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Alexander H Stephens and the ConfederacyResearch Paper

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Alexander H. Stephens: Before and After the Confederacy

Born and raised in Georgia, Alexander Stephens is perhaps most notoriously known for his 1861 Cornerstone Speech, in which he asserted "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."[footnoteRef:1] In spite of this decidedly racist viewpoint, Stephens combined within his character a talent for the law and a flare for defending the Constitution. He often criticized the Davis Administration throughout the war for its lack of military tactical skill and its violation of the people's rights (for example, when Davis suspended habeas corpus). Stephens represented more than just the Southern perspective on race and slavery: he also represented a sense of law and social order, hierarchy, justice and peace (which he attempted to pursue towards the end of the Civil War). At heart, he was a Unionist in the South, who felt compelled to represent the Confederacy in order to defend states' rights against the Northern laws codified against the Fugitive Slave Law and the people's right to decide for themselves whether or not slavery should be lawful in the West. Stephens actually voted against secession -- though he acknowledged the state's right to secede. Voted to the Vice Presidency of the Confederacy, Stephens accepted -- whereupon he made clear his stance towards race and social rule. At the same time, he remained a friend of the Union President Abraham Lincoln, with whom he had been a Whig prior to the Civil War. After the war, Stephens continued in politics for many years. This paper will explore and show the complexities of Stephens's character both before and after the Confederacy. [1: Alexander H. Stehpens, "Cornerstone Speech." Modern History Sourcebook: Fordham University. Web. 29 Nov 2015.]

In the regard that he advocated states' rights over a strong, central government, Alexander Hamilton Stephens was rather ironically named (Hamilton, the Founding Father, had been a strong centralist). Stephens had actually adopted the middle name of Hamilton out of respect for a teacher and patron who had that middle name -- not out of love for the writer of the Federalist Papers.[footnoteRef:2] It was not that Stephens needed the appellate to signify his own dignity of person; he was a noted for being an exceptional lawyer, and his political life was active and fruitful. [2: "Timeline." Alexander Hamilton Stephens Papers. Library of Congress. Web. 29 Nov 2015.]

Prior to the Civil War, Stephens was a U.S. Congressman, having been elected to the House of Representatives in 1843 when he ran on the Whig platform. He continued to be elected as a Whig three successive times until 1851 when he ran and won as a Unionist -- a point that underlines his devotion to the Union (which will be analyzed in more detail in the succeeding pages). He ran once more as a Whig in 1853 before switching to the Democratic Party in 1855.

Stephens took a major role in many of the leading issues in the years leading up to the Civil War (which is why he was a clear choice when it came time for the South to pick its governmental leaders). He had favored annexing Texas in his second term as Whig in the early days of his public service, yet he spoke out fiercely against the Mexican-American War, stating that it had been initiated by President Polk as an act of aggression towards Mexico and represented a "wanton outrage upon the Constitution."[footnoteRef:3] Abraham Lincoln, then a new Congressman himself, gave a similar speech -- his famous Spot Resolution, in which he challenged Polk to mark the spot on American soil where American blood had been shed to justify the aggression. Lincoln would later go on to praise the speech of his fellow Whig, Alexander Stephens, in a letter to his colleague in law, William Herndon: "I just take up my pen to say, that Mr. Stephens of Georgia, a little slim pale faced consumptive man, with a voice like Logan's, has just concluded the very best speech, of an hour's length, I ever heard. My old, withered, dry eyes are full of tears yet. If he writes it out any thing like he delivered it, our people shall see a good many copies of it."[footnoteRef:4] While Lincoln and Stephens thus agreed on this point, as well as on the righteousness of supporting Zachary Taylor for president, they differed when it came to the idea of slavery. Lincoln viewed Stephens with fondness at the time, though as the 1860 election neared, his views changed, as he began to suspect that all Southern Representatives were too caught up in the pro-slavery position. Stephens, likewise, grew critical of Lincoln after the latter's abuse of his Constitutional powers during the Civil War, portraying in his letters the dead president "as a combination of Caesar, Danton and Robespierre."[footnoteRef:5] When all was said and done, Stephens was a man for whom the Constitution was as near to a sacred document as one could get without being directly given to men by God. As the supreme law of the land, he felt it was unconscionable for anyone to usurp its authority and assume powers for themselves that they were not given by the Constitution. [3: Thomas E. Schott, Alexander Hamilton Stephens: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 81.] [4: Abraham Lincoln, "Autographed Letter Signed ("A. Lincoln"), as Congressman, 1 page, oblong octavo, Washington, February 2, 1848. To his friend and law partner, William H. Herndon." Shapell. Web. 29 Nov 2015.] [5: "Abraham Lincoln Praises Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, in 1848." Shapell. Web. 29 Nov 2015.]

From this standpoint, Stephens' defense of slavery was based mainly on the law as it was written in the Constitution (though he clearly viewed blacks as racially inferior to whites). He was pro-slavery mainly because the Constitution did not forbid and therefore no one had the right to ban it unless it an amendment was passed. Thus, in his early days as a career politician, he showed only moderate support for the institution. It was only when the institution began to come under serious fire that he sided with the Southerners who saw this fire as both an assault on the social order of the South and as an assault on their Constitutional rights. Indeed, after the war, Stephens would publish from 1868 to 1870 a work entitled Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, indicating that the only proper way to look at the Civil War and the rise of the Confederacy was through the lens of the Constitution.[footnoteRef:6] It was the Constitution which limited the rights of the federal government, and it was this same Constitution that both kept the Union together and allowed it to be dissolved. Thus, this Constitution was the most important aspect of the war -- and being a lawyer by trade, Stephens was well-prepared to argue the case and present the facts. [6: "Timeline." Alexander Hamilton Stephens Papers. Library of Congress. Web. 29 Nov 2015.]

Yet, why then did Stephens vote against secession? The reason is clear: he did not believe that the threat to the states' right to uphold slavery was as serious as all the invective being delivered in the public presses, etc. He saw no real legal challenge coming down the line and stated as much to Congress and to his fellow Southerners. He believed secession to be too rash and too ill-advised. Thus, his Unionism came to the fore and he urged Southerners to cleave even still to the Union. He viewed the craft as still sea-worthy; though it had sprung a few leaks, it was nothing that could not be patched. He maintained all of this at the Georgia Secession Convention in 1861 and even in the year prior. He pointed out that the Party of Lincoln was still only but a minority in Congress and that being the case there would be no Republican amendments to the Constitution. Compromise would be the order of the day, as it had been for years on end. The Dred Scott Decision, moreover, which held that blacks were not American citizens and had no right to sue the government, regardless of whether they were freemen or slaves, was not going away anytime soon, as an overwhelming majority of members of the Supreme Court had voted in its favor. Reversing it would require new appointments to the Court and this would not happen anytime soon, either. Thus, Stephens urged restraint -- though he admitted that on a Constitutional ground, the states did have the right to secede.

Secede they did, and they voted Stephens to the Vice-Presidency of the Confederacy. From the get-go, he clashed with President Davis, who he considered all too rash in giving Lincoln what he wanted at Ft. Sumter -- a fight -- and a reason to launch an all-out war, for which the South was not yet well… [END OF PREVIEW]

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