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Alexander Hamilton Stephens

1812-1883

SMITH, Ephraim Kirby - Edited Appletons Encyclopedia by Stanley L. Klos, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM



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Alexander Hamilton Stephens

STEPHENS, Alexander Hamilton, statesman, born near Crawfordsville, Georgia, 11 February, 1812; died in Atlanta, Georgia, 4 March, 1883. His grandfather, Alexander, founder of the American branch of the Stephens family, was an Englishman, and an adherent of Prince Charles Edward. He came to this country about 1746, settled in the Penn colony, was engaged in several conflicts with the Indians and in the old French war, serving under Colonel George Washington. His home was at the junction of the Juniata and Susquehanna rivers. He was a captain in the Revolutionary army, and soon after the peace removed to Georgia. Alexander became an orphan at the age of fifteen. Under the charge of his uncle he attracted the attention of Charles C. Mills, a man of means, and after five months at school he was offered a home in Washington, Wilkes County, and a place in the high-school that was taught by the Reverend Alexander Hamilton Webster, pastor of the Presbyterian church, His middle name, Hamilton, was taken from this gentleman. He regarded this charity as a loan, and afterward repaid the full amount. He also accepted the offer of the Presbyterian educational society to send him to college, with a view to the ministry, with the proviso that he was to refund the cost in case of his change of mind, and in any event when he should be able. He entered Franklin college (now the State university) in August, 1828, was graduated in 1832 with the first honor, and subsequently earned money by teaching to pay his indebtedness. At that period of his life he was much given to morbid introspection, which was partly the result of constitutionally delicate health. On 22 July, 1834, after two months' study, he was admitted to the bar, being congratulated by Senator William H. Crawford and Judge Joseph Henry Lumpkin on the best examination they had ever heard. He lived on six dollars a month, and made $400 the first year. Then he began to win reputation, and he soon owned his father's old homestead, , and bought the estate that is now Liberty hall.

In 1836 he was elected to the lower branch of the legislature against bitter opposition because he strove against nullification, while believing in state sovereignty, and opposed vigilance committees and the then common "slicking clubs," the parent of the Ku-Klux Klan. His first speech in the legislature secured the passage of the appropriation for what is now the Western and Atlantic railway from Atlanta to Chattanooga, the property of Georgia. His advocacy secured a charter for the Macon, Georgia, female college, the first in the world for the regular graduation of young women in classics and the sciences. In 1839 he was a delegate to the Charleston commercial convention, and in 1843 he was nominated for congress under the "general-ticket system," there being then no division of the state into congressional districts. He was elected by 3,000 majority. His first speech was in favor of the power of congress to pass an act requiring the states to be divided into congressional districts. He seemed thus to question his own right to sit, as Georgia had not obeyed the law. He won both point and seat. It was, in fact, the entering-wedge of the assertion of the power of the general government to legislate in state domestic affairs, under tile plea of regulating its own organization. On the same principle Mr. Stephens, as senator-elect from Georgia, in 1866, was not allowed to sit, Georgia not having complied with the terms of congress. He advocated the annexation of Texas by legislative resolution as early as 1838-'9, and opposed the John Tyler treaty of 1844, but, with seven other southern Whigs, secured the passage of the Milton-Brown plan of 1845. He bitterly opposed President James K Polk on the Mexican war, but adopted all its results as a godsend of southern territory. In 1848 he had a personal encounter with Judge Cone, of Greensboro, which illustrated the physical courage for which he had been noted from youth--the courage that comes, not from principle or duty, but from utter indifference to consequences. The difficulty grew out of a quarrel on the Clayton compromise of 1848. Cone cut Stephens terribly with a knife and cried : "Now, ---you, retract, or I'll cut your throat." The bleeding, almost dying Stephens said : "Never !--cut," and grasped the swiftly descending knife-blade in his right hand. That hand never again wrote plainly. Few of the witnesses of the affair, which occurred on the piazza of Thompson's hotel, Atlanta, expected him to recover. He did, however, in time to make a speech in favor of Zachary Taylor for the presidency, the carriage being drawn to the stand by the people. In 1850 Mr. Stephens opposed the secession movement at the south, and thought the admission of California as a free state a blessing, as repealing the Missouri restrictions and opening all the remaining territories north and south to slavery He was one of the authors of the "Georgia platform" of 1850. Its first resolve was "that we hold the American Union secondary in importance only to the rights and principles it was designed to perpetuate." On the nominations of Franklin Pierce and General Winfield Scott, at Baltimore, the lines of Whig and Democrat were drawn for the last time. Pierce approved the settlement of 1850 ; Scott did not. Stephens, with Charles G. Faulkner, Walker Brooke, Alexander White, James Abercrombie, Robert Toombs, James Johnson, Christopher H. Williams, and Meredith P. Gentry, killed the Whig party forever by their famous card of 3 July, 1852, giving their reasons for refusing to support General Scott. Stephens wrote it. Daniel Webster was nominated without a party, but died, and Toombs and Stephens voted for him after he was dead. In 1854 Mr. Stephens defended the principles of the Kansas-Nebraska act, as embodying the principle of 1850, "the people of the territories left free to form and regulate their own domestic institutions (including slavery), subject only to the constitution of the United States." In 1859 he retired from congress, and in a farewell speech in Augusta, Georgia, intimated that the only way to get more slaves and settle the territories with slave-holding voters was to reopen the African slave-trade.

