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This Day in Georgia History

November 04, 1882

Alexander Stephens Sworn in as Governor

Though confined to a wheelchair, Alexander H. Stephens was sworn in as Georgia governor. Born February 11, 1812 in Wilkes County, Georgia, Stephens was the one of the great orators of his day and played a pivotal role in many of the political crises of his time, including the Civil War. Ironically, while he was personally opposed to slavery, calling it “that abominable human tragedy,” he 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. In Congress he worked with Henry Clay to try and reach compromises as contention grew between slave and free states. Stephens was very instrumental in the 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, 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 chosen a Georgia delegate to the convention in Montgomery, Alabama, to form the new Confederate government. He helped write the provisional Confederate Constitution, and was then elected Vice-President of the Confederacy. His portrait was selected to appear on the Confederate $20 bill. Early in the war he was an enthusiastic supporter of the new government, but eventually began to mistrust President Jefferson Davis, believing he was becoming dictatorial and growing ever more concerned when the Confederate government began conscripting troops and declaring martial law. Stephens joined with Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown in arguing that such acts violated the states’ rights that the war was being fought to protect. As the war drew to a close Stephens was arrested and imprisoned for four months, but was never indicted. Stephens was among the Georgia contingent that the U.S. Congress refused to seat in 1866 because it contained so many Confederate veterans. During his time away from politics Stephens authored a two volume work - A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. When the right to run for Congress was restored in 1872, Stephens ran for Senate, but was defeated by ex-Confederate general John B. Gordon. Soon, however, he returned to Congress as representative from his home district. By this time, Stephens was crippled and in poor health, and he decided to retire from politics in 1882. But the Democrats in Georgia, bitterly divided, pleaded with him to be their candidate for governor and to help unify the party. 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 in northeast Georgia and named it for him. In 1927, the state of Georgia placed a marble statue of Alexander Stephens in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and later a marble bust of Stephens in the Georgia Hall of Fame in the Georgia Capitol.

Image of Alexander Stephens Sworn in as Governor View large image
Source: Photo: Ed Jackson