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Harper's Weekly 05/05/1866


There are few public men in the country who
have spoken so plainly, and whose political career
has been so conspicuous, whose real position has yet
been more misunderstood than that of Mr. Ste-
It was long the habit to regard him as a
“national” man as opposed to the school of State
sovereignty; while the plain fact of his whole ca-
reer is that, while Mr. Calhoun's measures were
not always approved by him, Mr. Calhoun's theory
of the Government has never had a more consistent
and determined supporter. Viewing the two great
historical parties of the country as the Northern
and the Southern, the Southern policy has been
steadily defended by him, and with a thousand-fold
more sagacity than by its noisier and more rhetor-
ical chiefs. If the people of Georgia and of the late
slave States had followed Alexander H. Ste-
rather than Robert Toombs and Benjamin
and Davis, the war would have been deferred, but
the character of our Government would have come
much nearer destruction.

Mr. Stephens was born in Taliaferro county,
Georgia, on the 11th of February, 1812. He studied
law and came to the bar in 1834. In 1836 he was
elected to the Lower House of the Georgia Legisla-
ture, and in 1842 to the State Senate. In politics
he was an ardent Whig, and in 1843 was elected to
Congress, where he remained until 1859. In 1844
he supported Henry Clay for the Presidency, al-
though he thought him too lukewarm upon the then
great Southern measure of the annexation of Texas,
and one of the first speeches Mr. Stephens made in
Congress was in favor of that measure. He was
one of the authors of the resolutions for the annexa-
tion, which was peculiarly Mr. Calhoun's measure,
and intended by him to secure his election to the
Presidency; and as it was necessary at that time
for the Southern policy to acknowledge the right of
Congress to legislate upon Slavery in the Territories,
the Missouri Compromise was distinctly recognized
in Mr. Stephens's resolutions. In 1847 Mr. Ste-
introduced resolutions upon the Mexican war
which became the platform of the Whig party, and
by committing it to the Southern policy finally de-
stroyed that party. In 1850 Mr. Stephens support-
ed the compromises which included James M. Ma-
foolish Fugitive Slave bill. In 1854, when the
Southern policy required that Congress should no
longer legislate upon Slavery in the Territories, Mr.
Stephens, as Chairman of the Territorial Commit-
tee in the House, was the chief supporter of the re-
peal of the Missouri Compromise. He blew hot or
cold for “the South” as occasion required. The
Whig party disappeared. The Supreme Court de-
clared the Southern policy to be Constitutional; and
at the close of the 35th Congress, in 1859, Mr. Ste-
declined to be longer a candidate.

Upon his retirement he spoke, in June, 1859, at
Augusta. He reviewed the political movements
of the twenty-three years—nearly a quarter of a
century—during which he had been in political life,
and declared that “we”—meaning “the South”—
had gained the victory in every agitation. “There
is not now,” he said, “a spot of the public territory
of the United States over which the national flag
floats where slavery is excluded by law of Con-
gress; and the highest tribunal of the land has de-
cided that Congress has no power to pass such a
law, nor to grant such power to a Territorial legis-
lature….Wherever climate and soil suit there
slavery can and will go to the extent of popula-
tion.” He cautiously favored the acquisition of
Cuba, and plainly but indirectly advised the re-
opening of the slave-trade. As for the main ques-
tion of Southern policy, that of slavery itself, he
confessed that “the leading public men of the
South, in our early history, were all against it.”
But he said that it was a question “which they
did not, and perhaps could not, thoroughly under-
stand.” But the increasing lights of religion and
science had now shown that not to sustain human
slavery upon religious grounds was “to reverse the
decrees of the Almighty.” This great truth hav-
ing been accepted by the American people, and sol-
emnly proclaimed by the Supreme Court, Mr. Ste-
considered that he might safely cease from
his labors. The country would now advance to a
still more shining prosperity. But that no one
should misapprehend his orthodoxy upon the one
cardinal point of devotion to “the South” he said
that, as matters stood, he saw “no cause of danger
either to the Union or Southern security in it. The
former has always been with me, and ought to be
with you, subordinate to the latter.”

In the Presidential election of 1860 Mr. Ste-
supported Mr. Douglas and Herschel V.
because he was sure that the Southern
policy would be safer under them than with the
probable extravagance of Breckinridge and Lane.
Upon the election of Mr. Lincoln he was openly
opposed to secession for reasons which he stated in
a speech before the Georgia Legislature at Milledge-
ville on the 14th of November, 1860, in reply to an
appeal of Mr. Toombs for secession on the previous
evening. This speech was much quoted at the
time in the Free States as an indication of Union
feeling. But it was simply an argument against
the policy of secession; the right was never denied
by Mr. Stephens. The truth is, that the Milledge-
ville speech states simply the value to “the South”
of a Union which it controlled. The election of Mr.
Lincoln, Mr. Stephens said, did not remove it
from Southern control. The Senate and the House
were opposed to him. If the new President and
his party should attempt to do any thing which
Georgia considered to be unconstitutional, let her
secede. He was first for his State, and then for his
country, and he merely objected to secession as un-
necessary so long as the Union remained as it then
was, under Southern domination. This was Mr.
Stephens's“Union” speech upon the eve of the

When, as probably he foresaw, the counsel of the
immediate secessionists prevailed, Mr. Stephens
was at once elected Provisional Vice-President of the
“Confederacy” for two reasons: first, to propitiate
and secure the Georgia party which agreed with him;
and second, because there was no doubt of his en-
tire devotion to “the South” as against the coun-
try. This was on the 9th of February, 1861. On
the 21st of March he spoke at Savannah. He re-
peated in almost the same words the philosophy of
the speech at Augusta in 1859. He announced that
the “old Union” was based upon liberty and equal
rights, which was “a sandy foundation.” But, he
added, “Our new government is the first in the his-
tory of the world based upon this great physical,
philosophical, and moral truth” that slavery is the
“natural and moral condition” of the African race.
This is “the corner-stone” of the new system. Mr.
Stephens neither concealed nor repudiated in this
speech any of his well-known views. It was en-
tirely harmonious with his whole career.

During the war he was not conspicuous. He
seldom presided in the Richmond Senate, and he
twice essayed to end hostilities by some kind of ne-
gotiation. He probably did not change his opinion
that the attempt at secession was a mistake, and
events, of course, must only have confirmed his
conviction. From May to October of last year Mr.
Stephens was a state prisoner at Fort Warren.
He was then released upon parole, and, returning to
Georgia, secured his election as United States Sen-
ator. On the 22d of February, 1866, he made a
speech to the Legislature recommending acqui-
escence in the situation, and such legislation as
would secure a chance to the freedmen. But still
holding to the right of secession, he also believes
that every State which has tried to secede and fail-
ed is now entitled without delay or condition to re-
sume the exercise of every other right in the Union
—a doctrine which grows naturally out of the old
Southern view of the Government, and which we
have considered in our editorial columns.

[Entered according to Act of Congress, in the Year 1865,
by Harper & Brothers, in the Clerk's Office of the Dis-
trict Court for the Southern District of New York.]

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