Part I: Peace Negotiations of 1863
In June 1863, Alexander H. Stephens urged Jefferson Davis to open negotiations with the Union government regarding the exchange of military prisoners: 'I think I might do some good - not only on the immediate subject in hand," wrote the Confederacy's vice president to its president, "but were I in conference with the authorities at Washington on any point in relation to the conduct of the war, I am not without hopes, that indirectly, I could now turn attention to a general adjustment, upon such a basis as might ultimately be acceptable to both parties."1 Although Stephens and Davis had known each other since 1845, the two southern leaders never became friends. They developed very different visions of the Union and then the Confederacy. One of the few things they had in common was recurring ill health. "Both were humorless, self-conscious, and excessively sensitive," noted one historian.2 Stephens would become "the highest-placed Davis-hater in the Confederacy" and virtually seceded from all governmental responsibilities by the spring of 1864.3
In 1863, however, Davis had reasons to be receptive to Stephens's proposal for talks regarding prisoners. The Confederate president believed that Stephens's hand would be strengthened in negotiations by aggressive Confederate military operations which were then underway. Historian James M. McPherson noted that Confederate General Robert E. Lee thought "that a crushing military victory would enable Davis to extract a peace agreement from the United States government that would recognize Confederate independence."4 To the contrary, Stephens thought the Confederate negotiating position would be helped if the Confederate armies were quiescent. By the time in June that Stephens traveled from his home in Georgia to Richmond, the Confederate Army under Lee had invaded the North on the way to the site of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg. For the hypercritical Stephens, who chafed under his minimal duties as Confederate vice president, it was a rare visit to the capital where he was generally out of sympathy with the government's policies. Noted historian William C. Davis: "Stephens needed Davis in the executive chair, not only so he could indulge his disapproval of anyone who did not conform to his own ideas but also as a protective barrier against his ever having to try to implement his ideas himself and thus risk incurring the criticism from others in which he so freely engaged."5
The Confederate president wrote a personal letter of instructions to Stephens that would be a cover if the mission failed: "You will perceive from the terms of the letter that it is so worded as to avoid any political difficulties in its reception. Intended exclusively as one of those communications between belligerents which public law recognizes as necessary and proper between hostile forces, care has been taken to give no pretext for refusing to receive it on the ground that it would involve a tacit recognition of the independence of the Confederacy. Your mission is simply one of humanity, and has no political aspect." Stephens himself wanted to negotiate a peaceful separation of the North and South, but his usual pessimism undercut that objective. "From what I can see of the state of the questions, I have but little hope of being able to effect anything, even if the negotiations should be entertained," wrote Stephens to his half-brother on June 30. "It is thought important to have the effort made and the overture rejected before resort to retaliation."6
Before Davis turned to criticizing the conduct of the Union war effort and its impact on civilians, he wrote to Stephens: "My recent interviews with you have put you so fully in possession of my views, that it is scarcely necessary to give you any detailed instructions, even were I at this moment well enough to attempt it. My whole purpose is in one word to place this war on the footing of such as are waged by civilized people in modern times, and to divest it of the savage character which has been impressed on it by our enemies, in spite of all our efforts and protests. War is full enough of unavoidable horrors under all its aspects, to justify and even to demand of any Christian rulers who may be unhappily engaged in carrying it on, to seek to restrict its calamities and to divest it of all unnecessary severities. You will endeavor to establish the cartel for the exchange of prisoners on such a basis as to avoid the constant difficulties and complaints which arise, and to prevent for the future what we deem the unfair conduct of our enemies in evading the delivery of the prisoners who fall into their hands; in retarding it by sending them on circuitous routes, and by detaining them sometimes for months in camps and prisons; and in persisting in taking captives non-combatants."7
Not until July 4 did Stephens reach the Union Navy stationed off Newport News, Virginia. The Union commander sent word of Stephens' mission to Washington. The official letter Stephens carried from Jefferson Davis authorized him only to negotiate the exchange of military prisoners: "Numerous difficulties and disputes have arisen in relation to the execution of the cartel of exchange heretofore agreed on by the belligerents, and the commissioners for the exchange of prisoners have been unable to adjust their differences. Their action on the subject of these differences is delayed and embarrassed by the necessity of referring each subject as it arises to superior authority for decision. I believe that I have just grounds of complaint against the officers and forces under your command for breach of the terms of the cartel, and being myself ready to execute it at all times in good faith, I am not justified in doubting the existence of the same disposition on your part." But Davis went on to denounce the "conduct of your [Union] officers and troops in many parts of the country, who violate all the rules of war, by carrying on hostilities, not only against armed foes, but against non-combatants, aged men, women, and children." Union actions "justify, and indeed require, redress by retaliation, as the proper means of repressing such cruelties as are not permitted in warfare between Christian peoples."8
News of Stephens' mission reached the Lincoln Administration only after news had reached Washington of the failure of Pickett's Charge at Battle of Gettysburg on July 3 and the surrender of the Confederate citadel at Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4. The Confederacy was weakened rather than strengthened by these pivotal defeats. President Lincoln was tempted to meet with Stephens, but when his Cabinet convened on July 5, it opposed any negotiations with the Confederates. As Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary about the Cabinet session: "The President read a letter of Alexander H. Stephens. The President read a letter from Colonel Ludlow, United States agent for exchange of prisoners, to Secretary Stanton, stating that Stephens had made a communication to Admiral [Samuel Phillips] Lee, which the Admiral had sent to the Secretary of the Navy. After reading them, the President said he was at first disposed to put this matter aside without many words, or much thought, but a night's reflection and some remarks yesterday had modified his views. While he was opposed to having Stephens and his vessel come here, he thought it would be well to send some one - perhaps go himself - to Fortress Monroe. Both [Secretary of State William H.] Seward and [Secretary of War Edwin M.] Stanton were startled when this remark was made. Seward did not think it advisable the President should go, nor any one else; he considered Stephens a dangerous man, who would make mischief anywhere. The most he (Seward) would do would be to allow Stephens to forward any communication through General [John A.] Dix. Seward passes by Admiral Lee and the Navy Department, through whom the communication originally came. Stanton was earnest and emphatic against having anything to do with Stephens, or Jeff Davis, or their communication. [Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.] Chase was decided against having any intercourse with them. [Postmaster Montgomery] Blair took a different view. He would not permit Stephens to come here with his staff, but would receive any communication he bore, and in such a case as this, he would not cavil about words. Something more important was involved."9
On July 6, Stephens was informed by Union officers of the Lincoln Administration's response: "The customary agents and channels are adequate for all needful military communications and conferences between the United States and the insurgents."10 Stephens returned to Richmond briefly to report his failure. He then retreated to Georgia. Before the end of the month, a copy of Davis's instructions to Stephens was published in the North - along with Stephens' report to Davis on July 8 concerning his mission:
The influence and views that led to this determination after so long a consideration of the subject, must be left to conjecture. The reason assigned for the refusal of the United States Secretary of War, to wit: that "the customary agents and channels" are considered adequate for all needful military "communications and conferences," to one acquainted with the facts, seems not only unsatisfactory but very singular and unaccountible; for it is certainly known to him that these very agents, to whom he evidently alludes, heretofore agreed upon in a former conference in reference to the exchange of prisoners (one of the subjects embraced in your letter to me), are now, and have been for some time, distinctly at issue on several important points. The existing cartel, owing to these disagreements, is virtually suspended, so far as the exchange of officers on either side is concerned. Notices of retaliation have been given on both sides.
The effort, therefore, for the very many and cogent reasons set forth in your letter of instructions to me, to see if these differences could not be removed, and if a dear understanding between the parties as to the general conduct of the war could not be arrived at before this extreme measure should be resorted to by either party, was no less in accordance with the dictates of humanity than in strict conformity with the usages of belligerents in modern times.
Deeply impressed as I was with these views and feelings, in undertaking the mission, and asking the conference, I can but express my profound regret at the result of the effort made to obtain it; and I can but entertain the belief that, if the conference sought had been granted, mutual good could have been effected by it; and if this war, so unnatural, so unjust, so unchristian, and so inconsistent with every fundamental principle of American constitutional liberty, "must needs" continue to be waged against us, that at least some of its severer horrors, which now so eminently threaten, might have been avoided.11
The failure of Stephens' mission probably served the purposes of Jefferson Davis, who initiated a verbal offensive designed to rally southern opinion and proclaimed that the Union government "aims at nothing less than the extermination of yourselves, your wives, and children. They seek to destroy what they cannot plunder. They propose as the spoils of victory that your homes shall be partitioned among the wretches whose atrocious cruelties have stamped infamy on their Government. They design to incite servile insurrection and light the fires of incendiarism wherever they can reach your homes, and they debauch the inferior race, hitherto docile and contented, by promising indulgence of the vilest passions as the price of treachery."12
On July 6, President Lincoln gave a brief speech in speech to serenaders at the White House. He referred to the Union victory on July 4 over forces "at the bottom of which is an
effort to overthrow the principle that all men were created equal." Speaking of America's founding document, Lincoln said that on July "4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal 'turned tail' and [ran]."13 The president said it was a glorious theme - one which he would revisit on November 19, 1863 in a speech dedicating the Union military cemetery at Gettysburg.
In July 1864, a year after Stephens; aborted effort, Union failures on the battlefield, especially in Virginia, led to growing pressure on the Lincoln Administration itself to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederate government. On July 10, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, one of the leading advocates of negotiation, wrote President Lincoln "that the rebel chiefs achieved, a most decided advantage in proposing or pretending to propose to have A. H. Stephens visit Washington as a peacemaker, and being rudely repulsed; and I am anxious that the ground lost to the national cause by that mistake shall somehow be regained in season for effect on the approaching North Carolina election."
The peace negotiations that Greeley desired were doomed because the Confederate commissioners in Canada with whom he sought negotiations were not empowered to do so - although they pretended to be. President Lincoln was justly wary of the legitimacy of such peace efforts and worried about their detrimental impact on the war effort. But he could not ignore them. "Because of the lack of Union military victories, Northerners were sure to be interested in the possibility of restoring the country by negotiations. If the president ignored the envoys, Greeley would let the public know," noted historian Michael Vorenberg.14
To an Ohio congressman who expressed his doubts about the negotiations in Niagara Falls, Lincoln said: "Don't worry; nothing will come of it."15 To other visitors to the White House, Lincoln said: "In some respects Mr. Greeley is a great man but in many others he is wanting in common sense."16 So, although the president knew the negotiations were a farce, Lincoln decided to let them play out to reveal the character of the participants. But he finally brought the negotiations to a close with a letter stating: "Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms in substantial and collateral points, and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways."17
In a letter that Lincoln wrote but did not send in September 1864, he explained his attitude toward peace and union: "Much is being said about peace; and no man desires peace more ardently than I. Still I am yet unprepared to give up the Union for a peace which, so achieved, could not be of much duration. The preservation of our Union was not the sole avowed object for which the war was commenced. It was commenced for precisely the reverse object - to destroy our Union. The insurgents commenced it by firing upon the Star of the West, and on Fort Sumpter [sic], and by other similar acts. It is true, however, that the administration accepted the war thus commenced, for the sole avowed object of preserving our Union; and it is not true that it has since been, or will be, prossecuted by this administration, for any other object. In declaring this, I only declare what I can know, and do know to be true, and what no other man can know to be false."18 Despite the political consequences, Lincoln placed himself against those - North or South - who thought that the conflict could be ended with slavery still in place.
Part II. Peace Negotiations of 1865
Over the next six months, some peace efforts continued - sometimes with Lincoln's tacit and tactical support. The Union president recognized that he had to establish that it was the Confederates, not the Union, that was unwilling to negotiate - at least on the terms of reunion and emancipation which Lincoln stipulated. In the winter of 1864-65, Lincoln twice gave a pass to Richmond to Francis P. Blair, Sr., a Maryland slaveowner who thought he could lay the groundwork for a peace conference. The result was an exchange of letters that made some negotiations possible if not likely to succeed. Blair himself became increasingly enthusiastic about the possibilities for peace. During his first visit to Richmond, Jefferson Davis gave Blair a letter that spoke of a desire "to secure peace to the two countries."19 Four days later, Blair shared the letter with President Lincoln.
Davis's use in his letter of the term "two countries" was a clear attempt to sabotage any negotiations because he was well aware that Lincoln could not accept the terminology. Historian William C. Harris wrote that Lincoln "believed that Southern pressure for ending the war, which was certain to increase since the fall of Fort Fisher on January 15, might force the 'insurgent leader' to ignore the 'two-countries' stipulation for peace talks. Such talks could conceivably lead to reunion. With that in mind the president asked Blair to return to Richmond, this time carrying a carefully crafted letter for Davis."20 In his letter addressed to Blair, Lincoln wrote that he had "constantly been, am now, and shall continue, ready to receive any agent whom he, or any other influential person now resisting the national authority, may informally send to me with a view to securing peace to the people of our one common country."21
In response to the Blair mission, noted Civil War chronicler Shelby Foote, Davis turned "foxy, secretive and shifty, quick to snap." The Confederate president first trapped Stephens into acting on his own recommendations. Davis invited Stephens "to a consultation...at which he showed him Lincoln's letter, reviewed its background, and requested an opinion. Stephens replied that he thought the matter should be pursued, 'at least so far as to obtain if possible a conference upon the subject.'" Stephens proposed to Davis that the Confederates send a three-man delegation to meet with Union representatives. Davis then asked Stephens for his recommendations on commissioners. The following day, Davis invited his designees to his office, the vice president among them. Stephens' objections to his appointment were brushed aside. His instructions read: "In conformity with the letter of Mr. Lincoln, of which the foregoing is a copy, you are requested to proceed to Washington City for an informal conference with him upon the issues involved in the existing war, and for the purpose of securing peace to the two countries."22
Stephens, who had known Lincoln for nearly two decades, believed peace negotiations were necessary to end the carnage. On January 31, 1865, the commissioners crossed Union lines near Richmond on a mission authorized to negotiate peace. When word reached Washington, Major Thomas Eckert was dispatched to oversee the handling of the Confederate envoys. President Lincoln was understandably wary of any negotiations that might undermine the war effort. So was Jefferson Davis, who had deliberately picked three critics of his administration - Stephens, former Supreme Court Justice John Campbell, and former Virginia Senator Robert M. T. Hunter - to represent him. To make sure that the mission would fail, Davis changed the instructions prepared by Secretary of State Judah Benjamin to remove "one common country" from the text. Instead, Davis reverted to his two nations language.23
At the Union front outside Richmond, General Ulysses S. Grant was left to entertain the three Confederate envoys. The Union commander, who had never met "Little Aleck" Stephens but admired him from afar, recalled: "I had always supposed that he was a very small man, but when I saw him in the dusk of evening I was very much surprised to find so large a man as he seemed to be. When he got down on to the boat I found that he was wearing a coarse gray woollen overcoat, a manufacture that had been introduced into the South during the rebellion. The cloth was thicker than anything of the kind I had ever seen, even in Canada. The overcoat extended nearly to his feet, and was so large that it gave him the appearance of being an average-sized man. He took this off when he reached the cabin of the boat, and I was struck with the apparent change in size in the coat and out of it." On viewing the emaciated Stephens, one Union solder said that Stephens was "dead now, but he don't know it."24
The Confederate commissioners had to wait at City Point until President Lincoln decided if and with whom Stephens and his two fellow Confederate commissioners would meet. Major Eckert was detailed to test the limits of the Confederate negotiating powers. "Stephens was very civil in his reception, more so than the others," recalled Eckert. "He asked if they might not begin to the discuss the subject. I said, 'Yes, what is the subject you want to discuss?' He said, 'We of the South lay great store by our State rights.' I turned to him and said, 'Excuse me, but we in the North never think of that, we cannot discuss that subject at all.'"25 The Confederate mission probably would have ended there, but General Grant intervened, telegraphing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: "Now that the interview between Major Eckert, under his written instructions, and Mr. Stephens and party has ended, I will state confidentially, but not officially to become a matter of record, that I am convinced upon conversation with Messrs. Stephens and Hunter that their intentions are good and their desire sincere to restore peace and union"26
Davis later claimed to have been surprised by the cold reception the Confederate commissioners received. In his memoirs, Davis wrote: "Why Mr. Lincoln changed his purpose, and, instead of receiving the commissioners at Washington, met them at Hampton Roads, I can not, of course, explain. Several causes may be conjecturally assigned. The commissioners were well known in Washington, had there held high positions, and, so far as there was any peace party there, might have been expected to have influence with its members; but a more important inquiry: If Mr. Lincoln previously had determined to hear no proposition for negotiation, and to accept nothing less than an unconditional surrender, why did he propose to receive informally our agent? If there was nothing to discuss, the agent would have been without functions."27 The answer to Davis's rhetorical question was obvious since Davis like Lincoln knew there was really "nothing to discuss" but there was much benefit to pretending to be willing to do so. The commissioners seemed more hopeful in a note that they addressed to General Grant on February 1: "We desire to go to Washington City to confer informally with the President personally in reference to the matters mentioned in his letter to Mr Blair of the eighteenth 18th January ultimo, without any personal compromise on any question in the letter. We have the permission to do so from the authorities in Richmond."28
Rather than allow the Confederates to come to Washington, President Lincoln sent Secretary of State Seward to negotiate at Hampton Roads. After Seward left Washington, Lincoln received a telegram from Grant urging him to come. The president wired the general: "Say to the gentlemen I will meet them personally at Fortress Monroe as soon as I can get there."29 Lincoln's departure from Washington was so sudden that not even his White House staff were informed. The president had been preoccupied with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery; on the evening of February 1, he pronounced it a "king's cure" for the problem in a speech to a group gathered outside the White House.30
Lincoln was also concerned with preserving the secrecy of his mission from disapproving Union eyes. One presidential aide wrote that "on the morning of 2d of February, 1865, between nine and ten o'clock, as I was ascending the stairs to the second story, to reach my room, I met [Charles] Forbes, an intelligent servant, descending with a small valise in his hand and I asked, 'Where are you going?' Looking up to see that no one was near, he whispered, 'Fortress Monroe,' and hurried on. When I reached the upper hall I met the President with his overcoat, and going to my room, looked out of the window, and saw him quietly walking around the curved pavement which leads to Pennsylvania Avenue, while Forbes was following at a distance of two or three hundred feet, as his valet."31 Rather than leave from the Washington Navy Yard, as he usually did, the President traveled via Annapolis where he embarked aboard the Thomas Collyer for Virginia.
