Toombs supporting it, and through their influence the Lincoln-Stephens resolutions on the suppression of the writ of habeas corpus by the Confederate government were passed by the Georgia legislature, March 4, 1864. He headed the unsuccessful peace commission composed of Mr. Stephens, J. A. Campbell and R. M. T. Hunter, appointed by the Confederate government, and they met President Lincoln and Secretary Seward at Hampton Roads, Feb. 3, 1865. The committee reported to President Davis that there could be no peace short of unconditional submission, and when the President refused to consider any such terms, Mr. Stephens left Richmond for his home in Crawfordville, Ga., Feb. 9, 1865, and reached there on the 20th. He was arrested, May 11, at his home, and confined in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, until Oct. 13, 1865, when he was discharged on parole. In February, 1866, he was elected U.S. senator, but when he reached Washington he was not permitted to take his seat, Georgia not having complied with the requirement necessary to secure a place in the councils of the nation. While in Washington he testified before the reconstruction committee of congress, and he taught a class of law students, at his quiet home at Crawfordville, at least 100 young men being instructed by him during his residence there. In 1872, he became editor and part owner of the Atlanta Sun, in which he opposed the candidacy of Horace Greeley, but the paper did not prove financially successful. He was a candidate for U.S. senator before the legislature of Georgia, November, 1871, but was defeated by Joshua Hill, and again in 1873, when he was defeated by Gen. John B. Gordon. He was a representative in the 43d-47th congresses, 1873-82; supported the Tilden and Hendricks ticket in 1876, and in the Hayes-Tilden Controversy advocated a disregard of the alleged returns, but did not favor the seating of Tilden by force. He resigned his seat in congress in 1882, having been elected governor of Georgia by 60,000 majority. His health soon failed so as to incapacitate him for official work. He was a trustee of the University of Georgia, 1875-83, and declined the chair of political science and history of that institution in 1868. During his last term as representative in congress he was an intense sufferer, and appeared each day on the floor of the house either on crutches or seated in a wheel chair from which he was unable to rise unaided. He delivered a notable oration on the occasion of the unveiling of Carpenter's painting "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation" at the head of the stairway in the hall of representatives in the National capitol, Feb. 12, 1878. He is the author of: The War Between the States (2 vols., 1867-1870); School History of the United States (1871), and History of the United States (1883). In October, 1900, his name in "Class M, Rulers and Statesmen," received 7 votes for a place in the Hall of Fame, New York University. His greatest speech was delivered on the occasion of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first colonists under Oglethorpe, the founding of Savannah and the birth of the state of Georgia, celebrated in Savannah, Feb. 13, 1883. He died from the exposure incident to this journey, in Atlanta, Ga., March 4, 1883.

The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Volume X. Rossiter Johnson, ed., Boston: The Biographical Society, 1904.

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