- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

Overlooked and relegated to historical obscurity, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia was one of the most influential men of his time, earning the respect of friends and opponents both North and South.

Often at odds with the Confederate administration of which he was a part, Stephens stubbornly charted an independent course that might have changed the direction of the war had he been in the position of his soon-to-be archrival, Jefferson Davis, as president of the Confederate states. As events actually occurred, Stephens was ignored, marginalized, and then used by the Davis administration, sometimes even to further Davis’ personal political ends. By Stephens’ own admission, he was unable to do anything significant to change the ultimate fate of the fledgling republic.

Stephens was born on Feb. 11, 1812, in Wilkes County, Ga., to a farming family of modest means. “Little Aleck” was assigned the less physically taxing chores due to his diminutive stature and constant tendency toward sickness. Those around Stephens immediately noticed his bouts with depression, although young Aleck distracted himself with an avid interest in learning to read, and later, acquiring a formal education. After losing his parents early in life, he increasingly turned to his intellectual life as a means of compensating for personal loss and a nagging tendency toward melancholy.

“Life to me seems but little of good,” he wrote despondently as a young man. He would write similar words during many episodes in his long life.

Libertarian spirit

Stephens benefited from the support of other family and friends and successfully completed his early education at an academy in Washington, Ga. After this, he pursued higher education at Franklin College in Athens, Ga., which later became the University of Georgia. He then entered the practice of law in his hometown of Crawfordsville, Ga. Always strong-willed and tenacious, Stephens methodically built a successful legal practice. A few years later, he was able to purchase family lands and build his own home, Liberty Hall.

Stephens had studied the Constitution closely since his teenage years and held to the libertarian spirit of the Founding Fathers with great reverence as he practiced his legal trade. When he later decided to enter the fractious landscape of Georgia politics, he already had strong conservative beliefs that would transcend party lines, personal relationships and sometimes even trump his own personal religious beliefs. Very seldom during his long and varied political career would opponents accuse Alexander Stephens of not having principles.

After serving successfully in the Georgia legislature, Stephens was elected to Congress and served in the House of Representatives for 19 years prior to the start of the Civil War. He was involved in the prewar controversies that students of history are familiar with: the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott case, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and all of the other problems associated with the admission of Texas and westward expansion.

Stephens, a conservative Whig during this period, was consistently a constitutional libertarian rather than an unadulterated states’ rights advocate, and he openly opposed secession in 1860, predicting it would lead to disaster. On the other hand, he saw Northern aggression against Southern interests as undermining the principles set forth in the original union of states. Once secession was a fait accompli, he framed the coming war as a conflict to preserve original constitutional liberties and state autonomy.

Reluctance to serve

After secession, the Confederate government began organizing in early 1861 in Montgomery, Ala., and Stephens traveled there as a Georgia delegate. Although he was urged to run for president of the newly formed Confederacy, he repeatedly demurred. Ironically, his reluctance to serve as president resulted in the nomination of Jefferson Davis, a man he would soon view with grave misgivings. Observers then and now believe that Stephens would have easily won the head position had he sought it, and there is little doubt that it would have changed the course of the war had he been president.

Stephens and Davis were somewhat different in temperament and political outlook. Stephens was a lawyer, lawmaker and farmer. Davis was touched with an air of aristocracy, a West Point graduate who wanted more than anything to assume a military role and lead the Confederate armies to victory.

Stephens remained a conservative, even after his conversion to the Southern Democratic Party and adoption by ardent states rights’ advocates. Davis, on the other hand, was more of a fire-eater, very much consumed by and ready to sacrifice anything for the success of the Confederate cause.

Some biographers, such as Thomas E. Schott, have claimed that the two men feuded because they were too much alike — proud, vain and argumentative. However, there is no dispute about the fact that they supported very different means to reach the goal of independence.

