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Stephens, Alexander H.

Born: 1812-02-11 Wilkes County, Georgia

Died: 1883-03-04 Atlanta, Georgia

Stephens's parents died when he was young, and he was raised by an uncle, Aaron Grier, in Raytown. Frequently suffering from poor health throughout his life, he graduated from Franklin College first in his class and taught school while studying law. Stephens earned admittance to the bar in 1834 and won election to the Georgia House of Representatives as an anti-Jacksonian in 1836. He remained in the house for five years and served one year in the Georgia Senate. He eventually joined the Whig Party and successfully ran for Congress in 1843. He initially joined his party in opposing the annexation of Texas but later changed his position due to popular opinion in Georgia. Nevertheless, he opposed the Mexican War along with his Whig colleague and friend Abraham Lincoln. During the presidential campaign of 1848, he vigorously campaigned for Zachary Taylor, hoping that he would keep slavery out of the territories. The ensuing Compromise of 1850 forced Stephens to firmly align himself with the South, and he left the Whig Party when Congress refused to pass a law forbidding interference in slavery's expansion or the existence of slavery in the District of Columbia. Nevertheless, he assisted Stephen A. Douglas in passing the final compromise.

Following the Compromise of 1850, Stephen joined with Robert A. Toombs and Howell Cobb to form the Constitutional Union Party in Georgia. In doing so, he developed the Georgia Platform of supporting the Compromise but opposing future interference with slavery anywhere. Constitutional Unionists soon took control of the Georgia General Assembly and the governorship. The party proved fragile, however, and Stephens remained a loosely-affiliated Whig, trying to prevent the Whigs' seeming decline in the early 1850s. When the Whig Party finally collapsed, Stephens joined the Democrats. He was a key player in securing passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and became one of the most vocal supporters of the Lecompton Constitution. He retired from politics in 1859, believing state's rights had been preserved.

Following Lincoln's election, Stephens opposed secession, arguing that slavery was better preserved within the Union. Nevertheless, when Georgia seceded, Stephens served as a delegate to the Confederate constitutional convention and was a key advocate for making the new document so closely resemble the U.S. Constitution. He then agreed to serve as the Confederate vice president and remained in that office for the duration of the Civil War. One of Stephens's first acts was his famous "cornerstone speech" in which he clearly stated that the preservation of slavery was the foundation of the Confederate government. He opposed many of Jefferson Davis's war policies and was soon relegated to symbolic status in the administration. Stephens eventually decided to leave Richmond, Virginia, and spent most of the war at his home in Crawfordville, Georgia. He engaged in two different peace missions to the North--one in 1863 and the other in 1865--but both failed.

Michael Perman, "Stephens, Alexander Hamilton," American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 20:658-61.