On February 3, the Stephens group met with President Abraham Lincoln aboard the River Queen. Both lawyers and both former Whigs, Lincoln and Stephens were physical opposites. Lincoln was at least seven inches taller than the diminutive Stephens and weighed twice as much. Just as the tall, lanky Lincoln presented a unique appearance, so did the short, shrunken Stephens. Early in the Civil War, a Confederate described Stephens as "a lean, yellow, care-worn man, his back bent forward almost into a hump, his chest bowed inward, one shoulder higher than the other, small arms and wasted legs, hands and fingers long and bony - dress loose and wrinkled, and of shabby gray - looking damp and mouldy. His face was bony and emaciated, withered and twitching, his scanty hair fell on his shoulders in disorder. His chin was smooth and beardless, his breath short, while his restless eyes blazed with excitement. His voice, as he addressed such acquaintances as he met, was sharp, shrill, and squeaky, and his whole appearance faded, anxious, disappointed, extraordinary - so much so that he passed no one who did not turn and take a second gaze."32 Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill described Stephens as a "living skeleton."33 One Georgia observer said of Stephens that his voice's "distinctness reached further than that of any speaker I ever heard. George Adair said strikingly that the furthest men from Stephens heard him the best."34
At this meeting, Lincoln curiously watched Stephens take off his wool coat. He later asked General Grant if he had seen "that overcoat of Stephens's. I replied that I had. 'Well,' said he, 'did you see him take it off?' I said yes. 'Well,' said he, 'didn't you think it was the biggest shuck and the littlest ear that ever did see?'""35 Lincoln friend Ward Hill Lamon recalled President Lincoln's "pleasure" in renewing his acquaintance with Stephens. On returning to Washington, Mr. Lincoln repeated the story about Stephens' coat and asked: "Was there ever such a nubbin after so much shucking?"36 According to historian Michael Burlingame: "the president laughed heartily when Stephens retaliated with a story from their congressional days: at the Capitol several Representatives were discussing the proper pronunciation of 'Illinois.' Some said it was 'Illinoy,' others 'Illinoise.' John Quincy Adams smilingly quipped: 'If one were to judge from the character of the representatives in this congress from that state, I should decide that the proper way to pronounce the word would be 'All noise.'"37
After pleasantries, the Hampton Roads conferees got down to business. "Lincoln lost no time in making his position clear," noted one biographer, Lord Charnwood. "The unhappy commissioners made every effort to lead him away from the plain ground he had chosen."38 Stephens recalled: "Lincoln and Seward, of course, would not agree to consider any terms of truce which did not recognize a return of the Southern States to the Union. I urged an armistice, allowing the States to adjust themselves as suited their interests. If it would be to their interests to reunite, they would do so; but that according to the principle of State rights and State sovereignty, they could not be compelled. Seward made the supposition that Louisiana, bordering as she does for a great distance on both sides of the Mississippi, the great outlet of the West, should secede. I answered that he took indeed an extreme case; but that if France would treat her better than the Union of which she was a member, she ought to secede."39
Stephens later maintained that Seward and Lincoln had opened the door to peace without emancipation - a position that seems unlikely given the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment a few days earlier and Lincoln's enthusiastic lobbying for the end of slavery.40 Historian James M. McPherson wrote: "It is probable that Stephens was reading his own viewpoint into Seward's remarks."41 Little Aleck remembered Lincoln telling him: "Stephens, if I were in Georgia, and entertained the sentiments I do-though, I suppose, I should not be permitted to stay there long with them; but if I resided in Georgia, with my present sentiments, I'll tell you what I would do, if I were in your place: I would go home and get the Governor of the State to call the Legislature together, and get them to recall all the State troops from the war; elect Senators and Members to Congress, and ratify this Constitutional Amendment prospectively, so as to take effect-say in five years. Such a ratification would be valid in my opinion. I have looked into the subject, and think such a prospective ratification would be valid. Whatever may have been the views of your people before the war, they must be convinced now, that Slavery is doomed. It cannot last long in any event, and the best course, it seems to me, for your public men to pursue, would be to adopt such a policy as will avoid, as far as possible, the evils of immediate emancipation. This would be my course, if I were in your place."42 McPherson argued: "Lincoln was too good a lawyer to suggest an impossibility like 'prospective' ratification."43 Historian Michael Vorenberg added: "Surely Lincoln would have doubted the constitutionality of prospective emancipation."44
Presidential aide John G. Nicolay wrote at the time that "it would be impossible to give an outline of a four hours' conversation; but substantially the talk amounted to this: The President told them that he could not entertain any proposition or conversation which did not concede and embody the restoration of the national authority over the States now in revolt...that he could not recede in the least from what he had publicly said about slavery; and that he could [not] concede or agree to any cessation of hostilities which was not an actual end of the war and a disbandment of the rebel armies." Nicolay wrote his fiancee: "They on their side neither offered nor declined any distinct point or proposition; but the drift of all their talk was that they desired a cessation of hostilities, or armistice, or as they phrased it 'a postponement of the issue.' So the conference broke up without any result or conclusion, or even without broaching or debating any points or propositions."45
All was not serious at the Hampton Roads conference. Stephens recalled: "Allusion having been made to [King] Charles I., of England, and his treating with men whom he called 'rebels,' Lincoln laughed and said we must talk with Seward about that matter; all he remembered about Charles was, that he lost his head."46 Regarding the problems that reconstruction would bring in the South, the President told the Confederates one of his signature stories: "An Illinois farmer was congratulating himself with a neighbour concerning a discovery he had made which would save time and labour in gathering a food crop for his hogs. 'What is it?' asked the neighbour. 'Why, plant plenty of potatoes, and when they mature, turn the hogs in and let them get their food as they want it.' 'But how will they do when the ground is frozen?' 'Let 'em root!'"47 Stephens later recalled Lincoln "abounded in anecdotes; he illustrated everything that he was talking or speaking about by an anecdote; his anecdotes were always exceedingly apt and pointed, and socially he always kept his company in a roar of laughter. In my last interview with him at the celebrated Hampton Roads Conference in 1865, this trait of his character seemed to be as prominent and striking as ever."48
The conference concluded without any movement on either side. Although Stephens suggested to Jefferson Davis that the results of the conference not be publicized, the Confederate president insisted on a public report of Lincoln's insistence on unconditional surrender. The Confederate commissioners wrote: "Under your letter of appointment of the 28th ult. we proceeded to seek ' an informal conference' with Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, upon the subject mentioned in the letter. The conference was granted and took place on the 30th ult. [sic], on board of a steamer anchored in Hampton Roads, where we met President Lincoln and the Hon. Mr. Seward, Secretary of State of the United States. It continued for several hours, and was both full and explicit. We learned from them that the message of President Lincoln to the Congress of the United States, in December last, explains clearly and distinctly his sentiments as to the terms, conditions, and method of proceeding by which peace can be secured to the people, and we were not informed that they would be modified or altered to obtain that end." They reported:
We understood from him that no terms or proposals of any treaty, or agreement looking to an ultimate settlement, would be entertained or made by him with the authorities of the Confederate States, because that would be a recognition of their existence as a separate power, which under no circumstances would be done; and, for a like reason, that no such terms would be entertained by him for the States separately; that no extended truce or armistice (as at present advised) would be granted or allowed without a satisfactory assurance in advance of the complete restoration of the authority of the Constitution and laws of the United States over all places within the States of the Confederacy; that whatever consequences may follow from the reestablishment of that authority must be accepted; but that individuals subject to pains and penalties under the laws of the United States might rely upon a very liberal use of the power confided to him to remit those pains and penalties if peace be restored. During the conference, the proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States adopted by Congress on the 31st ultimo was brought to our notice."
This amendment provides that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for crime, should exist within the United States, or any place within their jurisdiction, and that Congress should have power to enforce this amendment by appropriate legislation."49
Lincoln had taken a calculated risk by going to Hampton Roads to meet with the Confederate commissioners. Well-connected New York lawyer George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary on February 3: "Lincoln is at City Point this minute talking peace with A. H. Stephens and his two colleagues, who deserve hanging for treason if ever men deserved it, and Stephens above all, who has sinned against the clearest light. This negotiation will come to no good. It is undignified for Lincoln to make a long expedition for the purpose of arguing with a little delegation of conspirators representing an armed and truculent rebellion. But if the palaver had to be held, it will be less mischievous at City Point than at Washington, where these wily legates a latere diaboli would have contrived to open privy communication with copperheads and with invertebrate national men and with political caitiffs of every grade."50 The conference helped Lincoln mollify northern Peace Democrats. Historian Jennifer L. Weber wrote: "Finally, it seemed, Peace Democrats had started to realize that the Confederates wanted independence, not peace."51
On their return, Jefferson Davis sought to have the commissioners modify their report to refer to the "humiliating surrender" and "degrading submission" demanded by Lincoln, but they refused, according to James McPherson, "knowing that the [Confederate] president wished to use them to discredit the whole idea of negotiations."52 Unlike Stephens, Davis did not believe that real negotiations benefitted the Confederacy or his government, and he wanted to use Lincoln's stubborn position on national unity to reenforce support for his own obdurate stand. Towards this end Davis prepared a message to the Confederate Congress laying out his own position.
Davis proved more masterful in managing the aftermath of the negotiations than of managing the war. After the commissioners' return to Richmond Davis at a Richmond rally - ironically at the city's African Church - to protest the Lincoln Administration's response to the negotiations. More rallies followed. At one, Stephens spoke briefly, calling Davis's speech one of "loftiness of sentiment and rare form of expression."53 Davis got a temporary boost from his public relations efforts. Davis biographer Michael B. Ballard noted: "The Hampton Roads conference...proved something of a political master stroke for the harried Confederate president. Some of his most vehement press critics praised him for his efforts to attain peace."54
Still, both the Confederate and Union governments were just going through the motions of negotiating - knowing that the demands of the other were non-negotiable. Lincoln himself was called on by Congress to issue a report which concluded: "On the morning of the 3d the three gentlemen - Messrs. Stephens, Hunter, and Campbell - came aboard of our steamer and had an interview with the Secretary of State and myself of several hours' duration. No question of preliminaries to the meeting was then and there made or mentioned; no other person was present; no papers were exchanged or produced; and it was, in advance, agreed that the conversation was to be informal and verbal merely. On our part, the whole substance of the instructions to the Secretary of State, hereinbefore recited, was stated and insisted upon, and nothing was said inconsistent therewith; while, by the other party, it was not said that in any event or on any condition they ever would consent to reunion, and yet they equally omitted to declare that they never would so consent. They seemed to desire a postponement of that question, and the adoption of some other course first, which, as some of them seemed to argue, might or might not lead to reunion, but which course, we thought, would amount to an indefinite postponement. The conference ended without result."55
Failure of the Hampton Roads conference served the political purposes of both Lincoln and Davis. It demonstrated that compromise was impossible and that a military solution was necessary. Russell F. Weigley wrote: "The one major result of the Hampton Roads conference was to demonstrate that there could be no peace of reunion with Jefferson Davis's government - only the complete destruction of its ability to resist through the annihilation of its armies and, perhaps, the ruination of its resources and the terrorization of its people."56 Davis used the result to rally southern support for the conflict. Stephens himself was disappointed but not surprised, having judged the peace conference to be "humbug" before it was held.57
For Stephens, there was one positive consequence of the conference. As the meeting was breaking up, Lincoln told the Confederate vice president: "Well, Stephens, it seems we can do nothing for our country. Is there anything I can do for you?" Stephens requested President Lincoln's help in securing release of his nephew from a federal prisoner camp at Johnson's Island, Ohio - where the young Georgian had been held for more than a year.58 The next day, President Lincoln wrote the camp commandant: "Parole Lieut. John A. Stephens, prisoner of War, to report to me here in person, and send him to me. It is in pursuance of an arrangement I made yesterday with his uncle, Hon. A. H. Stephens."59 John Stephens left Ohio on February 6. Unaware of his impending release, Lieutenant Stephens was delivered to the President's office at the White House, interrupting a meeting with Secretary of State Seward. After greeting the Confederate visitor, the President said: "I saw your uncle, the Honorable Alexander H. Stephens, recently, at Hampton Roads and I promised to send you to him, Lieutenant."60
The young Georgia Confederate lingered in Washington for a few days, recovering his health. Before departing, he went again to the White House. President Lincoln presented Lieutenant Stephens with a photograph he had signed: "You had better take that along; it is considered quite a curiosity down your way, I believe." The President wrote the elder Stephens a note for the paroled officer to deliver: "According to our agreement, your nephew, Lieut. Stephens, goes to you, bearing this note. Please, in return, to select and send to me, that officer of the same rank, imprisoned at Richmond, whose physical condition most urgently requires his release[.]"61 It was a day before Stephens' 53rd birthday and just two days before Lincoln's 56th and final birthday. Stephens did not receive the Lincoln letter until after he learned of the President's assassination. "I almost wept when I saw it," Stephens recalled.62
It was fitting end to the Lincoln-Stephens friendship which had begun 18 years earlier.
Part III. Stephens and Lincoln in Congress
Abraham Lincoln and Alexander H. Stephens had first become acquainted in 1847 when both served in the U.S. Congress. Lincoln was titled the "Lone Star of Illinois" as the state's lone Whig Congressman. Stephens' physique earned him the sobriquet "The Little Pale Star from Georgia."63 By the end of the Civil War, one was called the "Great Emancipator" and the other was titled the "Great Commoner." Despite the differences in their positions and politics, there were many similarities in their backgrounds.
Stephens, born in Georgia on February 11, 1812, remained a Georgian all his life. Lincoln had been born in Kentucky on February 12, 1809, raised in Indiana, and settled down in Illinois. Both Stephens and Lincoln were sons of struggling farmers, but ill-equipped by inclination or physique for work on a farm. Lincoln's mother died of "the milk sickness" when he was just seven; Stephens' mother died when he was just a few weeks old. The Georgian's father died when Alex was fourteen; his stepmother died a week later - probably from an epidemic sweeping the area. Years later, Stephens recalled: "My grief was great on the death of my father, - almost greater than I could bear; but the cup of affliction did not run over until 'ma,' as we called her, was also taken from us."64 Lincoln supposedly said of his mother: "God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her."65 He told an early biographer that his life could "be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy, 'The short and simple annals of the poor.'"66
Stephens' early life had not been far different from Lincoln's with one major exception - Stephens' education after his parents' deaths was paid for by a wealthy benefactor for whom he adopted the second part of the appellation "Alexander Hamilton."67 Stephens studied at Franklin College (which became the University of Georgia), taught school, hated it, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1834, three years before the older Lincoln was. "Within a year, hard work, oratorical skills, and the ability to read a jury enabled Aleck to earn a good income from the law and begin building an estate eventually worth over $60,000 and including thirty-four slaves," wrote historian James L. Abrahamson.68
When he started off as a lawyer Stephens was almost as impoverished as Lincoln. But at 94 pounds, Stephens was considerably skinnier and even scrappier. Owning no horse, Stephens carried his saddlebags on his shoulders while walking twenty miles to try his first case. When in 1837 Abraham Lincoln first moved to Springfield, Illinois, to take up the practice of law, he was so impoverished that he could not afford to buy bedding. Stephens was just 22 when he began his law career; Lincoln was 28. Both had diverse practices and represented railroads; both started their political lives as proponents of internal improvements. Legal work enriched Stephens enough in the 1840s to allow him to buy a plantation - Liberty Hall at Crawfordville, Georgia - and to acquire slaves to work it. Unlike Lincoln, who put aside his legal practice to serve in Congress, Stephens sometimes put his legal work ahead of his congressional responsibilities, regularly returning to Georgia to take care of legal cases. Stephens even left Congress for much of April 1854 to attend to his legal practice while the Kansas-Nebraska bill was being debated in the House of Representatives.