A new constitution

After Stephens was nominated for the position of vice president, he agreed to serve in the post only because he felt a sense of duty to the cause of constitutionalism. He saw a great need for leaders to serve in the new republic as watchdogs against the tyranny of federalism. He was sometimes called the Great Commoner, a man who never forgot about the ordinary farmers and merchants in his district.

To the extent that the Southern states were fighting Northern constitutional despotism and that secession could not be undone, he saw no reasonable alternative to the Confederate government, but he was not happy about the turn of events. Stephens, who always had opinions and passion to go along with his intellectual abilities, immediately threw himself into writing the new Confederate constitution, which he considered a modest improvement over the original U.S. document.

He soon found himself at odds with the two most important entities linked to his office — the Confederate chief executive (Davis) and the Confederate Senate, for which the vice president served as speaker and could cast tie-breaking votes.

In his eagerness to win the war, Davis embraced controversial measures such as conscription, imposition of martial law, withholding the cotton crop to pressure European powers to recognize the South, and heavy taxation to support the military machine. He engineered and proposed numerous suspensions of the writ of habeas corpus (as did his opposing executive officer, Abraham Lincoln).

Stephens, ever the constitutionalist and libertarian, was not just politically opposed to Davis on almost all of these issues, but fervently and philosophically in conflict with them.

Chronic despair

As if the conflict with Davis were not enough, Stephens also had to battle with opposition in the Confederate Senate over which he presided. At one point in late 1864, when prominent senators refused to hear yet another Stephens attack on Davis’ proposed suspension of habeas corpus, the entire Senate rebelled and muzzled the vice president with a change of rules.

Livid, embarrassed and stubborn, he immediately set about resigning his post. Friends soon talked him out of it, but as a result of the constant frustrations, he fell into another of the chronic despairs that he suffered numerous times during the course of the war. Usually, when the melancholy struck, he retreated home to Crawfordsville and remained silent to the public.

Even when silent, however, Stephens was a powerful figure. Opponents of Davis were constantly prowling for opportunities to unseat the president, and Stephens was innocently drawn into what could have become a stunning conspiracy.

“It seems to me the case [of Davis] calls loudly for a Brutus,” Stephens’ brother Linton wrote angrily.

“What if Davis were to die?” one of Stephens’ powerful friends inquired, in so many words. “What would you do if the responsibility fell to you?”

Stephens replied without thinking. He would end the impressments of soldiers, send the wounded home, pay fair prices for military goods purchased from civilians and, as always, would be open to negotiation for peace. (Davis remained more militant and demanded Confederate independence as a precondition for talks.)

Stephens abruptly realized the enormous implications of the conversations in which he was participating and aborted them.

Peace party

The enemies of Davis, including Gov. Joe Brown of Georgia, were not so easily put off. Stephens was an active member of the loosely organized Southern peace party, and, in fact, many considered him the titular head. At the very least, he was one of the most powerful and polished spokesmen for the cause of a negotiated settlement.

He saw war as a necessary evil, but was appalled by the human cost as it dragged on year after year and worried equally that the despotic Confederate government was willing to sacrifice every individual and collective liberty in the prosecution of the war. Perhaps naively, he believed that men in the South would serve more willingly and fully if they were not compelled by the oppression of conscription.

“[He felt] he knew the heart of these people,” biographer Schott wrote, referring not just to Georgians in his district, but to the common man everywhere in the South. Davis, in Stephens’ humble opinion, seriously misunderstood the common man and abused him in the name of the cause. Davis’ war was particularly unpopular in Georgia, and Brown and others joined Stephens in stirring up dissent.

Davis largely ignored Stephens’ peace talk, and for most of 1863 an uneasy but peaceful coexistence between the two unfolded. Later in the war, however, when the military and economic situations were desperate, Davis suddenly appeared to soften his stance on peace. When approached by Francis P. Blair, a friend and confidant of Abraham Lincoln’s, in January 1865 about possible negotiations with the Lincoln administration, Davis called on Stephens to travel north with a small party to meet in person with Lincoln.

