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Alexander Hamilton Stephens (February 11, 1812 – March 4, 1883) was an American politician from Georgia. He was President of the Confederate States of America immediately following the American Civil War. He also served as a U.S. Representative from Georgia before the Civil War and as the 50th Governor of Georgia from 1882 until his death in 1883.
Early Life and Career
Born Alexander Stephens to Andrew and Margaret Stephens in Crawfordville, Georgia, Stephens grew up poor. But thanks to the generosity of Rev. Alexander Hamilton Webster, a Presbyterian minister, he was educated at Franklin College (later the University of Georgia), where he graduated at the top of his class in 1832. He went on to study law on his own, being admitted to the bar in 1834.
Stephens was a very successful lawyer and land owner in his native Taliaferro County, becoming wealthy and subsequently generous with that wealth. Though a sickly man, weighing only 96 pounds, his intellect and strength of character gained him the compliment from a northern newspaper as "the strongest man in the south." He was known as an able defender of the falsely accused, and generous to a fault with his home and wealth.
Early on, Stephens gained the respect of his fellow Georgians, being first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1836 and then the Georgia Senate in 1842. In 1843, he resigned the State Senate when he was elected in a special election to fill a vacant seat in the US House of Representatives.
n 1843, Stephens was elected U.S. Representative as a Whig, in a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Mark A. Cooper. This seat was an at-large seat, as Georgia did not have House districts until 1844. In 1844, 1846, and 1848, Stephens was re-elected Representative from the 7th District as a Whig. In 1851 he was re-elected as a Unionist, in 1853 as a Whig (from the 8th District), and in 1855 and 1857 as a Democrat. He served from October 2, 1843 to March 3, 1859, in the 28th Congress through the 35th Congress.
As a national lawmaker during the crucial two decades before the Civil War, Stephens was involved in all the major sectional battles. He began as a moderate defender of slavery, but later accepted all of the prevailing Southern rationales used to defend the institution.
Elected as a Whig, Stephens was instrumental in the creation of the Constitutional Unionist party in Georgia in 1850. The party replaced the Whig party in the 1850 congressional elections, and he fought hard to save the party before it dissolved in 1851. A Whig once more, he fought for the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which proved the undoing of the Whig party. Elected as a Democrat in 1854, he became a rising voice of sanity from the south. Leaving office in 1859, he worked for the election of Stephen Douglas in the 1860 presidential campaign. When elected a member of the convention to decide on secession, he voiced his objections, likening the national union as a leaking ship that only needed mending.
National politics in the Confederacy
In spite his opposition to secession, Stephens was selected by the Congress of the Confederacy to be the vice president of the provisional government, being sworn into office on February 11, 1861 (his 49th birthday). The President, Jefferson Davis, was to be sworn in February 18th, meaning Stephens would be the longest serving executive in Confederate history. The Constitution would establish the date of March 4th as inauguration day after standard election. Elected to fill the same post, he would serve along side Davis during the whole active war against the US. He would, though, be a constant voice for peace from his office in Richmond and on more than one occasion in Washington.
On February 3, 1865, he was one of three Confederate commissioners who met with Lincoln on the steamer River Queen at the Hampton Roads Conference, to discuss measures to bring an end to the war. Lincoln had predetermined that no agreement short of a restoration of the union with the abolition of slavery would be reached. The report from that conference would result in a covert operation to assassinate the US president. This was to be a shock to Stephens, though he suspected that Davis may have known of the plan.
In spite of the tension between Stephens and Davis, the president supported his vice president as the best man to heal the nation after the ceasefire in 1866. The opposition was futile in November of that year as Stephens' reputation preceded him. In 1868, his vice president, Gen. Robert E. Lee, made a passionate plea for the abolition of slavery in the Confederacy. Stephens had been a staunch supporter of the institution, but understood the plight of the slave, having defended many of them in court in the years before the war.
The primary accomplishment of the Stephens' administration though, was the attempted liberation of Cuba from the domination of Spain. As word from refugees reaching Key West and mainland Florida, Stephens ordered the Confederate Navy to blockade the island in November of 1868, just weeks after the "10th of October Manifesto" that declared independence from Spain. With the recognition of the rebellion, the Confederacy was embroiled in an unpopular war that was costing the Confederacy lives and money they could not afford. Near the end of his administration Stephens would have to withdraw the Confederate forces to defend the border with Mexico due to that country's political unrest.
After leaving office, Stephens was appointed to be Ambassador to Mexico in 1874. Being recalled after the coupe in 1876, he would be sent to Cuba in an attempt to mend the broken relations with Spain. Having little success in that venture, he would return to Georgia for a slight reprieve from public service.
Governor of Georgia
In a move unusual for a former President, Stephens would run for governor of his home state. He would be elected and serve from the capital at Milledgeville from 1878 until his death in 1883.
In his first term, He would oversee the plans to move the capital to the modern city of Atlanta, which had suffered damage in Sherman's attempts to disrupt the economy of the Confederacy in the "Scorched Earth" policy on 1865. Confederate forces had brought that campaign to an end in the Battle of Atlanta. US President Lincoln had withdrawn all forces to the border soon after that. By the end of 1880, the foundation of the new capitol building had been lain. 1881 would see the International Cotton Exposition would draw attention to the vital textile industry. Mechanization had largely reduced the need for slave labor, promoting the late Vice President Lee's dream for emancipation of slaves.
After being re-elected in November of 1882, he would be injured in an accident on his estate in Taliaferro County, dying of complications on March 4, 1883. At his death, James S. Boynton, president of the Georgia senate, became governor until a special election could be held.