Both men were dedicated to self-improvement. Historian Daniel Walker Howe wrote: "Stephens' determination to overcome his own frailty through willpower gave his exhortations to character-building profound authenticity....He had to make up in verbal skill and high resolve what he lacked in physical strength and presence."69 Both men were marked by remarkable intelligence and analytic powers - packaged in unlikely bodies. Stephens's friend and legal associate, Robert A, Toombs, once said that Stephens "carried more brains and more soul for the least flesh than any man God Almighty ever made."70 One journalist described Stephens in 1854 as an " ungainly-looking individual-with head and face constructed contrary to the rules of physiognomy and phrenology" - adding that he "is considered by many the ablest member of the House, and of a House, too, that can boast some of the best minds of the country. Mr. Stephens is slightly above the medium height, and painfully thin in appearance. His head is small and flat; his forehead low, and partially covered with straight, dark, lustre-lacking hair; and his cheeks thin, wrinkled, and of parchment texture. His walk, his features, his figure, bespeak great physical emaciation. You look in vain for some outward manifestation of that towering, commanding intellect which has held the congregated talent of the whole country spell-bound for hours. It is not in the eye, for it is dull and heavy. It is not in the face, for it is meaningless. It is not in the voice, for it is shrill and sharp; but still you feel convinced that the feeble, tottering being before you is all brain -brain in the head, brain in the arms, brain in the legs, brain in the body-that the whole man is charged and surcharged with electricity of intellect-that a touch would bring forth the divine spark!"71
As for Lincoln, his friend Joshua F. Speed "once remarked to him that his mind was a wonder to me - That impressions were easily made upon his mind and never effaced - 'no' said he 'you are mistaken - I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out'."72 Another Lincoln friend, Henry Clay Whitney, observed: "The most salient of Lincoln's intellectual qualifications was his infallible and remorseless logic - his ability to analyse any complex proposition, and to resolve it into its simple elements, and not only so, but to array all those elements so plainly to the simplest comprehension, that all minds, little or great, could then see the truth and the error clearly: nor did he put his terms of ratiocination upon stilts or in classical attire - he unravelled the mysteries of abstruse truths or fallacies and translated them into words of one or two syllables."73
Both Lincoln and Stephens required strong stimulation to move them into political action. "I need something bearing down upon me to keep me in motion," Congressman Stephens wrote his brother shortly after new Congressman Lincoln arrived in Washington." He added that without such stimulus, "I am disposed to be inert and idle."74 Lincoln and Stephens also shared an intense ambition. Historian Russell F. Weigley wrote that Stephens "always on the brink of the grave but nevertheless intensely ambitious."75 But they both worried about fulfilling their destiny. In his first year of legal practice, Stephens wrote in his diary: "I believe I shall never be worth anything, and the thought is death to my soul. I am too boyish, unmanful, trifling, simple in my manners and address."76 Two years earlier, Lincoln had concluded the announcement of his first legislative candidacy by writing: "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed. I am young and unknown to many of you. I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life..."77
Stephens took a different approach toward politics than did Lincoln. Although both could be intense partisans, Lincoln kept his policy objectives firmly in view. Stephens was more tactical. Historian Ulrich B. Phillips wrote: "A sensitive soul requiring himself to be high-minded, when he found a cause to champion he sought a principle to buttress every policy. This rationalizing of his conduct, while giving him great satisfaction, produced an exaltation of the technical and the trivial. Strategy was of little moment if his tactics were expert."78
Both men were forceful orators and both could be dangerous antagonists on the stump. In 1843 a Georgia Democrat said of Stephens: "I could swallow him whole and never know the difference." Stephens responded that "if you did there would be more brains in your belly than there ever will be in your head!'" In the early 1840s an Illinois Democrat leader named Jesse B. Thomas, Jr., launched a vicious attack on Lincoln at a Springfield political meeting. Lincoln heard of it and arrived in time for a rebuttal. His mockery of Thomas was so deadly and so accurate that it was thereafter referred to as the "skinning of Thomas."79
It was the robust Lincoln who entered politics first - winning election in 1834 on his second campaign try for the Illinois State House of Representatives. The sickly Stephens won election to Georgia's lower house in 1836 despite his opposition to the locally popular doctrine of nullification. Although both were Whigs in a predominantly Democratic area, each was reelected to legislative office until he chose to step down - Stephens in 1841 and Lincoln in 1842. Both were dynamic stump speakers and skilled debaters. Their political networks were cemented as they rode around their respective judicial circuits. Almost immediately upon leaving the state legislature, Lincoln sought election to Congress. While Lincoln lost a three-man contest for the Whig congressional nomination in 1843, that same year Stephens won the Whig nomination and an uphill election to the first of eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Lincoln - who favored the "American System" of a national bank, internal improvements and a protective tariff - was a much more conventional Clay Whig than was Stephens. "I took my seat in the House of Representatives, December, 1843," remembered Stephens, who was brought up as a Jackson Democrat. "I stood nominally as a Whig, yet held few sentiments in common with the national party: was opposed to the protection policy; to the policy of receiving abolition petitions in Congress and to the Congressional jurisdiction in any form of the slavery question. I favoured the incorporation of Texas into the Union; not under the Tyler treaty - that I opposed - but under joint resolution for her admission as a State. This well-nigh severed my connection even in name with the Whig party at Washington as well as in Georgia."80
The earthy Lincoln, who nurtured a keen sense of irony, was a lot more fun than the sickly Georgian. "Stephens was an austere Southern puritan and condemned the human race with its hedonistic weaknesses, such as the love of dancing," wrote historian Clement Eaton.81 Lincoln was a tee-totaler. It is harder to classify Stephens' drinking habits. William C. Davis wrote: "Virtually an invalid, addicted to alcohol and to pain-killing drugs, especially morphine, he withered almost to nothing."82 Dan Monroe and Bruce Tap wrote that "later in life he took huge self-administered doses of morphine for pain. He also imbibed alcohol in tablespoon draughts for the same reason, a practice that lead at least one biographer to conclude that Stephens was an alcoholic. Stephens denied the charge when it was raised against him in the aftermath of the Civil War. In Stephens's telling, a doctor suggested in 1842 that he take a tablespoon of brandy after dinner each day. This Stephens did faithfully and then intermittently over the years. He also confessed to taking a tablespoon after major speeches. 'I was never drunk in my life,' he affirmed, 'and I question if all the spirits I ever drank would amount to three gallons.' Poor health that came with age may have prompted Stephens to imbibe more than his earlier habits suggest."83
Stephens remained sickly all his life. He called himself "a malformed ill-shaped half-finished thing."84 On Christmas Eve, 1854 he wrote his brother: "Life to me is desolate. For what object should I wish to live? Weak and sickly, I was sent into the world with a constitution barely able to sustain the vital functions. Health I have never known and do not expect to know."85 But physical health was not Stephens's only problem. "How brilliantly capable was Alexander H. Stephens, and how truly national in outlook! High-minded, devoted to principle, well-read and thoughtful, he was the strongest of the Southern moderates,' wrote historian Allan Nevins. "Yet as one of his admirers admits, he was too quick-tempered, too unwilling to yield on details, too eager to score victories for personal prestige or party credit, to carry through any great purpose; while his invalidism made him a bundle of nerves."86 Stephens suffered from an encyclopedia of ailments according to historian William Freehling - "toothaches, rheumatism, neuralgia, blinding headaches, nauseous dyspepsia, icy fevers."87 William C. Davis wrote: "Everything that could afflict man's internal organs attacked him, from angina to colitis. Migraine headaches incapacitated him. Pneumonia almost killed him three times. Diarrhea robbed his bones of their flesh. Pasty, pale skin hung about his face, innumerable wrinkles emanating spoke-like from his eyes. Coarse, wispy, graying hair straggled loosely about his protruding ears. Only his blazing black eyes showed life."88" His longtime friend Robert Toombs said Stephens "never looked as if he had two weeks' purchase on life."89 Biographer Thomas E. Schott added: "It is likely that impotence was among his many physical ailments."90
Both Lincoln and Stephens had a strong moral streak, but Stephens was the more self-righteous and self-absorbed. Stephens wrote his brother in 1851: "The secret of my life has been revenge - revenge revered. That is, to rise superior to the neglect or contumely of the mean of mankind, by doing them good instead of harm. A determination to war even against fate; to meet the world in all its forces; to master evil with good, and to leave no foe standing in my rear."91
Lincoln and Stephens made their acquaintance after Lincoln came to Washington in December 1847 for his first and only congressional term. Lincoln friend Joseph Gillespie wrote: "Of all men in the South (of those who differed from him on the slavery question I mean[)] Mr[.] Stephens of Georgia was his favorite[.] I have frequently heard him speak in very respectful terms of Stephens[.]"91 On February 2, 1848, Lincoln wrote law partner William H. Herndon: "I just take up my pen to say that Mr. Stephens, of Georgia, a little, slim, pale-faced, consumptive man, with a voice like [Stephen T.] Logan's, has just concluded the very best speech of an hour's length I ever heard. My old, withered, dry eyes are full of tears yet. If he writes it out anything like he delivered it our people shall see a good many copies of it."92 Both Lincoln and Stephens opposed the Polk Administration's prosecution of the Mexican-American War. Stephens had assailed the Polk policy in his House speech:
"The honor of this country does not and cannot require us to force and compel the people of any other to sell theirs. I have, I trust, as high a regard for national honor as any man. It is the brightest gem in the chaplet of a nation's glory; and there is nothing of which I am prouder than the high character for honor this country has acquired throughout the civilized world - that code of honor which was established by Washington and the men of the Revolution and which rests upon truth, justice, and honesty, which is the offspring of virtue and integrity, and which is seen in the length and breadth of our land, in all the evidences of art, and civilization, and moral advancement, and everything that tends to elevate, dignify, and noble man. This is the honor of my admiration, and it is made of 'sterner,' purer, nobler 'stuff' than that aggressive and degrading, yea, odious principle now avowed of waging a war against a neighboring people to compel them to sell their country. Who is here so base as to be willing, under any circumstances, to sell his country? For myself, I can only say, if the last funeral pile of liberty were lighted, I would mount it and expire in its flames before I would be coerced by any power however great and strong, to sell or surrender the land of my home, the place of my nativity, and the graves of my sires! Sire, the principle is not only dishonorable, but infamous. As the Representative upon this floor of a high-minded and honorable constituency, I repeat, that the principle of waging war against a neighboring people to compel them to sell their country, is not only dishonorable, but disgraceful and infamous."93
Congressman Lincoln himself had introduced resolutions in December 1847 calling on the Polk Administration to define the spot where the Mexican army had supposedly violated American territorial sovereignty, thereby triggering the Mexican-American War. Stephens later said of Lincoln: "I was as intimate with him as with any other man of that Congress except perhaps one....Mr. Lincoln was warm-hearted; he was generous; he was magnanimous; he was most truly 'with malice toward none, with charity for all.'"94 Stephens recalled: "Mr. Lincoln was careful as to his manners, awkward in his speech, but was possessed of a very strong, clear, and vigorous mind. He always attracted the riveted attention of the House when he spoke; his manner of speech as well as thought was original. He had no model. He was a man of strong convictions, and was what Carlyle would have called an earnest man."95 Lincoln commented: "Mr. Stephens is a great man - he's a man that can get up a blaze whenever he's a mind to - his speech has got up a great blaze in Georgia - I never could get up a blaze more than once or twice in my life.'"96
Stephens was undoubtedly the more influential congressman. Whig Amos Tuck served with Lincoln and remembered him as bearing "all the signs of scanty preparation for influential position, and excited attention only as the lone star of Illinois Whigs, and as an agreeable specimen of frontier character.....I remember that the goodwill of his acquaintances was strong in his favor. He made one set speech, near the close of the session, wherein he made sundry telling points against the Democrats, delivering it in the open area in front of the Clerk's desk, and created much amusement by the aptness of his illustrations, walking around in front of the Democratic members, singling out individuals specially responsible for unsound and inconsistent doctrines. He was good natured, enjoyed his own wit, heartily joined in the amusement he excited in others, and sat down amid the cheers of his friends." Tuck also recalled that Stephens and Toombs were "the leading men of the House of their party in the South, but more wedded to slave interests than to their political party."97
Stephens, Lincoln, Toombs and several other Whig Congressmen were known as "the Young Indians" in their early support of the 1848 presidential candidacy of General Zachary Taylor, ironically a hero of the Mexican-American War that Stephens and Lincoln opposed. Both Lincoln and Stephens were being practical. Historian Michael P. Holt wrote that "Stephens and Toombs insisted on nominating military men in 1847 and 1848 primarily because they feared that the party could never carry the state legislature or governorship again without attracting Democratic support."98 Stephens biographer Rudolph von Abele wrote: "Stephens at the time was messing with Senator John Jordan Crittenden of Kentucky, once Clay's friend but now no longer; and it was to Crittenden that Taylor wrote expressing his interest in the notion of becoming President. And Stephens, though he still admired Clay, so far approved of Taylor as to get the Georgia Whig convention in July 1847 to endorse Taylor's candidacy."99 Despite Clay's advanced age and diminished reputation, pushing General Taylor's candidacy was not easy among doubtful Whigs. Holt wrote: "Distrust of Taylor's no-convention, no party, no-issue posture extended beyond jealous rivals. Still uncommitted Whigs, especially in the North, voiced similar reservations."100
Stephens, who had a tendency to exaggerate his victories, claimed of Taylor's election: "It was I...who made him President. Soon after the first battles of the war at Resaca and Palo Alto, I urged on the anti-War party that Taylor was our man...At the beginning of Congress in December , I was mainly instrumental in getting up a Taylor Club in Congress; it was known as the Young Indians. For months there were but seven of us: Truman Smith of Connecticut, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, William Ballard Preston, Thomas S. Flournoy and John S. Pendleton, of Virginia, [Robert] Toombs and myself of Georgia....We opened an extensive correspondence and put the ball in motion. The contest between the Clay Whigs and the Taylor men for the nomination in Philadelphia was bitter and fierce."101 Biographer Thomas E. Schott argued that Stephens overstated his leadership, noting that there was no discussion of Taylor "until March, 1848. By then it was clear that he was the favorite."102
That September, Stephens was campaigning for reelection when he argued with another Georgia politician, who accused Stephens of treason. Stephens had a quick temper and he was quick to take offense. In the ensuing melee, Stephens hit Judge Francis Cone with his cane. In response, Stephens was stabbed six times, his throat was cut, and he nearly died. Two years earlier, a duel between Stephens and fellow Georgia politician Herschel Johnson was narrowly averted - just as one between Lincoln and fellow Illinois politician James Shields had been deterred in 1842.
In 1856 a potential Stephens duel with Benjamin H. Hill was instigated when Hill said that Stephens, now a Democrat, had "betrayed the Whig party and having acted worse toward it than Judas Iscariot." The duel was averted by Hill who observed: "I regard dueling as no evidence of courage, no vindication of truth, and no test of the character of a true gentleman. I shall be a 'braggart, liar and poltroon' enough, now and forever, to declare that what the laws of God and my native State unite in denouncing as murder, could give me no satisfaction to do, to attempt or to desire. This determination is but strengthened when the contrary course involves the violation of my conscience and the hazard of my family, as against a man who has neither conscience nor family."103 In response Stephens took out a newspaper note that Hill was "an impudent braggart" and "a despicable poltroon."104 Stephens wrote: "When a mendacious gasconader sets up wantonly to asperse private character and malign individual reputation, and then refuses that redress which a gentleman knows how to ask, as well as how to grant, no course is left for the most courteous and decorous, the most upright and honorable, but to put the brand of infamy upon him-there to remain until a radical change in his character, and especially in his conduct, either in giving personal insults or in making proper amends for them, shall remove it."105 It was the prickly but consumptive Stephens - not the strong, melancholy Lincoln - who never lost his taste for personal combat.
Stephens had the more fragile and difficult ego. Historian James Rabun wrote that Stephens "was a man who always required himself to be high-minded. In his own view, he was not moved by the same ordinary motives, the same human spites and dislikes, that control other men."106 Lincoln was a more dispassionate student of human nature - for whom most criticism did not seem to penetrate. Lincoln was oriented towards compromise and conciliation where no principles were at stake. On election night in November 1864 Lincoln and other Administration officials learned that Congressman Henry Winter Davis was defeated for reelection. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox commented on the Maryland Republican who had been a thorn in the side of the Navy and the President: "It served him right." President Lincoln quietly responded: "You have more of that feeling of personal resentment than I. Perhaps I have too little of it; but I never thought it paid. A man has no time to spend half his life in quarrels. If any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him."107
Stephens was even more morbid and melancholy than Lincoln. "Everything seems stamped with the impress of decay," Stephens wrote his brother in October 1854. "Life is rapidly passing away and soon all of us will be in the grave. There is very little in this world worth the attention of one who must so soon take his departure."108 Two months later, he wrote his brother that "I am utterly enveloped in gloom."109 Little Aleck seemed to relish his own gloominess. His recurring depression afflicted him repeatedly over the next decade; biographer Schott dates a particularly deep bout to January 1859.110 Stephens once told a friend: "I have in my life been one of the most miserable beings, it seems to me, that walked the earth." He was "subject to occasional fits of depression that seemed well-nigh bordering on despair. Without enjoyment, without pleasure, without hope, and without sympathy with the world."111 As for Lincoln, noted attorney Henry Clay Whitney, "No element of Mr. Lincoln's character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy."112 Similar comments were made by other lawyers and politicians in Illinois.
Unlike Lincoln, who was a consistent backer of the Wilmot Proviso banning slavery in newly acquired territories, Stephens was a consistent opponent of the Proviso and worried that President Taylor might support it.113 A border dispute between New Mexico and Texas arose in the spring of 1850 in which southerners took the side of Texas and President Taylor was perceived as taking the side of New Mexico to the point of sending troops to keep the peace. Taylor sought to grant California and New Mexico statehood status without a preliminary territorial status -- seeking to avoid extended debate over slavery in these areas. Instead of quieting the situation, southerners reacted by talking about secession and calling a convention to meet at Nashville.
Although Lincoln and Stephens agreed on the selection of Zachary Taylor as the Whig candidate for president in 1848, they disagreed on what direction the country needed to take regarding slavery. Where black bondage was concerned, Stephens and Lincoln both saw in Taylor, a southern slaveowner, what they wanted to see. Lincoln scholar Fred Kaplan wrote that "by what he chose to emphasize, Lincoln acknowledged that Taylor's value as a paradigm for leadership resided in his personal qualities rather than his presidential achievements, and in Taylor Lincoln found a mirror image of the characteristics he valued in himself. As a leader, especially as a military commander, Taylor triumphed by 'a combination of negatives -absence of excitement and absence of fear. He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared."114
Improbably, it was Lincoln who turned out to be right and Stephens who turned out to be wrong about Taylor. Lincoln campaigned extensively in September in Massachusetts, a stronghold of abolitionist or anti-slavery sentiment - and sought to prevent antislavery voters from supporting the Free Soil presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren. In a speech in Worcester, Lincoln argued that "the people of Illinois agreed entirely with the people of Massachusetts on this subject [of slavery], except perhaps that they did not keep so constantly thinking about it. All agreed that slavery was an evil, but that we were not responsible for it and cannot affect it in States of this Union where we do not live. But, the question of the extension of slavery to new territories of this country, is a part of our responsibility and care, and is under our control."115 Taylor was a political blank slate and both Lincoln and Stephens attempted to color him with the political hues they themselves favored.
Nationally, Taylor won with only 47% of the vote - capturing Georgia but losing Illinois. At first, the incoming Taylor Administration treated Stephens better than it did Lincoln. "When Taylor was elected, he sent for me immediately on his reaching Washington. Crittenden, then Governor of Kentucky, had advised him to consult me. Taylor asked me and Toombs to go into his Cabinet. I advised against this," remembered Stephens.116 Outgoing Congressman Abraham Lincoln sought to head the federal Land Office, but was passed over. To Lincoln's intense chagrin, the job went to another Illinois Whig who had not supported Taylor. Stephens's own relations with Taylor soon soured when in December 1849, Stephens decided "that [New York Senator William H.] Seward as a charmer had complete control of [Secretary of the Navy William B.] Preston" over the issue of excluding slavery from the territories.117 Stephens left the Whig caucus when it refused to oppose any congressional prohibition of territorial slavery.
