Alexander Stephens was born in Wilkes County, Georgia. One of the great orators of his day, he would play a pivotal role in many of the political crises of his time, including the Civil War. Ironically, while personally opposed to slavery (calling it “that abominable human tragedy”), Stephens was also an ardent supporter of states’ rights—which led him to defend slavery when other politicians attacked the institution.
After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1832, Stephens set up a successful law practice, but soon became interested in politics. In 1836 he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, then to the Georgia Senate in 1842, then to the U.S. Congress in 1843. There, he worked with Henry Clay to fashion compromises as contention grew between slave and free states. Stephens played a key role in passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854. Speaking at Georgia’s secession convention after the election of Abraham Lincoln (a personal friend of Stephens), Stephens argued vehemently against secession, pointing out that no actual violations of states’ rights had yet occurred. But when it became apparent that Georgia would secede, Stephens joined his colleagues in signing the Ordinance of Secession.
Stephens was also chosen a delegate to the convention forming the new Confederate government in Montgomery, Alabama. He assisted fellow Georgian T.R.R. Cobb in drafting the provisional Confederate Constitution, and also was elected Vice-President of the Confederacy. Early in the war, Stephens was an enthusiastic supporter of the new government—but eventually he became concerned over President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government’s actions in conscripting troops and declaring martial law. Stephens joined Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown in arguing that such acts violated the very states’ rights that the war was being fought to protect. Near the end of the Civil War, Stephens was arrested and imprisoned for four months (but was never indicted).
After the war, Stephens was reelected to Congress—but in 1866 he and other Georgia members were refused their seats. During his absence from political office, Stephens authored a two volume work—A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. In 1872, Stephens ran for the U.S. Senate, but was defeated by ex-Confederate general John B. Gordon. Within a month, he successfully ran for the U.S. House. But, he was now in declining health, confined to crutches or a wheelchair. Unable to tend to much of his congressional responsibilities, Stephens retired from Congress in 1882. Returning to Georgia, he found Georgia Democrats bitterly divided. His party now pleaded with him to be their candidate for governor and help unify the party. Reluctantly, Stephens agreed. He easily won the election, but served for only four months before dying in Atlanta on March 4, 1883. In 1905, the General Assembly created a new county and named it in his honor.