Stephens was at first intrigued, but gradually began to feel suspicious about Davis’ genuine commitment to the process. He was fully aware that Davis had no interest in compromising on the issue of Southern independence.

Peace negotiations

The Hampton Roads Conference that took place on Feb. 3, 1865, was a unique meeting in many respects. It reunited two old congressional friends, Lincoln and Stephens, under very peculiar circumstances. The meeting took place aboard a Union ship near Fortress Monroe and would not have occurred at all had it not been for the persistent facilitation and support of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his staff.Despite being mired in the siege of Petersburg, Gen. Grant and his staff politely hosted Stephens’ party and then unraveled several bureaucratic obstacles to pass the group safely through the lines.

Once there, Lincoln gently teased Stephens about his very small stature as Stephens removed a large overcoat, and then the two talked briefly of old times. Soon, however, it became apparent there would be no negotiation. Lincoln would not budge on the question of union. Stephens knew he could not compromise on Southern independence, even were he willing.

On the topic of slavery, Secretary of State William Seward suggested that Georgia troops lay down their arms, rejoin the Union, and then in conjunction with other reunited Southern states, block the nascent 13th Amendment in Congress that would soon abolish slavery. Lincoln rejected this idea — slavery was going to be dead either way.

In the end, the conference accomplished little of importance, and Stephens returned home more jaded than ever. In Richmond, President Davis (who likely knew the mission would fail) saw his flagging popularity suddenly boosted, and a brief flicker of new life was breathed into the foundering Confederate cause. For die-hard Confederates, the only option left was to fight to the death.

Some accused Davis of manipulating Stephens and the peace process to shore up flagging support for the war. Stephens did little to contradict such rumors. Mr. Schott and other historians maintain that Stephens may have done more harm than good to the Confederate cause by continually locking horns with Davis. Stephens, however, never compromised on his principles, even in the midst of war, destruction and failed revolution, and in one sense saw the outcome of the war as secondary to the preservation of liberty.

Prison thoughts

Stephens never did recover his elusive optimism and was captured in Crawfordsville on May 11, 1865, a few weeks after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. He was sent to a Federal prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

Although treated reasonably well, Stephens languished there, ruminating over the course his life had taken and the uncertainties of the future. There were even rumors that members of the Davis administration would have to stand trial for treason. He also believed that the war had permanently eroded the nature of the Constitution, regardless of what Reconstruction could accomplish, and that further depressed him.

After his release, Stephens slowly recovered his interest in politics. Georgia, like other Southern states, was a contentious postwar mixture of former Confederates, newly enfranchised blacks, and Union occupation officials, all of whom, in theory, had to work in cooperation to restore some degree of obedience to the Federal government. Stephens, famous for his “Corner Stone” speech that defended slavery, and until the end of the war an owner of dozens of slaves himself, was actually a moderate on the issue of race, and he surprisingly defended some newly gained rights for blacks.

Other more powerful forces, however, were soon in control in postwar Georgia. Stephens was elected to the U.S. Senate by an unreconstructed Georgia legislature, but Congress refused to seat him.

Governor’s mansion

When events settled down a few years later and Georgia was readmitted to the Union, Stephens was elected to Congress as a representative from his old district. Then, in 1882, he was elected governor of Georgia. Although quickly aging, Stephens remained stubborn and principled.

He symbolized much that Georgians could be proud of, even after the destruction and humiliation of military defeat. “He kept the mansion open for anyone who needed something to eat or a place to stay,” Mr. Schott noted. After five months as governor, his health began to deteriorate, and those around him knew his time had nearly come. On March 4, 1883, he died. The turnout for his funeral was one of the largest in Georgia history.

Stephens is most remembered for his long term in Congress and for being the man who almost was president of the Confederacy. However, Stephens, were he able to speak for himself, would likely maintain with stubborn consistency that his most important work was as champion of the common man and advocate for constitutional liberty. In a nation that values freedom, Stephens was an important contributor.

Jack Trammell teaches and administers at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. He can be reached at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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