In early 1850, Stephens and fellow Georgian Robert Toombs challenged Taylor over his support for speedy statehood for California. The long working relationship between Stephens and Toombs was the "The Union That Shaped the Confederacy" in the opinion of historian William C. Davis.118 Stephens and Toombs were a strange combination. Stephens biographer Rudolph R. Von Abele wrote that Stephens was "at once drawn to this handsome swaggerer."119 Toombs, however, was as impulsive as Stephens was calculating. William C. Davis wrote that "Stephens deplored Toombs's lack of self-control and mental discipline. 'He has brains enough, if its energy had been properly directed, to govern an empire.' Yet he reined neither ambitions nor passions, making his spontaneity both blessing and curse."120 Still, Stephens and Toombs respected and consulted each other for decades. Even physically, the debonair Toombs was a contrast to Stephens. Toombs was a big man with a big personality. Jefferson Davis's wife Varina in 1848 described Toombs as "over six feet tall, with broad shoulders; his fine head set well on his shoulders, and...covered with long, glossy black hair." She noted: "One could scarcely imagine a wittier and more agreeable companion than he was. He was a university man, and had kept up his classics."121 She described Stephens as "not small, but he looked so, from the shortness of his body. The shape of his head was unpolished and immature. His arms were disproportionately long, and his beardless, wrinkled faced gave him the look of one born out of season. His eyes were clear hazel, and had a fine, critical, deliberate expression that commanded attention. His voice was thin, and piercing like a woman's, but there the resemblance ended. His was a virile mind sustained by an inflexible will; and, in all matters of importance, Mr. Toombs came up, in the end, on Mr. Stephens's side."122
Stephens had already challenged northern Whigs in December 1849 - seeking their agreement not to support Wilmot Proviso in legislation to admit California or seek to end the sale of slaves in the nation's capitol. "When the northern Whigs refused their appeal, Toombs, Stephens and most of the southern Whigs walked out of the caucus, swearing they would block any northern Whig from a position of leadership in the House or the party unless he first promised to repudiate the Wilmot Proviso," wrote historian Robert V. Remini. In the subsequent debate before election of the House speaker, Stephens angrily declared: "I would rather that the southern country should perish...than submit for one instant to degradation."123
Ironically, it was now Senator Henry Clay rather that Zachary Taylor to whom Stephens and Clay turned for leadership in devising a compromise bill to pacify both the North and the South regarding slavery and new territory. Clay had devised an "omnibus bill" incorporating several components designing to mollify both North and Sound President Taylor opposed the proposed compromise - preferring simple legislation to give California statehood without slavery. Stephens and Toombs met with Taylor at the White House on February 23. Toombs biographer William Y. Thompson wrote: "The President refused to budge, and in their frustration the congressmen talked loosely of secession and disunion."124
Historian Michael F. Holt wrote: "In late June, southern Whigs held a caucus to pick a committee to see Taylor and 'inform him, what will probably be the result of a defeat by his Admn. of the Compromise bill, of the disastrous effect of such a policy to our party in the South.'" Stephens saw Taylor on his own, but "Old Rough and Ready" was not one to back down from a fight. The president was being pushed by southern Whigs toward the position of northern Whigs. In response to the southerners, "Taylor lost his temper," noted James M. McPherson. "In unpresidential language he told them that he would personally lead an army to enforce the laws and hang any traitors he caught - including Toombs and Stephens - with as little compunction as he had hanged spies and deserters in Mexico. Taylor afterward commented to an associate that he had previously regarded Yankees as the aggressors in sectional disputes, but his experience since taking office had convinced him that southerners were 'intolerant and revolutionary' and that his former son-in-law Jefferson Davis was their 'chief conspirator.'"125
Just after the visit by Stephens and Toombs, New York editor Thurlow Weed arrived at the White House: "The President was walking rapidly to and fro. 'Did you,' said he, with an oath, 'did you meet those traitors?' Then, in an excited manner, and in strong language, he proceeded to relate what had passed between them and himself. They came, he said, to talk with him about his policy upon pending slavery questions; and when they were informed that he would approve any constitutional bill that Congress might pass, and execute the laws of the country, they threatened a dissolution of the Union; in reply to which he informed them, that, if it became necessary, in executing the laws, he would take command of the army himself, and that, if they were taken in rebellion against the Union, he would hang them with less reluctance than he had hung deserters and spies in Mexico!"126
As Stephens remembered the meeting: "A few days before his attack [of illness] I had a long and earnest interview with him and urged him to change his policy, which was at that time to send troops to Santa Fe, Texas, and take federal occupation of territory against the claim of Texas - Seward's game, as I believed. I went to see Preston, Toombs with me. Preston was not at home; we met him in front of the Treasury building; we had a long talk; Toombs said little, that little on my side. I told Preston that if troops were ordered to Santa Fe the President would be impeached. 'Who will impeach him?' asked he. 'I will if nobody else does,' I replied. We then turned and parted."127
In early July, Stephens wrote in the National Intelligencer: "[T]he first Federal gun that shall be fired against the people of Texas, without the authority of law, will be the signal for the freedmen from Delaware to the Rio Grande to rally to the rescue."128 A subsequent newspaper account of Taylor's death published in the Philadelphia Bulletin had Stephens and Toombs visiting Taylor after he fell ill and threatening him with congressional censure. Historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips wrote "that the Democratic press of the day...abetted by the New York Tribune, indulged in an unusual degree of sensationalism over it, some of them going so far as to charge that Toombs and Stephens had stood over the suffering President's bed and fiendishly hastened his death by their reproaches and the threat of public censure."129 Although they did not confront Taylor directly after he fell ill, Stephens and Toombs did confront him in the House where Stephens, southern Whigs and Democrats backed a resolution of censure against Taylor on July 6.
After Taylor's death, Stephens worked for passage of the Compromise of 1850 proposed by Henry Clay as a way to protect the Union and southern rights. Myrta Lockett Avary wrote that Stephens "was Clay's coadjutor in securing the Compromise of 1850, which saved the Union then. That it carried its vital principle, non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the Territories, each Territory deciding for herself in framing her State constitution, was chiefly due to Stephens. In one of the most dramatic moments ever felt in the Senate, Webster cast his vote for nonintervention. Stephens's effort to hold both sections to it thereafter was no more inspired by a desire to perpetuate slavery than was Webster's vote; both desired to save the Union. The manifesto of 1851, signed by Clay and forty or more leading men from both Houses and irrespective of party, declaring for non-intervention as a final settlement of slavery agitation in Congress, was drawn up by Stephens. With Webster, he incorporated the same principle in the Whig platform of 1852."130
The conflict over the Wilmot Proviso and the Compromise of 1850 tested Stephens' Whig allegiance. Stephens became a fervent supporter of the Compromise of 1850 first proposed by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. The death of Zachary Taylor eliminated one impediment to the legislation and strengthened Stephens' commitment to its passage. Schott wrote that Stephens "would support the compromise in almost any form, he decided, as long as the proviso got squelched. In fact, he did not like the territorial part of Clay's plan since it prevented territorial legislatures from passing any laws on slavery. He still believed Mexican law had banned slavery in the cession 'and that without some law passed by the governing power it is useless to speak of the constitutional rights of the South.' But since 'a majority of the South' had failed to concur, he was 'willing for the matter to be tested.' He supported Clay's plan not 'as a compromise,' he said, 'but simply as a measure to quiet the country.'"131 Stephens biographer Rudolph von Abele wrote that gloomy Stephens fretted that the compromise would fail: "The Omnibus was debated until July 31. Stephens looked on, as depressed as ever, going his daily rounds up and down the city, carrying his papers, like Lincoln, in his hat, attending to his constituents' business..."132
Along with his close congressional colleague, Robert M. Toombs, Stephens turned his back on the national Whig party. Stephens and Illinois Congressman Edward D. Baker, a longtime Lincoln friend and Whig colleague, engaged in spirited exchange on the House floor. Stephens foreshadowed the Civil War when he said: "The day in which aggression is consummated upon any section of the country, much and deeply as I regret it, this Union is dissolved."133 Nevertheless, Stephens was a moderate and a Unionist compared to more radical southerners. He was a defender of southern rights and the Union at the same time. As he often did (but less often acknowledged), Stephens accommodated himself to circumstances. Stephens began 1850 as a strong opponent of popular sovereignty and ended it as a tacit supporter. He supported the Compromise of 1850 as the best solution to slavery questions that would preserve the Union. His support won him no political points in Georgia where his stands were often vilified.134
Stephens was a unionist, but not an unconditional unionist. The conflicts in southern politics were reflected in the political stands that Stephens took in the early 1850s. "In the fall of 1850 he canvassed the State thoroughly, making speeches in every part of it, travelling in all not less than two thousand miles, and exerted himself as few men ever have done, in behalf of the Union under the Constitution," wrote biographer Henry Cleveland. "The excitement was very great. An election was to be held for Delegates to a State Convention, to consider of disunion, in consequence of those measures. In Green county (Georgia) he was interrupted by a violent Fire-eater, who exclaimed - 'Give us the line of 36ΒΊ 30' or fight!' His reply was-'My friend, we have already secured the line of 49ΒΊ, or twelve and a half degrees of latitude more than you ask, and without a fight; are you content, or do you want a fight any how?' That was the whole case in a nut-shell. The State went for the Union by an overwhelming majority."135
There were both secessionist and unionist strains in Georgia politics at this time. "The battle for Georgia intensified during 1850, dividing both parties along regional lines. Southern nationalists denounced the Compromise of 1850 and formed Southern Rights Associations in many of the counties of south and central Georgia. Unionists in these regions were dispirited," wrote historian Marc Egnal. "Howell Cobb..., Alexander H. Stephens, and Robert Toombs-turned the tide in favor of the Compromise and the Union. They helped secure a unionist majority for the state convention held in Milledgeville that December. At the convention the triumvirate formed a new party, uniting the Whigs and Democrats of north Georgia."136 Passage on December 14 of the "Georgia Platform" combining Unionism and states rights was a key test for secessionists and they lost. The Georgia Platform stated: "That the State of Georgia in the judgment of this Convention, will and ought to resist even (as a last resort,) to a disruption of the Union, any action of Congress upon the subject of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in places subject to the jurisdiction of Congress incompatible with the safety, domestic tranquility, the rights and honor of the slaveholding States; or any act suppressing the slave trade between slaveholding States, or any refusal to admit as a State any territory hereafter applying, because of the existence of slavery therein; or any act prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the territories of Utah and New Mexico, or any act repealing or modifying the laws now in force for the recovery of fugitive slaves."137 Huston noted that Stephens and his allies "insisted that the Compromise of 1850 was honorable and fair and that disunion was inappropriate. Georgia unionists provided the basic program for those opposed to secession in 1851. Stephens's political activities in this period helped forestall southern secession. Historian James L. Huston wrote: "By December 1850 it was apparent that disunionism had an offending smell to the public, and thus in the campaigns of 1851 the States Rights parties ran on the theoretical right of secession, not on actually leaving the Union. The opposition to the States Rights parties became known as the Constitutional Unionists: their following was primarily Whig although the movement attracted significant numbers of Democrats."138 Stephens allied himself with the Constitutional Union Party for two years until he and Toombs split in 1852.
Michael F. Holt wrote that "the two dyspeptic ex-Whigs from Georgia, Toombs and Stephens, hoped to convert the depleted Georgia Union party, to which they still clung, into a bipartisan southern party that could force cooperation and concessions from Northerners still interested in intersectional comity. In 1854, they worked closely with both pro-Nebraska Democratic congressmen and the Pierce administration, and they rejoiced at the wedge the Nebraska controversy drove between northern and southern Whigs...In June, Stephens wrote supporters in Georgia that the country was now in better condition for a 'reorganization' of parties than it had been in 1852, when he first attempted it."139 Stephens campaigned for Whig Party candidates in 1852 although he toyed with a Constitutional Union Party. Although he would have denied it, Stephens was much more likely to tack with the prevailing political breezes of the 1850s than was Lincoln; to Stephens' credit, it must be admitted that he sometimes tacked against those winds.
Although Stephens was hot-headed, concluded biographer Thomas E. Schott, he was also practical. Schott wrote that Stephens' "anger when he felt [his honor] breached was almost always transitory. Compromise, adjustment, explanation, mutual forbearance - these were always possible. Stephens was no revolutionary."140 Stephens' attitudes toward slavery seem particularly contradictory if viewed over the course of his personal life and political career. Schott noted: "For a man so naturally compassionate toward the unfortunate, weak, and poor, he betrayed little sensitivity to the fate of the millions of southern blacks. The institution - even in the abstract - had long since ceased to be debatable for him. He accepted all the standard proslavery arguments without question. The economic benefits of the system were so obvious that slavery's spread would be all but inevitable."141 Nevertheless, Stephens was not a cruel master and inspired the loyalty of some devoted servants.
Part IV: Kansas in the 1850s
When in the winter of 1853-1854, the issue of territorial organization of Kansas-Nebraska preoccupied Congress, Congressman Stephens was confined to bed with a liver abscess.142 He was very sick - as was often his case and had been the case regularly since the previous summer when he was severely injured in a railroad accident. During January 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who chaired the Senate Committee on Territories, rewrote his Kansas-Nebraska legislation to organize the territories to make it more palatable to southern Democrats. Douglas yielded to their demand to abrogate the Missouri Compromise line prohibiting slavery above 36ΒΊ 30' in the Louisiana Territory purchased from France. Stephens rallied from his sick bed to support what was clearly Democratic legislation.
In a vigorous speech on the House floor on February 17, the emaciated Stephens backed the Kansas-Nebraska legislation and the principle of popular sovereignty which he said had been embodied in the Compromise of 1850. (Prior to 1850, Stephens had been a fervent opponent of popular sovereignty.) In his extended historical and philosophical discourse, Stephens argued that as a result of the Compromise of 1850, "the whole question of slavery or no slavery was to be left to the people of the Territories, whether north or south of 36 30', or any other line. The question was to be taken out of Congress, where it had been improperly thrust from the beginning, and to be left to the people concerned in the matter to decide for themselves." Stephens vigorously attacked northern contentions that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 occupied a sacred place in American law. He summarized his version of popular sovereignty:
The principle upon which that position rests lies at the very foundation of all our republican institutions; it is that the citizens of every distinct and separate community or State should have the right to govern themselves in their domestic matters as they please, and that they should be free from intermeddling restrictions and arbitrary dictation on such matters, from any other power or government in which they have no voice. It was out of a violation of this very principle, to a great extent, that the war of the Revolution sprung. The South was always on the republican side of this question, while... a majority of the North, under the free-soil lead of that section, up to the settlement of the contest in 1850 - were on the opposite side.143
Although his persuasive oratorical skills were important for the Democratic legislation, more important to passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were Stephens' keen legislative skills. Because of the defection of northern Democrats in the House, the votes of Southern Whigs would be vital to passage.144 Because of the size of the opposition, the bill was stuck in a legislative logjam in early May. In opposition to the bill's sponsors, Stephens executed a complicated legislative maneuver that broke the logjam, brought the bill to the House floor, and passed it by a margin of 113-100. Stephens used "the 119th rule of the House, an obscure and seldom used regulation that allowed a motion to strike the enacting clause of a bill to take precedence over all pending amendments," wrote biographer Thomas E. Schott. "The majority would pass this motion, which would take the bill out of the Committee of the Whole and report the bill unfavorably to the House. This report, however, would be of no consequence, for the bill's supporters, reversing field, would then refuse to concur in the committee's report and would pass the bill under the previous question."145
Not everything - not even everyone in the South - appreciated Stephens effort. The Charleston Mercury realized that the tactics that Stephens had employed on behalf of southern interests could also be used against southern interests: "The amendment offered by Mr. STEPHENS in Committee of the Whole, to strike out the enacting clause of the bill, cut off all other amendments, deprived the bill of its vitality, and compelled the Committee to rise and report the bill thus amended to the House. The question then came up in the House upon the adoption of this report. By previous understanding the very majority who had so amended the bill in committee, now voted for the rejection of the report. The effect of this move, then was, to remove the bill from committee where amendments without limit could impede its passage, and bring it before the House, where the call for the previous question, to the exclusion of all amendments, would force it at once to a direct vote. The tactics were most adroit, and as the result showed entirely successful. Thus after a tedious parliamentary campaign, which left the question still to be decided by patience and physical endurance, the victory is won by a simple manoeuvre, as unlooked for as it is unusual, the resort to it, is an era in the parliamentary history of the country. It has closed the door henceforth to the successful resistance on the part of minorities, to measures which they deem unconstitutional and oppressive. And the effect of a victory thus won will be to make majorities more intolerant of opposition, and regardless of the claims and arguments of the weaker side. We do not speak of this movement in reference to the Nebraska bill. We look at it as a question deeply effecting the future history of the country, and as such it is worthy of note."
The newspaper continued: "The precedent is established, and majorities in the future need only follow it to perpetuate acts of the grossest injustice. Where now is there any parliamentary protection for minorities? This new system of tactics violates it utterly, and by a single blow deprives them of that power, which, although it may at times be the rallying point of faction, yet, in the light of all history, is the last strong refuge of justice and freedom. In the annihilation, therefore, of the power of minorities, in the intolerant spirit which hereafter will actuate majorities, and the consequent wrongful legislation to which they may lead in all these aspects, we regard the precedent established, as bad and dangerous. It is a fearful stride to that fatal evil which ever impends Democratic institutions; when minorities, their protests, appeals and rights, are unheeded in the remorseless tread of majorities.""146
Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, gave Stephens new political life. "I feel as if the Mission of my life was performed," Stephens wrote.147 Like Douglas, Stephens took credit for passage of the legislation. Enactment of the legislation also brought Stephens' erstwhile Whig friend, Abraham Lincoln, out of political retirement. Lincoln carefully researched the history of the Missouri Compromise and federal handling of the slavery issue. By late summer, Lincoln was on the campaign trail in Illinois - detailing his interpretation of the American Founders on the slavery issue in a series of speeches around central and northern Illinois. The culmination of his efforts was two direct confrontations with the bill's sponsor, Senator Stephen A. Douglas. The first came in Springfield on October 3-4. The second was in Peoria on October 16. In both places Lincoln defended the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and attacked its repeal in nearly identical speeches. Equally vigorously, Lincoln defended the Founders and attacked the morality of slavery and the doctrine of popularity sovereignty which would allow slavery's extension. Lincoln declared:
Slavery is founded in the selfishness of man's nature-opposition to it, [in] his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow. Repeal the Missouri compromise-repeal all compromises-repeal the declaration of independence-repeal all past history, you still can not repeal human nature. It still will be the abundance of man's heart, that slavery extension is wrong; and out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will continue to speak.148
Lincoln hated "slavery, but he was aroused to passionate opposition only when it threatened the constitutional-political system," wrote Civil War historian Phillip Shaw Paludan. But after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Mr. Lincoln saw that the principles of the Declaration of Independence required an active defense. "Lincoln's task was to put [the Declaration of Independence] back into [its constitutional] context, to retain the ties between declaring ideals and constituting a political constitutional culture to realize them," wrote Paludan.149 One result of Lincoln's campaign against the Kansas-Nebraska bill was that anti-Nebraska candidates won a majority in the Illinois legislature - and that Lincoln sought to be elected by that majority to replace James Shields in the U.S. Senate. Anti-Nebraska Democrats, however, refused to support an Anti-Nebraska Whig like Lincoln. So rather than allow election of a pro-Nebraska candidate, Lincoln threw his support to an anti-Nebraska Democrat, Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln's defeat set up his political migration into the emerging Republican Party and his 1858 rematch with Douglas for his Senate seat. Although both American nationalists, Lincoln and Stephens took very different political paths and held very different priorities.
In 1854, Stephens switched his position on territorial expansion to Cuba, which he had long opposed. Previously, Stephens had maintained: "The annexation project is a miserable humbug got up as a ruse to distract the Whig party in the South, or peradventure with even an ulterior motive - that is the dissolution of the present confederacy."150 Southerners during this period repeatedly raised the possibility of annexing Cuba and making it into a slave state. James Buchanan was one of three Pierce Administration diplomats who met in Belgium in 1854 and issued the controversial "Ostend Manifesto" declaring that American should take Cuba by force if Spain declined to sell the colony. Schott wrote: "That Stephens could so easily abandon his isolationism in just eighteen months demonstrates how far he had moved toward becoming a Democrat. But he never would have admitted it. Instead, he seemed to envision the tattered remnant of the southern Whigs as the foundation for a general party restructuring."151 Stephens officially switched to the Democratic party in 1855. Only in 1856 would Lincoln abandon the Whigs and join the Republicans.
In the House of Representatives, Stephens was at the peak of his power. An 1855 newspaper profile of the "curious-looking creature" who was "one of the marked characters of the House" outlined the congressman's powers of persuasion: "True, there is no mark of extraordinary intellectuality in his countenance; but draw him out in debate, do any thing to set at work the powerful intellectual battery within, and that poor, sickly, emaciated frame, which looks as if it must sink under the slightest physical exertion, at once grows instinct with a galvanic vitality which quickens every nerve with the energy of a new life, imparts to every feature a high, intellectual expression, makes the languid eyes glow like living coals, and diffuses a glow of reviving animation over the pallid countenance." The reporter went on to describe Stephens' speaking style.