Mr. Stephens seemed a bundle of contradictions, but he always acted upon reasons and principles. While a state-rights man, he supported Harrison in 1840. In 1844, though in favor of the acquisition of Texas, he supported Clay, who said it would reopen the slave issue and make war, as it did. In 1845 he voted with the Democratic party in admitting Texas. In 1846 and 1847 he stood with Calhoun and the Whig party upon the Mexican war. His house resolutions in February, 1847, became the basis of the Whig reorganization, and General Zachary Taylor was elected president on the same policy in 1848. In 1850 he differed with Fillmore on policy, as he had with Polk, and approved the compromise of Clay. In 1854 he was with Stephen A. Douglas, and in 1856 aided to elect James Buchanan, his extreme foe. In 1859 he resigned his seat in congress, saying: "I saw there was bound to be a smash-up on the road, and resolved to jump off at the first station." In 1860 he supported Stephen A. Douglas for the presidency against John C. Breckinridge, the professed exponent of state rights, holding that the territorial views of Mr. Douglas were his life-long principles. In 1860 he made a great Union speech, and in 1861 became the vice-president of the Confederacy of seceded states--both times on principle. By 1862 he was as much at issue with Jefferson Davis as he had been with Mr. Lincoln in 1860, and on the same matter--state rights--and he continued to differ to the end. Mr. Stephens, Governor Joseph E. Brown, and General Robert Toombs, one Union man and two of the bitterest of the original secessionists of 1860, formed the head of the Georgia peace party of 1864, and all the three supported by speeches and letters the Linton-Stephens peace, and habeas corpus resolutions passed by the Georgia legislature in that year. In February, 1865, he was at the head of the peace commission on the part of the Confederate government in the Hampton Roads conference. After the downfall of the Confederacy he was arrested and confined for five months in Fort Warren, Boston harbor, as a prisoner of state, but in October, 1865, he was released on his own parole. On 22 February, 1866, he made a strong reconstruction speech and plea for the new freedmen. He had been chosen to the senate by the legislature, but congress ignored the restoration of Georgia to the Union under the presidential proclamation of Andrew Johnson, and he did not take his seat. On 16 April, 1866, he was called to testify before the congressional reconstruction committee. He both testified and spoke on his life-long theme.

In 1867 he published the first volume of his "War between the States." In December, 1868, he was elected professor of political science and history in the University of Georgia, but declined from failing health. He was kept in the house by rheumatism nearly four years. In 1870 he completed the second volume of "The War between the States," but in a more partisan and less hopeful tone than the first volume. Later in the year he conceived the idea of a "School History of the United States," which he carried out (1870-'1). He taught a law class in 1871 as a means of support, and edited and became in part proprietor of the Atlanta "Sun," which was published chiefly to defeat Horace Greeley for the presidency. The enterprise proved financially unsuccessful, and exhausted all the profits of his books. By 5 September, Charles O'Conor had declined the "straight-out" nomination in Louisville, and with that died Mr. Stephens's last hope. He was defeated in his canvass for a seat in the United States senate in November, 1871, but in 1874 was elected to congress. He opposed the civil rights bill in a speech on 5 January, 1874, and the repeal of the increase of salary act. He was re-elected in 1876, and continuously served until his resignation in 1882. In the contest before the electoral commission, on the Hayes-Tilden issue, he advocated going behind the returns and setting aside those of Florida and Louisiana, but opposed all resort to force for seating Mr. Tilden. In January, 1878, he reviewed the question in the "'International Review." On the announcement that Mr. Hayes was elected he advised acquiescence. His speech on the uncovering of the painting, "The Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation," 12 February, brought praise from all quarters. An old admirer proposed to send his crutches to congress after he should cease to be able to go. In 1881-'2 he undertook to write a "History of the United States," which he completed and published just before his death (New York, 1883). It had neither the vigor nor the value of his "War between the States," and was a failure, carrying with it his last bonds, in which he had invested part of the proceeds of his really great life-work. He had received a bad sprain in May, 1882, on the capitol steps, and at the close of the session left Washington forever. In 1882 he was elected governor of Georgia, by 60,000 majority, over General Lucius J. Gartrell, a Confederate officer and lawyer. He worked hard and was an excellent governor. He made his last public speech at the Georgia sesquicentennial celebration in Savannah, 12 February, 1883. --His brother, Linton, jurist, born in Crawfordsville, Georgia, 1 July, 1823; died in Sparta, Georgia, 14 July, 1872, was left an orphan at the age of three years, but his education was eared for by friends, and he was graduated at the University of Georgia in 1843. He then studied law at the University of Virginia and at Harvard, was admitted to the bar in his native state, and, taking an active part in politics, represented the counties of Taliaferro and Hancock in the legislature for several years. In 1858 he was appointed to a vacancy in the supreme court of Georgia, and his decisions, contained in three volumes of the " Georgia Reports" arc characterized by their precision, perspicuity, and power of logic. Judge Stephens was a delegate to the Georgia secession convention in 1861, and opposed that measure, but subsequently proposed a preamble and resolution declaring that the lack of unanimity in the convention was in regard to the proposed remedy and its application before a resort to other means of redress, and not as to alleged grievances. This was adopted, and he signed the ordinance. During the civil war he was a member of the Georgia legislature, where he introduced the peace resolutions of 1864, and vigorously denounced the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus by the Confederate congress. He also served in the army, and attained the rank of colonel. He continued his activity in politics during the reconstruction period, and prior to the presidential canvass of 1872 publicly spoke in favor of the selection of a purely Democratic ticket instead of adopting the candidacy of Horace Greeley.


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