Georgia congressman was outspoken on states' rights

Library Of Congress/AP Photo
Stephens

Alexander Stephens was a sickly man of average height, who never weighed more than 100 pounds in his lifetime. But there's no questioning his stature in Georgia and U.S. history.

Born Feb. 11, 1812, near Crawfordville, Stephens' frail condition as a boy led him to choose a life of books over farm work.

He had scarcely started his career as a lawyer before he was elected to the state Legislature in 1836.

His reputation as a fiery orator followed him to Congress, where he served for 16 years, beginning in 1843.

The divisive issue of slavery and states' rights featured prominently in politics at the time and Stephens didn't shy away from the fray.

As a U.S. representative, he was instrumental in passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave the states' citizens the right to choose their position on slavery.

The fuse was lit on the powder keg with Abraham Lincoln's election as president in 1860. Stephens strongly supported Lincoln's opponent, Stephen Douglas, and, like many Southerners, viewed Lincoln's ascension to the White House as a threat to his way of life.

Unlike many of his counterparts, Stephens worked hard behind the scenes to avoid secession. When it became clear that secession was inevitable, however, he threw his full support behind it.

Stephens was a representative of the Provisional Congress in Montgomery, Ala., in 1861 and subsequently elected vice president of the Confederacy.

Stephens declared that the republic's new charter negates: "the idea which so many have been active in endeavoring to put in the form of history, that the convention at Montgomery was nothing but a set of 'conspirators.' "

As second-in-command, Stephens was closely involved with early negotiations with Washington for peace. He was said to be in agreement with President Jefferson Davis, who told the Confederate Congress in April 1861: "We seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concessions from the free States. All we ask is to be let alone."

Stephens expressed similar sentiments throughout the war in speeches designed to boost the morale of the people.

He cast the liability of the "unjust" war on Washington for "invading" the Southern states.

Stephens and Lincoln, friends from before the war, carried on several negotiations through the war for peace, even as late as Feb. 3, 1865.

A month after the surrender at Appomattox in April, Stephens was arrested for his role in the war.

He was paroled after five months at Fort Warren and by early the next year elected as a U.S. senator.

His seat was initially refused however, because Congress viewed Georgia as a state out of the Union, Lincoln's proclamation of restoration notwithstanding.

He took his seat at the formal end of Reconstruction in 1877 and served until he was elected Georgia's governor in 1882. He died in office the next year on March 4, 1883.

Confederate soldier still stands tall
The series

As 150th anniversary observations of Civil War history begin next week, The Augusta Chronicle looks back on our city's role in and connections to war.

MONDAY: Berry Benson, of Hamburg, S.C., is the model for the anonymous soldier atop Augusta's Confederate Monument.

TODAY: Alexander Stephens, of Crawfordville, Ga., served as vice president of the Confederacy.

WEDNESDAY: Robert Toombs, of Washington, Ga., led troops into the battle at Antietam.

THURSDAY: The Battle of Aiken kept the city out of Union Gen. William T. Sherman's hands.

FRIDAY: Archeologists have unearthed artifacts of one of the largest Confederate prisons in Millen, Ga.

SATURDAY: Augusta's Confederate Powder Works produced millions of pounds of gunpowder.

SUNDAY: Two seminal figures on their path to Civil War legend made stops in Augusta.

Sources for this story:

http://www.impeach-andrewjohnson.com/11biographieskeyindividuals/alexanderstephens.htm

http://blueandgraytrail.com/event/Alexander_Stephens

civilwarhome.com/stephens