A new spirit seems to be awakened within him which transforms the whole man into a new creature in appearance. You cease to be annoyed by that voice which pierces the ear with its shrill and discordant tones, and the awkward gestures seem awkward no longer, for they are evidently prompted by nature. No wonder that nature has slighted the outward man, since she has lavished her rarest gifts upon the inward with unsparing profusion. The intellectual power of the man seems so to transfigure the outward appearance, so to transfer its quickening and transforming spirit into the physical nature, that the emaciated figure before you looks as much like intellect incarnate, as can well be imagined. He hurries through the exordium, announces the subject, lays down his propositions, and advances at once to the argument, which he follows out with logical exactness, weaving into the thread of it such facts as are proper for illustration, and drawing out conclusions which the most subtle ingenuity cannot avert. Now he advances to the arguments of the other side, dissects them with admirable delicacy, exposes a fallacy here and a misstatement of facts there; here a non sequiter, and there a petitio principii; now some insidious reflection upon the South touches his sensitive feelings on that subject, and forth there issues a flame of withering invective, which, made doubly hot by his envenomed sarcasm, scathes its victim as with the blasting touch of the lightning; now he is all on fire with interest in his subject, and seems to catch the inspiration of eloquence, as, with more than mortal power, he summons forth the feelings of the audience, and sways them in alternate emotions of anger, indignation, pity, love, and all the passions of the human breast."152
In 1855, Stephens emerged as a strong opponent of the Know Nothing movement as a replacement for the Whig Party. Stephens saw immigrant Catholics as natural allies of slaveholding southerners and denounced Know-Nothings for their prejudice: "Members of the Order may deny it, and say, as some do, that they 'are pledged for religious freedom to every church, be it Catholic or Protestant.' But every one of them knows, and whether they deny it or not, there is a secret monitor within that tells them they have pledged themselves never to vote for any Roman Catholic to any office of profit or trust. They have thus pledged themselves to set up a religious test in qualifications for office, against the express words of the Constitution of the United States."153 Stephens wrote that northern Know Nothings "are for elevating the black man and degrading their own kith and kin. This is but a Yankee notion - a new patented idea for making white men slaves - menial servants at least - instead of following the order of nature."154 Unlike many Know-Nothings, Stephens was also a strong opponent of any congressional authority over territorial slavery.
Lincoln was more circumspect in public because some of his political allies were Know Nothings. In private Lincoln wrote his best friend: "I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy."155
Unlike Lincoln, however, Stephens occupied public office. He needed a political party. Stephens also moved progressively closer to the positions of Stephen A. Douglas, his Kansas-Nebraska ally who preached popular sovereignty and opposition to the Know-Nothings. In private, Douglas saw the usefulness of the Know-Nothings as an ally or demon in Illinois politics. Foreign-born Irish were a long-time component of Douglas's electoral constituency in Illinois. Lincoln, however, desperately needed the support of the antislavery Know Nothings in his fight with Douglas. He could afford neither to embrace nor denounce them. In October 1858, Lincoln wrote a friend who had been active in the Know-Nothings: "Lay hold of the proper agencies and secure all the Americans you can at once."156
Once a Taylor Whig like Lincoln, Stephens became a Douglas Democrat. In the summer of 1858, Stephens and his brother traveled north to restore the congressman's always precarious health. In August Alex stopped off in Chicago to arrange for the painting of portraits of his brother and late sister-in-law. Newspapers speculated that Stephens had come there to help Douglas defeat Lincoln in the Illinois Senate contest. The Chicago Press and Tribune reported that his "mission here appeared to be the reconciliation of the contending factions of the Democracy for the benefit of Mr. Douglas....He failed to make any impression on the Buchaneers, simply because he was authorized to offer them no terms which implied the withdrawal of Douglas from the field of strife, and they would accept nothing less. After all entreaties and persuasions failed, Mr. Stephens, so it is said, took up the Union-saving dodge, and, in voice as lugubrious as that of Mistress O'Flaherty at a wake, foretold the evil consequences that would follow Mr. Douglas' defeat. The lament had its climax in that old song, 'The Union will be dissolved!' He could not have touched a more discordant string. Democratic politicians hereabouts know the value of that threat too well to be terrified when hurled at them. It is an admirable thing with which to frighten timid men and fearful boys; but for Democrats to use it upon Democrats is like women's kisses of women - an unnecessary waste of the raw material. At any rate Mr. Stephens failed to make the impression that he desired and bowed himself out of the scene. As the Republicans of New York and New England have ascertained that their co-workers in Illinois do not need their advice, so the proslavery men of the South will learn that the Democracy of the same State can manage their quarrels without their assistance. So here's another missionary disposed of."157
"Missionary" Stephens denied any political involvement in his visit, but admitted: "When my opinion was asked I gave it; as I always have done and always shall. I did not hesitate to say in Ohio and Illinois and everywhere just what I said at home and in Athens before I left, that I should prefer to see Douglas elected to Lincoln, and I thought the war of the Washington Union [newspaper] on him ought to cease. I did not say that I considered it a 'wickedly foolish' war; but I did say that I thought it an unwise and impolitic war."158 But, noted historian Allan Nevins, Stephens may have helped to bring a temporary detente between Douglas and Buchanan. Stephens "seems to have arranged a brisk peace movement in Chicago," but the effect was temporary because President James Buchanan and his southern allies were obdurate.159 For Lincoln, the insult of Stephens' endorsement of Douglas was compounded two months later when it was revealed that Kentucky Senator John Crittenden - with whom Stephens and Lincoln had worked on Zachary Taylor's presidential nomination in 1848 - also backed Douglas.
While Lincoln and Douglas were beginning their 1858 debates, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis was ending a two-month vacation in Maine to restore his broken health. He was criticised for the relative moderation of his public comments in New England that seemed to support popular sovereignty. Davis rectified that error on his return to the South with more militant language. Stephens' comments contrasted with those of Davis, who bitterly denounced Douglas in a speech to the Mississippi legislature in November.160 Unlike Davis, Stephens was still committed to the Union. Stephens's support for Douglas came despite their differences on the controversial Lecompton constitution, whose ratification by Congress in the spring of 1838 Stephens strongly favored. Douglas vigorously opposed Lecompton because it clearly was in violation of the popular sovereignty he espoused. After meeting with Douglas in December 1857, Stephens, who chaired the House Committee on Territories, wrote: "He is against us, decidedly, but not extravagantly."161
Actually, Douglas, who chaired the Senate Committee on Territories, would be extravagantly against Lecompton as would Douglas's chief House lieutenant, Thomas L. Harris of Springfield. Stephens, chairman of the House Committee on Territories, was allied with President Buchanan in his support for Lecompton. Stephens biographer Rudolph von Abele wrote that in early February 1858: "As soon as the [Buchanan] message was read, he moved that the Lecompton constitution be referred to his committee. Douglas men objected; and after several days of angry debate the motion was defeated, 114-113, and on February 8 the House decided it wanted a special committee to look into the Kansas situation. This was bad. Stephens was personally persuaded that Lecompton was done for..."162 On February 5, Stephens tried to stave off defeat when Harris launched an attempt to vote on the motion to refer Lecompton to a committee without power to investigate the elections. So many administration backers were absent that Stephens feared defeat and waged a holding action for hours, hoping to rally the Lecompton forces who had dispersed to evening dinners.
Thomas E. Schott wrote: "Attempting to cram Lecompton through the House in early 1858 would have tried the patience of men far closer to sainthood than he was. The situation was highly flammable, and when the president's message came up again on February 5, the House exploded. For almost twelve hours, from 3:30 in the afternoon til past 2:00 the next morning, Stephens tried to get a vote for adjournment."163 Early Saturday morning, a dispute between Pennsylvania's Galusha Grow and South Carolina's Laurence Keit began with insults. Keit called Grow a "black Republican puppy" when he ventured onto the Democratic side of the House. Grow replied: "No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me." The dispute quickly turned physical and then turned into a brawl in which at least 50 members of Congress participated. Calls to stop were ignored. Order was only restored when the fight turned into a farce. One Mississippi member's wig was torn off by a northern Republican, who claimed he had scalped the now bald southerner. When the Mississippian put his wig back on inside out, House members broke out in laughter.164 "Such a row you never saw," wrote Stephens, who had postponed but not prevented defeat.165 Still, he hoped and worked.
As historian Roy Nichols observed: "In 1854 Stephens and his aides had broken down an adverse majority of twenty-one in the great Nebraska struggle. History might repeat itself." Unlike 1854 when Stephens had been the most influential House ally of Douglas, now Stephens was the general rallying opposition in the House to an ailing Douglas. When Congress reassembled on Monday after a weekend of intense lobbying, Lecompton forces felt short by one vote. But even though Harris was appointed to chair the special Lecompton committee, Stephens and his allies controlled its membership and denied Harris any ability to investigate Lecompton frauds.166
In 1858 Stephens occupied the legislative position that Douglas had held four years earlier when the Kansas-Nebraska legislation was considered. Stephens biographer Rudolph von Abele wrote of Stephens now "stood at the top of his power in Washington. He held the whip, he represented the Administration, and he rammed its measures through the legislature against an opposition that resisted with the vehemence of desperation. From his eminence as chairman of the Territorial Committee he looked down, pale, brusque, impatient, dyspeptic, and terribly serious. 'Members,' one of them testified, 'are afraid of him. They submit to him their measures and if he does not approve them, it is no use to argue, he will oppose. If he approves and consents to take charge of a Bill you have to let him take his own course - he will not take any suggestions."167
Stephens worked feverishly to push House approval of Lecompton against strong northern opposition. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp wrote that "Stephens search[ed] for some means to avoid at least the appearance of total defeat, while the administration resorted to methods fair and foul to win the votes of party rebels." Despite all the carrots and sticks which the Buchanan administration wielded on behalf of the legislation, not enough northern Democrats could be persuaded to support Lecompton in the House.168 Failing to pass Lecompton outright on April 1, Stephens sought an alternative. His opportunity came when he was appointed to a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate measures. His ally was Indiana Congressman William H. English whom he and Buchanan had recruited in March to negotiate a compromise. As friend of both Douglas and Indiana Senator Jesse Bright, English was a logical bridge among key northern Democrats. "English, still in his middle thirties was precocious, adaptable, and cultivated," wrote historian Allan Nevins. "On March 27, the Democratic Representatives held a night caucus. Stephens made a speech imploring the anti-Lecompton men to be reasonable, and English moved that each side appoint ten men to a conference committee. When this body met on the twenty-ninth, the anti-Lecomptonites brought forward what they thought a generous offer. They would vote for the Senate bill if it were amended to declare that the people of Kansas then had, and might at all times exercise, the right of altering or rewriting their constitution at will."169 Southern representatives immediately objected to such congressional intervention. The anti-Lecompton representatives then stiffened their resolve.
Stephens used Congressman English to put forward an alternative plan to the conference committee that called for a second vote by Kansans on the Lecompton constitution. Rejection by Kansans would mean a substantial delay in statehood until the territory had 90,000 residents. The compromise passed the House by a vote of 112-103 and the Senate by a 31-22 margin with Douglas opposing the work of his friends English and Stephens. "The Adm. has bought men like hogs in the market," charged Douglas ally Thomas Harris.170 Stephens nurtured a cordial respect for Douglas even when he differed from him. Historian Thomas E. Schott wrote that Stephens "had anticipated the Illinois senator's tenacity - and incidentally had won a bet with Cobb on it. Douglas made an issue out of the election that had ratified Lecompton; the administration did not, as Stephens (and Douglas) came to believe, because it meant to ruin the Little Giant in the North....Stephens dutifully fought the administration's battle, but deep down he always held Buchanan responsible for the whole debacle."171
Like the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that Stephens championed, the English bill would prove a pyrrhic victory. The second Lecompton vote in Kansas failed overwhelmingly and Douglas was put on the defensive in Illinois by Lincoln's strong Senate challenge. Stephens also suffered politically. There was virtually no political benefit to his support for Douglas, who was systematically vilified in Georgia's newspapers. Schott wrote: "Stephens's views on Douglas were, to say the least, unusual among southern Democrats. Most loathed the Little Giant as the rankest traitor."172 Nationally, the future of the Democratic Party was at risk. And if the future of the Democratic Party was at risk, so in Stephens' mind was the future of the United States of America. Stephens tried to bridge the political chasm between President Buchanan and Senator Douglas. Stephens biographer Rudolph von Abele wrote: "When he returned to Washington in December 1858 he saw Buchanan and told him that if the war on Douglas persisted there would be a 'burst-up' in the Democratic convention in 1860, and with that a disruption of the Union. Buchanan, though surprised at such a line of thought, could not longer abandon his position; and Stephens left the White House, satisfied that he could do nothing to stave off the disaster he felt was coming - and indeed had done something to hasten."173
Having staved off Abraham Lincoln's challenger to his Senate seat, Douglas returned to Washington and his third try at getting the Democratic presidential nomination. Stephens was also spoken of as a possible candidate for the 1860 presidential nomination but he instead desired to retire from politics - leaving Congress in 1859 at age 50. Just when Lincoln was gearing up for a presidential run, Stephens himself was gearing down for retirement. In late 1858, Stephens responded to speculation of his own presidential ambitions by saying "that I would just as lief be put upon a list of suspected horse-thieves as to be considered in the number of those were aspiring or looking to the probabilities or chances of ever being President. I looked upon all such with feelings of great pity, commingled with contempt; and I should loath myself if I felt conscious of such a spirit taking possession of my breast."174 Biographer E. Ramsay Richardson wrote: "Stephens thought it passing strange that his friends, to whom he had expressed himself emphatically, continued to urge that he reconsider and allow his name to be presented at Charleston. It was annoying that Georgians were seriously contemplating placing him in the running." He wrote friends seeking to quash his candidacy.175 One letter was widely reprinted:
From the allusions to my name in the newspapers, in connection with the probable action of that body, I feel warranted and justified in authorizing you, as a friend, to make known generally to your fellow-members what you, and all others who have conferred with me either directly or indirectly, about this matter, already know, that so far from wishing to be the cause of any embarrassment in their deliberations, I do not wish my name connected with the Presidency in any way. This is certainly no time for the people of the South to be weakening their strength by divisions and struggles to promote or advance the aspirations of particular favorites to the office of Chief Magistrate of the Union. It is eminently a time for harmony among the friends of the Constitution everywhere, South as well as North. So far as I am individually concerned, I wish it distinctly known that I have no aspirations for that high office - none whatever; and whatever comment it may subject me to by those who do not know me, I assure you I would not, of my own free choice, assume its great trusts, if nothing were necessary to enable me to do so but my bare volition. Its duties, cares, anxieties, and heavy responsibilities would, with me, far outweigh all fancied honors that may be supposed to attend it.
It is well, perhaps, for the country that we have quite a number of able and true men who look upon it differently, and who have a taste and inclination, for the position. By all means, let some such one, who can unite the greatest strength in the coming contest, be selected as the standard-bearer of our cause. Let there be no useless and mischievous wrangling for individual favorites, either at Milledgeville, or at Charleston, and all may be well. The only interest I feel in the question, is that which all good citizens should feel who desire from the Government nothing but a wise, safe, sound and vigorous administration upon such principles as will secure the right of all, and the peace, quiet, happiness and prosperity of our common country. In no event do I desire my name connected with it in any way.176
Despite his wishes, at times during the Democratic breakup in the spring of 1860, Stephens was discussed as a compromise candidate. Stephens himself was accused of using Douglas' candidacy as stalking horse for his own ambition. Senator Douglas claimed to have been willing to withdraw his own candidacy if it would mean Stephens's nomination.177 In mid- February 1860, the Chicago Tribune printed a short note: "It is now understood in political circles that Mr. Douglas, failing to secure the nomination at Charleston from the united opposition of the South against him, will transfer all the strength he can command in favor of Alexander H. Stephens. He will have power enough in the Convention to control the nomination of another, without being able to commandeer it for himself."178 Actually, according to biographer Myrta Lockett Avary, Stephens "saw in Stephen A. Douglas, with his Western and Northern following, the one candidate favourable to the South who could lead the Democrats to victory; and that if Douglas were read out of the party, so would the North and West be."179
In April 1860, the Democratic national convention meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, dissolved when Southerners walked out. Stephens concluded: "The party is split forever. Douglas will not retire from the stand he has taken, and the party will nominate somebody else. The only hope was at Charleston. If the party could have agreed there we might carry the election. As it is, the cause is hopelessly lost." Stephens defended Douglas, saying he was "one of the foremost defenders of constitutional rights in the country....The greatest alleged objections to Douglas are his ambition and the hordes of office-seekers that are in his suite."180 After Douglas's nomination by the northern branch of the Democratic Party, Stephens' support gave his campaign some genuine credibility in Georgia.
