In the back of virtually every American History textbook you will find a list of American Presidents and Vice Presidents. But there is one American Vice President not included in those lists. He is Alexander Stephens, our other American Vice President. You see, he was never a Vice President of the United States. He was the one and only Vice President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
Alexander Stephens was born on February 11, 1812 near Crawfordville, in Taliaferro County, which was then part of Wilkes County, Georgia. He attended both public and private schools, and graduated from the University of Georgia at Athens in 1832. Alexander Stephens was very small and extremely frail. He never weighed over 100 pounds in his life, and suffered constant disease and depression. He had an ever-present pallor and was considered near death several times during his lifetime. His surprisingly small stature led to his nickname of “Little Ellick” by his colleagues. He had originally studied for the ministry, but never completed that study. He taught school for eighteen months, but the students were not kind to this short, frail man. He then studied law, and was admitted to the Georgia bar in 1834.
Stephens gained a reputation for his tremendous intellect, and quickly rose through the ranks of politics. One of his congressional colleagues once said that Stephens “carried more brains and more soul for the least flesh than any other man God Almighty ever made.” He was a member of the Georgia House of Representatives for six terms, from 1836-1841 and was elected to the Georgia Senate in 1842. While in the legislature, he opposed “vigilance committees” and “slicking clubs” which were the forerunner of the Ku Klux Klan.
Later in 1842, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in the Twenty-eighth Congress to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Mark A. Cooper. He was re-elected as a Whig to the Twenty-ninth through the Thirty-first Congresses, as a Unionist to the Thirty-second Congress, and as a Democrat to the Thirty-fourth and Thirty-fifth Congresses. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from October 2, 1843 until March 3, 1859. He held several key posts in Congress, including Chairman of the Committee on Territories. He did not run for re-election in 1858.
During one campaign for Congress, Stephens was running against a huge hulk of a man named Judge Colquitt. During one debate, Judge Colquitt, who did not take Stephens very seriously, said with obvious contempt for Stephens’ size, “Why you little shrimp! I could swallow you whole and never know the difference!” Stephens immediately shot back, “If you did, there would be more brains in your belly than you ever had in your head!” Another version of the story has it happening during a heated exchange in Congress a short while later.
In spite of his size and frail health, Stephens never backed down from a confrontation. During his first term or two, he challenged fellow representatives from Alabama and Georgia to duels. He also challenged a fellow Whig, Benjamin Hill, to a duel. Hill had accused Stephens of being a “Judas Iscariot to his party” for his continued support of slavery. Hill declined the invitation to fight saying, “It might be some satisfaction to you to shoot at me, though I should entertain no great fear of being hit, but I might possibly kill you, and though you may not consider your life valuable, to take it would be a great annoyance to me afterward.” Stephens would not drop the challenge and said that Hill was “not only an impudent braggart but a despicable poltroon besides.” Hill still refused to fight, saying, “I have a soul to save and a family to support, and you have neither.”
In another exchange, Stephens is said to have yelled, “My opponent is not fit to carry swill to swine!” There were immediate calls of “Order! Order!” from other Congressmen as personal insults were against the rules. Called upon by the Speaker to apologize, Stephens said meekly, “Mr. Speaker, I do apologize. My opponent is absolutely fit for the duty to which I referred!”
While in Congress, Stephens supported the annexation of Texas, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Although he defended slavery and favored its extension into all territories, he opposed the dissolution of the Union. As a delegate to the Georgia Convention of 1861, he voted against secession. However, once decided, he accepted the decision and served as a delegate from Georgia to the convention in Montgomery that created the Confederacy. That convention elected him provisional Vice President of the Confederacy, and he was later elected the first Vice President of the Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis as President.
As Vice President, Stephens consistently opposed the policies of President Davis, and not surprisingly played little role in the Davis administration. He objected publicly to the conscription and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. In a speech early in the war, Stephens declared that slavery would become the “cornerstone in our new edifice” of the Confederacy. This was in direct contrast to Davis’ policy that the war was about states rights and not slavery. Unfortunately for the Confederate cause, this admission that slavery was the main issue in the war hindered foreign governments from recognizing or aiding the Confederacy for fear of angering their citizens who were against slavery.
Stephens was also an early advocate of making peace, and led the Confederate delegation to the Hampton Roads Peace Conference in February 1865. There he met with President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward. The Peace Conference was unsuccessful. Stephens and the other Confederate delegates hoped for peace for the “two countries” but Lincoln demanded complete surrender and re-union. In April of that year, after the collapse of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War, Stephens was arrested and held prisoner for almost six months in Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. After he was released he returned to his home in Georgia.
In 1866, Stephens was elected by Georgia to the U.S. Senate, but never took his seat. The Senate refused to seat any of the newly elected southern members of Congress because their states had not been properly “reconstructed” according to the Congressional guidelines. Stephens returned to Georgia and began to rebuild his fortune, which had been lost during the war. He wrote his first book, “A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States,” from 1867-1870. It is still considered the ablest defense of states rights and the right of secession. Through this and other books he wrote, he restored his financial wealth.
In 1872, he was again elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia. He served from 1873 until he resigned in 1882 when he was elected Governor of Georgia. He only served as governor for a few months, dying in Atlanta on March 4, 1883. In spite of a lifetime of being the very picture of poor health, Stephens lived to be 71 years old.
A colleague once remarked that Stephens’ ego was so large that “he won’t be satisfied until he corrects the proofs of his own obituary.” Stephens got the opportunity to do just that. The Atlanta Constitution prepared an obituary one of the times Stephens was reported to by very near death with only a very short time to live. When Stephens recovered, the editor sent the obit to him and asked him to edit the piece. Stephens cheerfully edited the article and returned it to the newspaper office.
One of our more colorful political leaders, Stephens is all but forgotten in the history books. To be the most forgotten of that forgotten class, Vice Presidents, is quite an achievement. But this dynamic intellect and personality, always true to his beliefs regardless of the consequences, deserves to be remembered for his courage and conviction, if nothing else.
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