Stephens had supported secession in principle since he entered politics in 1834, but he generally opposed it in practice.181 Historian Bruce Catton wrote: "The strictest of strict constructionists on the states' rights issue, he nevertheless believed that Southerners could fight for their just dues in the Union better than out of it. As the Democratic split grew wider, Stephens remarked that the men who were working for secession were driven by envy, hate, jealousy, spite - 'these made war in heaven, which made devils of angels, and the same passions will make devils of men. The secession movement was instigated by nothing but bad passions. Patriotism, in my opinion, had no more to do with it than love of God had with the other revolt.'"182
As the Civil War approached, Stephens, more than Lincoln, feared that a breakup of the Union was imminent. Stephens told a friend in May 1860 "that men will be cutting one another's throats in a little while. In less than twelve months we shall be in a war, and that the bloodiest in history. Men seem to be utterly blinded to the future."183 Stephens privately and presciently predicted Civil War:
Mark me, when I repeat that in less than twelve months we shall be in the midst of a bloody war. What is to become of us then God only knows. The Union will certainly be disrupted; and what will make it so disastrous is the way in which it will be done. The Southern people are not unanimous now, and will not be, on the question of secession The Republican nominee will be elected. Then South Carolina will secede. For me, I should be content to let her have her own way, and go out alone. But the Gulf States will follow her example. The people are by no means unanimous; but the majorities will follow her. They are what we will start off with in our new nation - the Gulf States following South Carolina. After that the Border States will hesitate, and their hesitation will encourage the North to make war upon us. If the South would unanimously and simultaneously go out of the Union we could make a very strong government. But even then, if there were only Slave States in the new confederacy, we should be known as the Black Republic, and be without the sympathy of the world.184
Stephens's concern was not for Lincoln as president, although Stephens did fear the election of Lincoln. On July 2, Stephens wrote J. Henly Smith: "I am pained and grieved at the folly which thus demanded the sacrifice of such a noble and gallant spirit as I believe Douglas to be. I can see but one possible good that his nomination may effect, and that is he may get enough electoral votes at the North to defeat Lincoln in the colleges and thus throw [it] in the House where he may be the stepping stone for his party rival (Breckinridge) to rise into office. His back and shoulders may enable his rival to elevate himself to place and honor and in this way attain the object of his ambition, and in this way the country may possibly be benefitted in the ultimate defeat of Lincoln."185 Eight days later, Stephens wrote the same friend: "In point of merit as a man I have no doubt Lincoln is just as good, safe and sound a man as Mr. Buchanan, and would administer the government so far as he is individually concerned just as safely for the south and as honestly and faithfully in every particular. I know the man well. He is not a bad man. He will make as good a president as [Millard] Fillmore - better, too, in my opinion. He has a great deal more practical common sense. Still his party may do mischief. If so it will be a great misfortune, but a misfortune that our own people brought upon us."186
Stephens was a unionist but he was also a politician. He could not ignore that slavery was an integral part of Georgia society. John Jeffrey Auer wrote: "By 1860, slavery was so intertwined in Georgia's economic and social structure that the institution had the firm support of the great majority of the citizens....Although sixty-six percent of the slaveholders owned fewer than ten each, the small farmers were as zealous as the wealthy planters in defending their right to slave property. Many city dwellers and slaveless farmers rented Negro servants and laborers from owners who had a surplus, and it was claimed that most of the 15,000 farmers without slave labor hoped to own Negroes eventually."187
Despite ill health, Stephens led the Douglas campaign in Georgia and campaigned for Douglas's doomed candidacy and against southern secession during the summer of 1860. "More than alleged threats to slavery, the conservative Stephens, like Salmon Chase, feared disorder and anarchy, which the Georgian associated with disunion. He therefore split with Toombs, [and] worked for the election of Douglas" wrote James K. Abrahamson.188 On August 30, Stephens wrote a friend: "Douglas is gaining very rapidly just at this time in Ga., from all I can hear. But of course there is no prospect of his getting the vote of the state. If he gets 20,000 votes it will be a wonderful success, with all the leading [men] of the party and the press, except two or three papers, against him."189 In a spirited speech in Augusta on September 1, Stephens said: "I do not mean to say that the Secession movement at Charleston was a disunionist movement, or intended as such by all who joined it in, but I do mean to say that the movement tends to disunion, to civil strife; may lead to it, and most probably will, unless arrested by the virtue, intelligence and patriotism of the people. The signs of the time portend evil. You need not be surprised to see these States, now so peaceful, contented, prosperous, and happy, embroiled in civil war in less than twelve months."190
Lincoln himself did not campaign on his own behalf that fall. Douglas, however, violated American political custom by giving campaign speeches in both the North and South. Stephens asked Senator Douglas to campaign in Georgia and shared the stage with him in Atlanta, Macon, and Columbus at the end of October. 'We are making a desperate fight against great without any hope of carrying the state, but with the view of maintaining sound principles and a sound national organization." Speaking at Atlanta, Stephens raised the prospect of the nationalization of slavery: "But, believing as I do, that slavery is the normal condition of the negro, and that it is one of the fixed laws of the Creator that it shall exist, I believe that the time will come when it will exist in every State in the Union."191
Slavery aside, Douglas and Stephens were finding a difficult audience for their message. The August Daily Chronicle and Sentinel editorialized on October 10, 1860: that "we are all really agreed and pledged, by the distinct platforms of DOUGLAS and BRECKINRIDGE, and by the acquiescence of the BELL men in the laws, (for we are a party of law-abiding people,) that the people of the Territories shall settle slavery for themselves, subject to the Constitution. The trouble is, that the BELL and BRECKINRIDGE men hold that subject to the Constitution, the Territories have no lawful authority to exclude slavery nor slaveholders, while Mr. DOUGLAS and his Northern supporters hold that the Territories have such lawful authority, and his supporters at the South, whether holding such doctrine or not, are content to let them exercise it. To the doctrine of judge DOUGLAS we, of the BELL party and the BRECKINRIDGE party, can never, and will never, assent, as a fundamental principle of party organization, or a fundamental rule of practice in the administration of the Government. We hold now, as always that the doctrine is totally indefensible, and, as Mr. TOOMBS says, that it is supported by neither reason nor authority. Upon this then, the BRECKINRIDGE and BELL men stand firmly together, and upon this we are both forever separated from the DOUGLAS party, as far as the poles asunder, unless the DOUGLAS party abandon the position."192
More so than either Douglas or Stephens, Lincoln remained optimistic that the storm of secession was overblown. Stephens knew otherwise. "The certainty of Lincoln's election seemed to fire Stephens with new determination," wrote biographer Schott. "The issue was no longer who would be president but whether the Union would survive. Stephens found hope where he could. Democrats, he noted, had retained enough seats in the House to keep it out of Republican control, which was all the more reason, he thought, that secession if Lincoln were elected would be groundless: the new president would be powerless to do harm."193 By withdrawing from Congress, however, southerners assured that the Republican minority would become the Republican majority. By finally playing their trump card, the South lost its ability to win the game.
Part V. The 1860 Election and Secession
The 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, worried Alexander H. Stephens, but not as much as the Republican victory horrified many fellow Georgians. "Of all Southern men with 'living positions' perhaps Alexander Hamilton Stephens knew best that Lincoln was neither a rabid abolitionist nor the tool of a wicked party," wrote historian Michael Davis.194 "I knew Mr. Lincoln, thought well of him personally, believed him to be a kind-hearted man,' Stephens recalled later.195
Soon after the Lincoln's election was assured, Stephens was requested to address the Georgia legislature at Milledgeville on the state of national affairs. He followed a series of speakers, including Senator Robert Toombs, who had urged secession. "Will you submit to Abolitionist rule, or will you resist?" asked Stephens' longtime friend. "I ask you to give me a sword, for it you do not give it to me, as God lives, I will take it myself!"196 Said Toombs: "My countrymen, 'if you have nature in you, bear it not.' Withdraw yourselves from such a confederacy; it is your right to do so; your duty to do so. I know not why the abolitionists should object to it, unless they want to torture you and plunder you. If they resist this great sovereign right, make another war of independence, for that will then be the question; fight its battles over again; reconquer liberty and independence."197
On November 14, Stephens was given the chance to present his own analysis of the recent election and its implications for the state. He was, wrote John Jeffrey Auer, "torn between two pressures, his love for the Union and his loyalty to his state."198 According to biographer Schott: "The smoky chamber, eerily yellow in the sputtering gas light, was jammed to capacity, buzzing with anticipation. As the last words of introduction died, a crescendo of applause greeted the familiar figure striding deliberately to the podium....The buzz became a hush, and the shrill voice enveloped the chamber.199 Toombs sat near Stephens and occasionally interjected comments as his friend spoke.200 Historian William C. Davis noted that Toombs' "points invariably [were] overcome by a logic in Stephens that was considerably superior to Toombs' mere banter."201 Stephens told the legislature:
"The first question that presents itself is, shall the people of Georgia secede from the Union in consequence of the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States? My countrymen, I tell you frankly, candidly, and earnestly, that I do not think that they ought. In my judgment, the election of no man, constitutionally chosen to that high office, is sufficient cause to justify any State to separate from the Union. It ought to stand by and aid still in maintaining the Constitution of the country. To make a point of resistance to the Government, to withdraw from it because any man has been elected, would put us in the wrong. We are pledged to maintain the Constitution. Many of us have sworn to support it. Can we, therefore, for the mere election of any man to the Presidency, and that, too, in accordance with the prescribed forms of the Constitution, make a point of resistance to the Government, without becoming the breakers of that sacred instrument ourselves, by withdrawing ourselves from it? Would we not be in the wrong? Whatever fate is to befall this country, let it never be laid to the charge of the people of the South, and especially the people of Georgia, that we were untrue to our national engagements. Let the fault and the wrong rest upon others. If all our hopes are to be blasted, if the Republic is to go down, let us be found to the last moment standing on the deck with the Constitution of the United States waving over our heads. (Applause.) Let the fanatics of the North break the Constitution, if such is their fell purpose. Let the responsibility be upon them. I shall speak presently more of their acts; but let not the South, let us not be the ones to commit the aggression. We went into the election with this people. The result was different from what we wished; but the election has been constitutionally held. Were we to make a point of resistance to the Government and go out of the Union merely on that account, the record would be made up hereafter against us.
Stephens warned against precipitous action based on the assumed of future negative actions by northerners. The crisis, he argued, was overblown: "But it is said Mr. Lincoln's policy and principles are against the Constitution, and that, if he carries them out, it will be destructive of our rights. Let us not anticipate a threatened evil. If he violates the Constitution, then will come our time to act. Do not let us break it because, forsooth, he may. If he does, that is the time for us to act. (Applause.) I think it would be injudicious and unwise to do this sooner. I do not anticipate that Mr. Lincoln will do anything, to jeopardize our safety or security, whatever may be his spirit to do it; for he is bound by the constitutional checks which are thrown around him, which at this time render him powerless to do any great mischief. This shows the wisdom of our system. The President of the United States is no Emperor, no Dictator - he is clothed with no absolute power. He can do nothing, unless he is backed by power in Congress. The House of Representatives is largely in a majority against him. In the very face and teeth of the majority of Electoral votes, which he has obtained in the Northern States, there have been large gains in the House of Representatives, to the Conservative Constitutional Party of the country, which I here will call the National Democratic Party, because that is the cognomen it has at the North. There are twelve of this Party elected from New York, to the next Congress, I believe. In the present House, there are but four, I think. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Indiana, there have been gains. In the present Congress, there were one hundred and thirteen Republicans, when it takes one hundred and seventeen to make a majority. The gains in the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Indiana, and other States, notwithstanding its distractions, have been enough to make a majority of near thirty, in the next House, against Mr. Lincoln. Even in Boston, Mr. [Anson] Burlingame, one of the noted leaders of the fanatics of that section, has been defeated, and a Conservative man returned in his stead. Is this the time, then, to apprehend that Mr. Lincoln, with this large majority of the House of Representatives against him, can carry out any of this unconstitutional principles in that body?"202
"Stephens," wrote historian William H. Freehling in summarizing his speech, "sought a changed agenda and schedule, alter for maximum opportunity. He would bypass unsolvable problems (ones that could for now be left unsolved) to solve more malleable problems (ones that for now pressed provocatively). He would replace an (impossible) ultimatum on the territories with a (possible) ultimatum on fugitive slaves.... He would expand the Georgia 1850 ultimatum about congressional laws with an 1860 ultimatum about state Personal Liberty laws."203
The ambitious Toombs was an accomplished and impassioned orator but he no fool; he did not want to respond directly to his longtime friend, who had delivered "the most powerful of all Southern speeches against secession," according to Harry V. Jaffa.204 After Stephens concluded, Toombs announced: "Fellow citizens, we have just listened to a speech from one of the brightest intellects and purest patriots that now lives. I move that this meeting now adjourn, with three cheers for Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia!"205 When Toombs was complimented on his generous behavior, he quipped: "I always try to behave myself at a funeral."206 Stephens' speech was received positively in the North. Stephens wrote on November 25: "On my return last evening I got a great number of letters from all parts of the country, except the Western States. My speech, I find, has had the most general circulation at the North, I suppose, of any speech ever made in the United States."207
Georgia's support would be critical to the success of southern secession. Historian N. Beck noted: "The most prosperous of the cotton states, she was industrializing more rapidly than her southern sisters. Her political leaders commanded large followings throughout the South and, with few exceptions, were better known throughout the nation than any others." Beck wrote: "The Georgian's belief in the right of secession had its roots in love of home, spirit of democracy, rugged individualism, and the extreme self-reliance resulting from his way of life."208 Stephens's speech temporarily dampened enthusiasm for secession in Georgia. His opposition to secession was strictly practical - not constitutional. As Stephens later wrote: "My opposition to the measure, it must be borne in mind, was not to the right or power of the State to secede, or to any want of conviction that she had ample cause to justify her in doing it, but solely to the expediency of the policy of resorting to that measure at the time, and under all the circumstances, then attending the questions involved."209
To a prominent Boston attorney who praised his speech, Stephens wrote: "The times are indeed perilous, and nothing but the prompt and most energetic action on the part of the patriots in all sections of the country can save the republic. Of this I am confident; but I am not confident or even sanguine in my hopes that even this can do it. Still the effort should be made. South Carolina, I suppose, will certainly go out of the Union forthwith - just as soon as her convention meets and can act. My apprehension is that Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi will go too. If South Carolina would wait to see whether the offending States North would change their position and resume their constitutional obligations, I have but little doubt that Georgia would also. But when South Carolina takes the lead, I have but little hope of either of the other named States holding back. This I assure you may be looked for." Stephens wrote:
What sort of an adjustment can afterward be made to restore union or effect reconciliation I do not know. I am certain, however, that nothing short of what was indicated in my speech, to which you refer, can. Should the seceding States be let alone - no force used against them - perhaps an amicable understanding and settlement of the matters in controversy might be made at no distant day. But if resort to arms is once had, all prospect of peace and union, in my judgment, will be gone forever. I write freely and frankly to you. What I say in intended for yourself only, and not for the public, in any sense of the word. When I tell you what I apprehend will be the course of the Georgia Convention, it is only to apprise you of the real state of things here.
There are a large number of our people who will sustain my position, but I feel that the odds are against us. We will do all that we can, and should any decided demonstration be made in Massachusetts, or other Northern States, on the part of any leading Republicans to right the wrongs of which our people so justly complain, it would greatly aid us in our patriotic endeavors to save the constitution and the Union under it. This is my earnest desire.210
On November 30, the same day that Stephens wrote the above letter, President-elect Lincoln himself wrote Stephens to request a copy of the speech "recently delivered (I think) before the Georgia Legislature...If you have revised it, as is probable, I shall be much obliged if you will send me a copy."211 (Revision for publication was Lincoln's standard method of political communication so he naturally thought Stephens would follow a similar path.) Stephens responded that he had not revised it, but that the newspaper version reflected his words. After reading Stephens' speech. Lincoln sought to calm Stephens' fellow southerners in a letter to Stephens: "Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us."212 Stephens replied on December 30 with a lengthy letter of warning and advice to Lincoln:
Personally, I am not your enemy,- far from it; and however widely we may differ politically, yet I trust we both have an earnest desire to preserve and maintain the Union of the States if it can be done upon the principles and furtherance of the objects for which it was formed. It was with such feelings on my part that I suggested to you in my former note the heavy responsibility now resting upon you, and with the same feelings I will now take the liberty of saying, in all frankness and earnestness, that this great object can never be obtained by force. This is my settled conviction. Consider the opinion, weigh it, and pass upon it for yourself. An error on this point may lead to the most disastrous consequences. I will also add, that in my judgment the people of the South do not entertain any fears that a Republican Administration, or at least the one about to be inaugurated, would attempt to interfere directly and immediately with slavery in the States. Their apprehension and disquietude do not spring from that source. They do not arise from the fact of the known anti-slavery opinions of the President-elect. Washington, Jefferson, and other Presidents are generally admitted to have been anti-slavery in sentiment. But in those days anti-slavery did not enter as an element into party organizations.
Stephens made it clear that slavery was the point of difference between the North and South: "Questions of other kinds, relating to the foreign and domestic policy, - commerce, finance, and other legitimate objects of the General Government, - were basis of such associations in their day. The private opinions of individuals upon the subject of African slavery, or the status of the negro with us, were not looked to in the choice of Federal officers any more than their views upon matters of religion, or any other subject over which the Government under the Constitution had no control. But now this subject, which is confessedly on all sides outside of the constitutional action of the government, so far as the States are concerned, is made the 'central idea' in the platform of principles announced by the triumphant party. The leading object seems to be simply, and wantonly, if, you please, to put the institutions of nearly half the States under the ban of public opinion and national condemnation. This, upon general principles, is quite enough of itself to arouse a spirit not only of general indignation, but of revolt on the part of the proscribed. Let me illustrate. It is generally conceded, by the Republicans even, that Congress cannot interfere with slavery in the States. It is equally conceded that Congress cannot establish any form of religious worship. Now suppose that any one of the present Christian churches or sects prevailed in all of the Southern States, but had no existence in any one of the Northern States, - under such circumstances suppose the people of the Northern States should organize a political party, not upon a foreign of domestic policy, but with one leading idea of condemnation of the doctrines and tenets of that particular church, and with the avowed object of preventing its extension into the common Territories, even after the highest judicial tribunal of the land had decided they had no such constitutional power. And suppose that a party so organized should carry a Presidential election. It is not apparent that a general feeling of resistance to the success, aims, and objects of such a party would necessarily and rightfully ensue? Would it not be the inevitable consequence? And the more so, if possible, from the admitted fact that it was a matter beyond their control, and one that they ought not in the spirit of comity between co-States to attempt to meddle with. I submit these thoughts to you for your calm reflection. We at the South do think African slavery, as it exists with us, both morally and politically right. This opinion is founded upon the inferiority of the black race. You, however, and perhaps a majority of the North, think it wrong. Admit the difference of opinion. The same difference of opinion existed to a more general extent among those who formed the Constitution, and when it was made and adopted. The changes have been mainly to our side. As parties were not formed on this difference of opinion then, why should they be now? The same difference would, of course, exist in the supposed case of religion."
Stephens warned against fanaticism: "When parties or combinations of men, therefore, so form themselves, must it not be assumed to arise, not from reason or any sense of justice, but from fanaticism? The motive can spring from no other source, and when men come under the influence of fanaticism there is no telling where their impulses or passions may drive them. This is what creates our discontent and apprehension. You will also allow me to say that it is neither unnatural nor unreasonable, especially when we see the extent to which this reckless spirit has already gone. Such, for instance, as the avowed disregard and breach of the Constitution in the passage of the statutes in a number of the Northern States against the rendition of fugitives from service, and such exhibitions of madness as the John Brown raid into Virginia, which has received so much sympathy from many, and no open condemnation from any of the leading men of the present dominant party. For a very clear statement of the prevailing sentiment of the most moderate men of the South upon them I refer you to the speech of Senator [Alfred O. P.] Nicholson, of Tennessee, which I enclose to you. Upon a review of the whole, who can say that the general discontent and apprehension prevailing is not well founded?
Stephens then urged Lincoln to speak out and gave his own views of the nature of the national union. "In addressing you thus, I would have you understand me as being not a personal enemy, but as one who would have you do what you can to save our common country. A word 'fitly spoken' by you now would indeed be like 'apples of gold in pictures of silver.' I entreat you be not deceived as to the nature and extent of the danger, nor as to the remedy. Conciliation and harmony, in my judgement, can never be established by force. Nor can the Union under the Constitution be maintained by force. The Union was formed by the consent of independent sovereign States. Ultimate sovereignty still resides with them separately, which can be resumed, and will be, if their safety, tranquillity, and security, in their judgment, require it. Under our system, as I view it, there is no rightful power in the General Government to coerce a State, in case any one of them should throw herself upon her reserved rights and resume the full exercise of her sovereign powers. Force may perpetuate a Union. That depends upon the contingencies of war. But such a Union would not be the Union of the Constitution. It would be nothing short of a consolidated despotism. Excuse me for giving you these views. Excuse the strong language used. Nothing but the deep interest I feel in prospect of the most alarming dangers now threat[en]ing our common country could induce me to do it. Consider well what I write, and let it have such weight with you as in your judgment, under all the responsibility resting upon you, it merits."213
Lincoln adjoined Stephens to keep the correspondence quiet and Stephens obeyed that request, later writing; "No 'eye' had ever seen his letter except my Private Secretaries' into whose hands they fell. Nor did I ever allude to the subject of any such correspondence between us, except to Messrs. Hunter and Campbell, as we were on our way to the famous Hampton Roads Conferences. I mentioned it to them at that time, that they might be fully apprized of the personal relations existing between Mr. Lincoln and myself."214
Lincoln, however, was not Stephens' only correspondent from Illinois. Senator Douglas wrote the Georgian from Washington: "I have watched your noble & patriotic course with much interest. The prospects for saving the Union are indeed gloomy. We are now making an effort at Constitutional Amendments in our Committee of thirteen" which was working on compromise proposals to avert secession. "I fear we cannot carry Mr. Crittenden's proposition to run the Missouri line. I send you a Proposition of mine. I think it can be carried, if the South will take it." Douglas closed his Christmas Day letter: "believe me truly your friend."215
Despite Stephens's advice, Lincoln was not disposed to speak out. He believed that any additional statements would further confuse rather than clarify the situation. "Lincoln was disappointed that Stephens seemed to think that he intended some unconstitutional aggression against the South. The president-elect could not believe that conciliatory words from him about the Constitution were really necessary," wrote historian Allen C. Guelzo. "But Stephens's anxiety about Lincoln's potential for breaking over the limits of the Constitution stayed in the forefront of Lincoln's thinking."216 Guelzo noted the Lincoln and Stephens were divided on their interpretation of the Declaration and the Constitution: "For Stephens, the Declaration was a great mistake; and the Constitution was indeed a set of procedural rules, intended to teach no particular system of political morality, or any other morality for that matter."217 Lincoln echoed Stephens language in notes he prepared on the Constitution and the Union:
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters. The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, 'fitly spoken' which has proved an 'apple of gold' to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple, but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple - not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.
That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger.218
Meanwhile, President-elect Lincoln sought to include a southern representative in his Cabinet. Law partner William H. Herndon maintained that Lincoln considered Stephens, who was suggested by some of Lincoln's correspondents. Herndon recalled that Lincoln "apprehended no such grave danger to the Union as the mass of people supposed would result from Southern threats, and said he could not in his heart believe that the South designed the overthrow of the Government."219 When the Indiana Republican chairman suggested that Stephens should be secretary of the navy and Virginia Whig Robert E. Scott might be secretary of war: "Mr. Stephens is a gentleman of acknowledged ability, of good character and has the confidence of a large portion of the people of the South, as well as of the North. He does not ask for a slave code for the Territories, but is willing to accept real popular sovereignty. But, is it likely that the slavery question, as applicable to the Territories, will come up the next four years? If not, it is very probable that upon all other questions there would be no difference in opinion. The advantage to be gained would be thus: His appointment would be held up as evidence 'that the Republicans do not intend making war upon the Constitutional rights of the South, or else Mr Lincoln would not have selected Constitutional advisers from that section of the country;' and besides, the patronage of the government (in the Southern States) which, unfortunately, has an undue influence over the opinions of men, would be at the disposal of the Southern members of the Cabinet! That fact would have a modifying effect immediately! The affairs of the nation cannot be administered by us of the free States alone. We must make friends in the Slave States. Now we have no party there to sustain us. Would not the adoption of the course indicated build up a party? Would it not give us even additional strength in the North by bringing to us the moderate Douglas men? It is true that some of our radicals might object; but, the most of them would soon be convinced of the wisdom of the movement - As there would be an act required to prohibit the extension of slavery we would not, thereby, [compromise?] our opposition to its extension."220
Lincoln deftly responded: "Would Scott or Stephens go into the cabinet? And if yea, on what terms? Do they come to me? Or I go to them? Or are we to lead off in open hostility to each other?"221 Stephens later denied that he had any discussion with Lincoln about a cabinet post.222 Stephens saw his primary loyalty was to Georgia. After the Civil War, Stephens recalled that he opposed secession: "I did, as a patriot, what I thought best before secession. I did the same after."223
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded - the first state to do so. Georgia was preparing to follow by electing delegates to a state convention to consider secession. Historian N. Beck wrote that Stephens "persuaded fifty-two members of the legislature...to join him in advising the voters to secure pledges from convention candidates to support an all-southern convention and to try every possible remedy before voting for secession." He noted that "Stephens wrote numerous letters some appearing in newspapers and some published as handbills, warning against the dangers of secession. But the conservative campaign lacked vigor."224 Biographer Thomas E. Schott concluded that Stephens actually did little during December to stem the tide of secession or to prepare for the election of delegates for the convention that followed. "Had Georgia's leading cooperationists demonstrated just half the tenacity of their followers and their opponents during the campaign," wrote Schott, "the results of the crucial election might have been reversed."225
In the balloting on January 2, 1861, Stephens was elected to the Georgia convention that was to consider secession. Stephens counted himself among the "Conservatives" in Georgia opposed to secession. Heavy rains in the state on election day cost unionists many votes. Alexander Stephens wrote his brother words which would foreshadow Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural four years later: "From the beginning of this movement last spring every incident of what is termed luck seems to be against the Conservatives. I call it Providence. My reading of it is a severe chastisement for the sins of ingratitude and other crimes is about to be inflicted upon us, - 'when the wicked rule the nation mourns.' We are about to suffer as we have never suffered before."226
The Georgians who met in the state capital in Milledgeville in mid-January 1861 were split over secession."The Georgia antagonists called themselves Separatists and Cooperationists, not secessionists and unionists." wrote historian William W. Freehling. He observed that "amongst all Lower South Cooperationists favored disunion if federal authorities coerced a seceded state. Some Cooperationists favored secession even if no coercion occurred, if the cooperative disunion of several states could be prearranged. Many more Lower South Cooperationists pledged disunion if a cooperative southern effort, hammered out in a southern convention, failed to squeeze concessions from Black Republicans."227 Freehling wrote: "In the evening debates before the Georgia legislature, Stephens shared center stage with only one other Cooperationist (Benjamin Hill), while Separatists enjoyed three main speakers (Thomas R. R. Cobb, Robert Toombs, and Henry Benning) It was still no contest."
When the Georgia convention convened on January 16, Stephens first attempted to delay secession, but eventually acquiesced to southern reality. Stephens would later observe: "If the South had not seceded, Lincoln's Administration would have broken down in sixty days. He was utterly powerless to do harm."228 In his speech to the convention, Stephens made an explicitly economic argument to the convention delegates, observing that "the taxable property of Georgia is six hundred and seventy million dollars and upwards, - an amount not far from double what it was in 1850. I think I may venture to say that for the last ten years the material wealth of the people of Georgia has been nearly, if not quite doubled."229 The economic argument, however, could not trump the political and emotional arguments. Stephens, however, was most powerful when he prophesied that secession "once taken, can never be recalled; and all the baleful and withering consequences that must follow, will rest on the convention for all coming time. When we and our posterity shall see our lovely South desolated by the demon of war, which this act of ours will inevitably invite and call forth; when our green fields of waving harvest shall be trodden down by the murderous soldiery and fiery car of war sweeping over our land; our temples of justice laid in ashes; all the horrors and desolations of war upon us; who but this convention will be held responsible for it? and who but him who shall have given his vote for this unwise and ill-timed measure, as I honestly think and believe, shall be held to strict account for this suicidal act by the present generation, and probably cursed and execrated by posterity for all."230 On January 19 the Georgia convention voted to secede.
Stephens always was able to rationalize his behavior. He later contended "that no sentiment of disloyalty to the Constitution of the United States, to the principles it contained, or the form of Government thereby established, ever entered my breast. The controlling motive with me in accepting the new trust assigned me was an earnest desire to rescue, secure, and perpetuate these in the convulsions about to ensue. My greatest apprehensions from secession, as appears from a published letter from me about this time to a secessionist living in New York, was that the result would be the loss, both North and South, of these great essential principles of American Constitutional Liberty. Hence, in the State Convention, I drew up a resolution which passed that body, instructing the delegates form Georgia to the Montgomery Convention, to form a new Confederation on the basis as nearly as practicable of the United States Constitution."231 Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa noted that "despite his opposition to secession, Stephens was a disciple of Calhoun's theory of sovereignty, according to which he was bound by Georgia's decision to leave the Union when the vote in the convention went against him."232
Unionism for Stephens went hand in hand with his belief in states' rights and slavery. Political scientist Thomas E Schneider wrote: "Anyone who studies the career of Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as it unfolded during the half decade preceding the outbreak of the Civil War is sure to be struck by two things: His defense of slavery and - until the secession of his state was an accomplished fact - his defense of the Union." However, wrote Schneider, "Stephens...did not succeed in establishing a satisfactory connection between the objects he defended; his lack of success indirectly confirms the relation between freedom and law on which Lincoln's Unionism rested."233 Stephens did not contradict the premise of Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union speech when in Stephens's 1859 retirement speech, he conceded that the "leading public men of the South, in our early history, were almost all against [slavery]."234 Secession revealed the width of the divided between them - the difference in their views of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Schneider wrote: "Stephens could not bridge the gap between his moral and constitutional views of slavery. His failure in this respect helps to explain why he was unable to persuade more of his fellow Georgians to join him in standing firm for the Union."235
Lincoln meanwhile remained steadfast in the face of the secessionist threat - refusing to compromise to allow extension of slavery to the territories - writing repeatedly to his Republican allies in Congress while maintaining a public silence on his reaction. He was equally determined not to countenance secession. "We have just carried on election on principles fairly stated to the people," Lincoln wrote a week before Georgia acted. "Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum....There is, in my judgment, but one compromise which would really settle this slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory."236 This had been Lincoln's consistent message since passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.
The Georgia secession convention elected Stephens - at the suggestion of Robert Toombs - as one of the state ten representatives to the new Confederate Congress assembling in Montgomery, Alabama on February 4, 1861. That Congress would not only devise a constitution but then choose the executive leaders of the Confederacy. Historian Russell F. Weigley wrote: "Among more moderate statesmen, the populous, centrally located, and therefore strategically important State of Georgia had two major contenders for the Confederate President, Howell Cobb and...Toombs. But Cobb lacked the personal magnetism desirable in a President who might have to be a rallying point, while Toombs was so overbearing a personality that he repelled as much as and as strongly as he attracted."237 Toombs further hurt his chances for office by excessive drinking in Montgomery.238 Stephens himself brushed off suggestions that he be named president of the new government.
Mississippi's Jefferson Davis became the consensus choice for president and Stephens seemed a complementary choice for vice president. Historian William E. Woodward wrote: "It was perhaps a mistake to choose an antisecessionist as Vice-President of the Confederate government, but the thought at the time was to make a coalition government - to recognize and include the reluctant rebels."239 Historian James Z. Rabun noted that the Confederate congress was trying "to demonstrate to a watching world that the cotton-growing South was not a unit; that men who previously had opposed secession now stood shoulder to shoulder with those who had worked for Southern independence; that there were no factions whatever to disturb the perfect harmony of the new government."240 Historian Weigley wrote that Stephens's "reverence for the U.S. constitution made his selection still another expression of the Montgomery convention's and the Confederacy's divided psyche. On the level of conscious thought, however, the Montgomery delegates saw their choice of Stephens as another endorsement of the constructive and positive variety of statesmanship, as distinguished from fire-eating."241
On February 11, the day after his election, a reluctant Alexander H. Stephens took office as vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens turned 49 the day he was sworn in but looked much older. The new vice president took office alone because Jefferson Davis was still in Mississippi. Stephens had written and memorized a speech for the occasion. Historian William C. Davis noted that Stephens "felt a temptation simply to run away from the responsibilities before him, and an even greater aversion to making any sort of speech now. Yet they expected something from him, and he could not disappoint."242 Stephens's pairing with Jefferson Davis was ill-conceived. Stephens' speech to the Confederate convention was similarly ill-conceived and disappointing, according to historian Davis. "Fearing in advance that he might disappoint, he proceeded to do so. He sounded almost apologetic at accepting the high office proffered him, and gave clear evidence that he only accepted because the thought no man had a right to refuse when called to a public trust." Davis wrote: "Capable of searing eloquence, he met the occasion with tepid banality. Disappointment swept through the galleries, and some vented their anger as Congress adjourned and they filed out."243
That night, Alex wrote his brother Linton: "This, as you know, is my birthday, and this day at the hour of one I was inaugurated." Biographer Rudolph von Abele wrote: "It was as though his birth and the birth of the new country, in the destiny of which he was playing a major part, were supernaturally linked. A sense of responsibility was heavy upon him. The people expected a speech. Yet he believed that he should speak only briefly, leaving to Davis the task of outlining all governmental policies...when it was all over, he was gratified to hear many of his friends say that he had done exactly right and that any other course would have been 'injudicious, indelicate, and improper.'"244
The day after Alexander Stephens turned 49, Abraham Lincoln turned 52. The Union's president-elect was on his way to Washington, moving from Indianapolis to Cincinnati. The following day, tormented by a cold, he stopped in Columbus, Ohio, where he was introduced to a joint session the State Legislature. Ohio Lieutenant Governor Robert C. Kirk said: "On this day and probably at this very hour the Congress of the United States will declare the verdict of the people, making you their President."245 The actual news reached the President-elect about 4:30 in the afternoon. One journalist reported: "When he read it he smiled benignly and looking up, seeing everyone waiting for a word, he quietly put the dispatch in his pocket and said, 'What a beautiful building you have here, Governor Dennison."246
On February 18, a wizened, prickly Stephens and a lean, proud Jefferson Davis were jointly inaugurated vice president and president of the Confederacy. They were an odd pair. Schott wrote that "except for their joint support of the Lecompton constitution in 1858, Davis and Stephens had been at odds on every important political measure since 1845."247 Both were stubborn men convinced of their own rightness. Neither liked to admit mistakes. Davis was a stronger defender of the institution of slavery; Stephens was a stronger defender of the Union and the Constitution. Their political partnership was short-lived because Stephens was a stronger support of states' rights than he was of Confederate independence. Stephens exercised his independence quickly. When Davis asked him to head a Confederate mission to Washington to negotiate the surrender of U.S. forts, Stephens refused. He suggested some alternative commissioners to Davis; Davis appointed none of them. Stephens was affronted. It was one of several missions that Stephens would decline to undertake during the Civil War - often pleading ill health but also doubting their wisdom. Davis and Stephens were off to a bad start although Stephens did go to Virginia to help persuade the state to secede.248 Their relations would get worse.
In Washington on March 4, Lincoln himself was inaugurated as the Union's president.249 Like Lincoln, Stephens understood that the Civil War was likely to be bloody and protracted. In his inaugural address, President Lincoln laid out the political and constitutional crisis facing the country. He addressed his closing remarks to the South: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it."250 Both Lincoln and Stephens had been dedicated to preservation of the Union, but Stephens took a very different path from his old colleague. Reading Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, Stephens reacted negatively, proclaiming "the man is a fool!"251
Part VI. Differences on Slavery
Seventeen days after Lincoln's inauguration, Stephens delivered a speech in Savannah, Georgia. While Lincoln's inaugural speech was carefully crafted and reworked for public consumption in both the North and South, Stephens' extemporaneous speech (transcribed by journalists) was designed only for a southern audience. In his remarks, the new Confederate vice president downplayed state's rights and emphasized the rights of slave-owners and described racial inequality as the cornerstone of the Confederacy. Stephens said: "Our new government is founded...upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical and moral truth." Stephens created a stark dividing line between the U.S. Constitution and that of the Confederacy. Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa wrote of the Cornerstone speech that "no utterance of the time reveals more fully the inner truth about the impending conflict." Jaffa added that the speech "conveys, more than any other contemporary document, not only the soul of the Confederacy but also of that Jim Crow South that arose from the ashes of the Confederacy."252 Stephens drew a sharp dividing line between Abraham Lincoln's belief in the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence and the inferiority principle of the Confederacy.
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution - African slavery as it exists amongst us - the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."
Stephens then defined the basis for secession and the founding of the new Confederate government: "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind - from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just - but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.253
Stephens' speech was controversial. President "Davis was dismayed," wrote Schott. "His vice-president's emphasis on slavery had shifted attention from the primary issue he and other southern spokesmen had been harping on for weeks: state versus national sovereignty."254 Even for some staunch secessionists, Stephens' words were politically incorrect. Stephens' speech, according to the authors of Why the South Lost the Civil War reprised a theme from a speech by Robert M. T. Hunter, Stephens' fellow commissioner at Hampton Roads. Hunter "had stated on the floor of the United States Congress in 1859 that the Union was like an arch, 'and the very keystone of this arch consists of the black marble cap of African slavery; knock that out, and the mighty fabric, with all that it upholds, topples and tumbles to its fall.'"255
Stephens cornerstone speech stood in diametric opposition to Lincoln's philosophy - both politically and economically. Historian William C. Harris noted: "Lincoln's faith in free labor as the cornerstone of the American economic system, which basically was a nineteenth-century conservative doctrine, undergirded his opposition to slavery in any form and his belief that there should be no artificial weights placed on any people in their efforts to rise in society."256 Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: "Slavery, in fact grated personally on Lincoln's self-made passion for work and social mobility, since it condemned one category of men to a lifetime of labor without the hope of improvement while turning another into a shiftless aristocracy that scored honest labor as 'slave work.'"257
Stephens's attitude toward slavery is somewhat paradoxical. Historian Thomas E. Schott wrote: "As a slaveholder, Stephens was the soul of benevolence."258 In the 1840s, he first argued against the annexation of Texas and later changed his position. "I am no defender of slavery in the abstract....If the annexation of Texas were for the sole purpose of extending slavery where it does not now and would not otherwise exist, I should oppose it." Daniel Walker Howe wrote: "As a young man he had courageously prevented vigilante harassment of people suspected of antislavery in his own county. Even when the turmoil of 1850 was coming to a boil, he confided privately that the slave trade was 'infamous,' that the condition of southern slaves was 'certainly not a good one,' and that 'the Southern Democrats are using the slave question for nothing but political capital.'"259
Howe argued that Stephens' role in passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act completed Stephens' transformation into an apologist for slavery: "The discrepancy between the proslavery political stands Stephens had been taking and his nagging personal doubts about the institution did not persist. Hypocrisy is an unstable human condition; the impulse to bring action and belief into harmony is strong....He had earlier invoked Scripture and conventional prejudices to justify the enslavement of the Negro race by the Caucasian, and by the winter of 1854-55 he was ready with a systematic exposition of the benefits conferred by slavery."260 During a House debate in December 1854, Stephens had argued:
Are gentlemen willing to degrade their own race by not permitting them to vote upon matters relating to their own government, while they are endeavoring to elevate the negro to the standard of the white man? You may degrade the white man, but you cannot raise the negro to the level you purpose. It is impossible. You have to reverse a law of nature first. Men may indulge in philanthropic speculations as much as they please, but here is the great immutable law of nature, and they cannot avoid it. I am not here to argue whether decrees of the Most High are right, wise, and just. There is a difference, a vast difference, established by the Creator between the different races of men. For myself, I believe that he who made us all is just, and that he made the white man as he made him, and that he made the negro as he made him-for wise and just purposes. Some vessels are made for honor and some for dishonor; one star differeth from another star in magnitude as well as in brilliancy. I believe, too, that the system of government, as adopted by the South, defining the status or relation of these two races, is the best for both of them; and I am prepared to argue that question with the gentleman, here or anywhere. Take the negroes in Indiana, take them in the North generally, and compare their condition with those of the South. Take them in Africa; take them anywhere on the face of the habitable globe; and then take them in the southern States, and the negro population of the South are better off, better fed, better clothed, better provided for, enjoy more happiness, and a higher civilization, than the same race has ever enjoyed anywhere else on the face of the world.261
In his July 1859 retirement speech, Stephens said: "African slavery with us rests upon principles that can never be successfully assailed by reason or argument. It has grown stronger by discussion; and will still grow stronger as discussion proceeds, and as time rolls on."262 He acknowledged that southern sentiment that once acknowledged the wrong of slavery had shifted.
Events would again change Stephens's views. After the Civil War, Stephens told President Andrew Johnson that black suffrage should be considered.263 In prison after the Civil War, Stephens revised his politically incorrect view of Confederate aims: "As for my Savanna speech, about which so much has been said and in regard to which I am represented as setting forth "slavery" as the "corner-stone" of the Confederacy, it is proper for me to state that that speech was extemporaneous, the reporter's notes, which were very imperfect, were hastily corrected by me; and were published without further revision and with several glaring errors. The substance of what I said on slavery was, that on the points under the old Constitution out of which so much discussion, agitation, and strife between the States had arisen, no future contention could arise, as these had been put to rest by clear language. I did not say, nor do I think the reporter represented me as saying, that there was the slightest change in the new Constitution from the old regarding the status of the African race amongst us. (Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession; out of it rose the breach of compact, for instance, on the part of several Northern States in refusing to comply with Constitutional obligations as to rendition of fugitives from service, a course betraying total disregard for all constitutional barriers and guarantees.)"264
Like much of what Stephens wrote after the war, his version of facts seems detached from reality. Historian Charles B. Dew noted: "If the Savannah reporter had misquoted Stephens, so had an Atlanta journalist just eight days earlier. On March 13, 186, the Atlanta Southern Confederacy carried a lengthy report on a speech Stephens had delivered in that city the previous evening. The climax of the vice president's address came when he affirmed that the framers of the Confederate Constitution had 'solemnly discarded the pestilent heresy of fancy politicians, that all men, of all races, were equal, and we had made African inequality and subordination, and the equality of white men, the chief corner stone of the Southern Republic."265 Stephens' position should not surprise. Although he was no fire-eater, Stephens was behind much of the bad slavery policy that percolated in Washington during the 1850s: The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision in 1857, and congressional deliberations over the Lecompton Constitution in 1858. When Stephens support for the Compromised of 1850 was questioned, he responded:
Again, will you inform the country what you mean by " voting for 36.30?" Do you mean the extension of the provisions of the Missouri Compromise, by which slavery was forever prohibited north of that line, leaving the people south of it to do as they pleased upon the subject of slavery? If so, was it not much better for the South, and much more consistent with the great republican principle upon which our government rests, to let the people do as they pleased over the whole territory up to 42 deg. north latitude, just as the Utah and New Mexican bills, which passed, provide, than to have the people restricted in any portion of the territory?
As the " Compromise " as you call it now stands, the people so far as the action of the government is concerned have the privilege of doing as they please upon the subject of African slavery-as well north of 36.30 as south of it. Do you mean to say that it would have been juster to the South or more republican in principle for Congress to have restricted this privilege to the line of 36.30?
One question more. Do you mean to say that it was well ascertained that there were enough Northern men who were ready to vote for the recognition and protection of slavery south of 36.30, provided it were forever excluded north of that line? If so, will you be kind enough to give the names of those Northern men?
For myself I can say that if any such well ascertained fact existed I knew nothing of it. If there was a single Southern man in the House of which I was a member who was in favor of recognising and prohibiting by law the right to hold slaves in any of these territories, it was unknown to me then and now, and I should like you to name any such one, and give the country the evidence of your assertion by any vote or public act that will sustain it. The events of that period are too fresh in the recollection of all to be forgotten. And I ask you if it was not a well ascertained fact then and long before that an overwhelming majority of the South denied the power of Congress to legislate upon the subject of slavery in the territories, either for or against it?266
It was Stephens who took a leading role in pushing for a speedy and comprehensive Supreme Court decision on the Dred Scott case. Stephens wrote brother Linton that he was taking an active role in pushing for a quick action: I have been urging all the influence I could bring to bear upon the Supreme Court to get them to postpone no longer the case on the Missouri Restriction before them, but to decide it. They take it up today. If they decide, as I have reason to believe they will, that the Restriction was unconstitutional, that Congress had no power to pass it, then the question, - the political question, - as I think, will be ended as to the people in their Territorial Legislatures. It will be, in effect, a res adjudicata."267
About two weeks later, Alex again wrote Linton about the case: "The case is yet undecided. It is the great case before the Court, and involves the greatest question politically of the day. I mean that the questions involved - let them be decided as they may - will have a greater political effect and bearing than any other of the day. The decision will be a marked epoch in our history. I feel a deep solicitude as to how it will be. From what I hear sub rosa it [the decision] will be according to my own opinions upon every point as abstract political question. The restriction of 1820 will be held to be unconstitutional. The Chief Justice will give an elaborate one. Should this opinion be as I suppose it will, 'Squatter Sovereignty speeches' will be upon a par with 'Liberty speeches' in the North at the last Canvass."1268
Historian James A. Rawley wrote that Supreme Court Justice James M. Wayne "was close to his fellow Georgian, A. H. Stephens." Rawley continued: "The Georgian, doubtless influenced by Stephens, had commenced to write his own opinion before the conference on February 14. At that conference, before Nelson read his limited opinion, Wayne moved, Campbell relates, that the Chief Justice should write an opinion on all of the questions as the opinion of the Court.'"269 Charles Grove Haines and Foster H. Sherwood argued: "Most accounts of the Dred Scott case give the impression that Stephens was able to corrupt the Supreme Court and to influence its decision. This serious charge does not conform to the facts." Stephens had associations with several justices that dated back more than a decade: "His contacts with all were sufficiently friendly to permit of some discussion, at home or in the street; yet what he accomplished, if anything, is now a matter of question."270
Circumstances interfered and the Supreme Court did not act quickly on the case that winter. It did not even start deliberations until February 14. Justice Wayne pushed to have Chief Justice Roger B. Taney write the court's opinion and address the questions of Congress's authority over slavery and the issue of black rights to citizenship. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher that the key justice in the court's southern strategy was Wayne. "He made the key motion in conference and later claimed that the initiative had been his alone." Fehrenbacher conjectured, however, that Wayne had consulted with Taney in advance.271
Lincoln's response to the Dred Scott case is not a matter in question. For Lincoln, the Dred Scott decision like the Kansas-Nebraska Act was evidence that the old barriers to slavery were being torn down. On June 26, 1857, in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln delivered a lengthy analysis of the case's impact on American politics and a refutation to a similar speech that Senator Stephen A. Douglas had delivered there two weeks earlier. The Dred Scott decision "was, in part, based on assumed historical facts which were not really true," argued Lincoln. He based his arguments, as he often did, on the Declaration of Independence, saying that "the Declaration contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere." Lincoln made it clear that he expected the court's decision to be reversed: "We think its decisions on Constitutional questions, when fully settled, should control, not only the particular cases decided, but the general policy of the country, subject to be disturbed only by amendments of the Constitution as provided in that instrument itself. More than this would be revolution. But we think the Dred Scott decision is erroneous. We know the court that made it, has often over-ruled its own decisions, and we shall do what we can to have it to over-rule this."272
Like Lincoln, Stephens was concerned with the written record of his important public pronouncements. But Stephens had a tendency to think out loud and say things that on reflection may have not have meant. He was sometimes careless in his public speeches - as on July 2, 1859, when he tacitly suggested reopening the slave trade: "You may not expect to see many of the territories come into the Union as slave States, unless we have an increase of African stock....It takes people to make States; and it requires people of the African race to make slave states."273 In his speech Stephens said: "My object is simply to bring clearly to your mind the great truth-that without an increase of African slaves from abroad, you may not expect or look for many more slave States. If the policy of this country, settled in its early history, of prohibiting further importations or immigrations of this class of population, is to be adhered to, the race of competition between us and our brethren of the North, in the colonization of new States, which heretofore has been so well maintained by us, will soon have to be abandoned. It is in full view of all this, that I have stated, that if the present basis of settlement between the sections of the Union, which has been sanctioned by all the departments of the government, be adhered to, you have nothing to fear for your safety or security. For on these principles one slave State alone, by herself, would be perfectly secure against encroachments or aggressions on her domestic internal policy, though all the rest were free. But this safety and security, as well as the future prospects, depend altogether upon a rigid adherence to these principles and the adjustment of them as stated. They are the ship on which, as Paul said, you must abide if you would survive and be safe. Whether these principles shall be adhered to, or not, depends mainly upon the South; with her people united on them, there is no danger. Indeed, with her people united, under the lead of wise councils, no one need have any apprehension for the stability and permanence of her institutions, either in the Union or out of it, just as her enemies may choose to decide that question for her should this adjustment be disturbed by them. We control the great staple which forms the basis of the commerce of the world; and if united on a correct policy, can and will be able, in any and every event, to take care of ourselves."274
In an August diary entry, future Lincoln Attorney General Edward Bates cited an article from the Missouri Democrat, "in which the Editor labors to shew that, in the Presidential election, next year, the question will come up - will be forced by the South - of repealing the laws against the Slave Trade. He says that Stephens of Ga., in his late speech at August, suggested, without directly proposing it, and that Davis of Mi[ssissippi], intends to introduce the measure of repeal at the next session of Congress."275
Lincoln apparently took Stephens seriously and two months later Lincoln said at Columbus, Ohio: "Then I say if this principle is established, that there is no wrong in slavery, and whoever wants it has a right to have it, is a matter of dollars and cents, a sort of question as to how they shall deal with brutes, that between us and the negro here there is no sort of question, but that at the South the question is between the negro and the crocodile. That is all. It is a mere matter of policy; there is a perfect right according to interest to do just as you please - when this is done, where this doctrine prevails, the miners and sappers will have formed public opinion for the slave trade. They will be ready for Jeff. Davis and Stephens and other leaders of that company, to sound the bugle for the revival of the slave trade, for the second Dred Scott decision, for the flood of slavery to be poured over the free States, while we shall be here tied down and helpless and run over like sheep."276
In his Ohio speech Lincoln appeared to refer to Stephens' statement when he said: "The chief danger to this purpose of the Republican party is not just now the revival of the African slave trade, or the passage of a Congressional slave code, or the declaring of a second Dred Scott decision, making slavery lawful in all the States. These are not pressing us just now. They are not quite ready yet. The authors of these measures know that we are too strong for them; but they will be upon us in due time, and we will be grappling with them hand to hand, if they are not now headed off. They are not now the chief danger to the purpose of the Republican organization; but the most imminent danger that now threatens that purpose is that insidious Douglas Popular Sovereignty. This is the miner and sapper. While it does not propose to revive the African slave trade, nor to pass a slave code, nor to make a second Dred Scott decision, it is preparing us for the onslaught and charge of these ultimate enemies when they shall be ready to come on and the word of command for them to advance shall be given."277
Lincoln was much more careful to define his premises and clarify his positions than was his Georgia friend. Before he became president, Lincoln had formed the habit of editing important speeches for publication. After he became president, he limited his public statements to well-edited statements of his policy. Moreover, Lincoln's attitude toward slavery was completely different from Stephens. He believed that the nation had been founded on the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence. That was the point he had made at Peoria in 1854 and made repeatedly until the end of his life.
After the Civil War, Stephens emphasized a different cause of the conflict, arguing that "the Southern masses...had no hostility to the Union per se; on the contrary, their attachment to it was strong; had grown with their growth and strengthened with their strength." Ignoring the acts of secession that originated in the South." Stephens wrote: "It was only when their leaders had taught them that they should no longer remain in the Union and preserve their rights and liberties that they, in an evil hour, resolved to quit it. It was not that they loved the Union less but that they loved Constitutional Liberty more. This was the spirit that animated and moved the masses, improvised armies, and rendered the South so united, so enthusiastic and successful during the first years of the war. It owed its origin to the apprehension and belief impressed upon them by their leaders, that their liberties were endangered from disregard for constitutional barriers by the authorities at Washington. This was greatly increased by President Lincoln's proclamations and orders blockading the ports, calling out the militia without authority of law, and assuming the royal prerogative of suspending the writ of habeas corpus, a prerogative no sovereign in England in this day would dare assume; these acts brought the border States to the side of the Confederacy; and it was these acts and others of like character that rendered the Southern people, however before divided, almost a unit in the cause, as they supposed, of the maintenance of their liberties. These acts were heralded as confirmation of the wisdom of their leaders who had forewarned them."278
Lincoln saw things differently - forcefully stating in the Second Inaugural Address that slavery was the cause of the Civil War: "One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war, while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it."279 Lincoln saw devotion to the Declaration's equality principle as fundamental to American government. Stephens - devoted in principle to constitutional rights - failed to see the equality of races as part of the American tradition. For Lincoln, wrote historian Richard N. Current, "to be an American...was a matter of commitment to certain principles, not a matter of racial or cultural inheritance."280
While Stephens worried about protecting slavery and state's rights, Mr. Lincoln worried about preserving the Union and the Constitution. In his message to Congress on July 4, 1861, President Lincoln wrote that there might seem "to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called 'secession' or 'rebellion.' The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning, they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude, by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in, and reverence for, the history, and government, of their common country, as any other civilized, and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps, through all the incidents, to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is, that any state of the Union may, consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully, and peacefully, withdraw from the Union, without the consent of the Union, or of any other state. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice. With rebellion thus sugar-coated, they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and, until at length, they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretence of taking their State out of the Union, who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.281
The American experiment was under attack and Lincoln was determined to use all of his constitutional powers and obligations to defend it. "Lincoln did not pretend that American democracy was perfect, or anywhere near perfect," wrote Richard N. Current. "He looked upon it as an experiment, and he invited people of all countries, cultures, and creeds to share in the great political experiment as well as the economic opportunities of the United States. Only time, he believed, would tell whether the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would permanently work."282
In September 1862, Lincoln issued the Draft Emancipation Proclamation indicating his intent to free slaves in areas then controlled by the Confederacy. A month before the proclamation became final on January 1, 1863, Lincoln sent to Congress his annual message, noting that "this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We - even we here - hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assurefreedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just - a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."283
Part VII. The Civil War and Reconstruction.
Alexander H. Stephens spent much of the Civil War in ill health and in opposition to the policies of Jefferson Davis, with whom he had personal and philosophical differences. His selection as vice president was something of a sop to Georgia after Davis became the clear choice for president over Georgian Robert Toombs. Jon L. Wakelyn wrote: "In the formative early period of nation making...Stephens fervently supported the policies of, and advised skillfully, his new president. He also advocated a policy of allowing other states easy entry into the new Confederacy. Stephens had hoped to appeal both to upper South slave states and to Midwestern free states, as he discussed the trade and transportation ties of the West and the Gulf South. He sought to construct an insurmountable financial and population advantage and to deter any Northern attempt to dismantle that powerful alliance."284
The Davis-Stephens alliance was short-lived. Davis was a stronger defender of the institution of slavery and a strong exponent of executive power than was Stephens, who had a mania for civil liberties. Even Davis's wife admitted he could be a difficult man to work with. James M. McPherson wrote: "Davis did not suffer fools gladly. He lacked Lincoln's ability to work with partisans of a different persuasion for the common cause. Lincoln would rather win the war than an argument. Davis seemed to prefer winning the argument."285 Although Davis began the war with far more military experience than Lincoln, it was Lincoln who proved the better military strategist and commander in chief.
Davis' management style left Stephens marginalized. At the center of national affairs in U.S. Congress, Stephens became virtually irrelevant as Confederate vice president. At the beginning of the war, noted historian Allan Nevins, Stephens "told everybody that the conflict would be prolonged and sanguinary, would require the severest sacrifices, and would fail if the people did not show endurance."286 Speaking in Georgia in June 1861, Stephens said: "The people of the South can never be conquered. Our enemies rely upon their numbers - we rely upon the valor of freemen, battling for country, for home, and for everything dear as well as sacred."287 In a speech at Augusta, Stephens asked: "How long will they [northerners] be able to war against us? I tell you it will be until we drive them back. There is no hope for us, there is no prospect for an early and speedy termination of the war until we drive them back."288
Once the Confederate capital moved from Montgomery to Richmond, Davis found few reasons to take Stephens' counsel. "Only infrequently now did the President send for Stephens to ask his opinions," wrote historian James Z. Rabun. Stephens found few reasons to remain in Richmond. In fairness to Davis, it must be said that the American tradition had not been to include the vice president in the inner workings of a presidential administration. Kentucky's John Breckenridge, for example, had not as vice president been close to President James Buchanan - despite Buchanan's pronounced preference for southerners over northerners. Davis, for his part, found little reason to consult Stephens; his two-volume memoirs barely mention Stephens until he discusses the peace negotiations of 1865. "I was always ready with my advice and cooperation, but they were not often desired," noted Stephens."289
Stephens soon differed with the policies pursued by Davis and stayed at home for much of the war. Little Aleck had an almost mystical belief in constitutional liberties that placed him repeatedly in conflict with Davis' tougher war policies. "Give me liberty as secured in the constitution, amongst which is sovereignty of Georgia, or give me death. This is my motto while living, and I want no better epitaph when I am dead," said Stephens.290 Historian William C. Davis wrote that "as the war dragged on, he chafed in his powerless position as vice president, and more and more lent his strength to opposition to Davis's more stringent measures like conscription and suspension of the writ" of habeas corpus.291 Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher noted: "Although expressed sanctioned by the [Confederate] Constitution, suspension aroused much hostility, owing in considerable part to its close association with the stringencies of martial law and the enforcement of conscription."292 Few were more hostile than Stephens.
Stephens's attitude toward the Union president had not softened, but his attitude toward the north had undergone a change. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Stephens wrote his brother that "it would be impossible for the States to go back into the Union with their slaves. He, as President, could not hereafter ignore his act, and put back into slavery those now declared free. The proclamation utterly destroys all prospect of a restored Union with slavery as it was."293 In March 1863, Stephens wrote: "Lincoln is no more a dictator now than he has been all the time. My opinion was, and still is, that it was better for all the States to remain in the Union under the Constitution. If the Northern Government would now acknowledge the Sovereignty of the States, war would instantly cease, and the great law of nature governing the proper union of States would work its results. But you might as well sings hymns to a dead horse as preach such doctrines to Mr. Lincoln and those who control his Government at this time. If we ever have peace on this line, it will be when other men are brought into power there."294
Daniel Walker Howe compared Stephens's role in Jefferson Davis's administration to that of Vice President Thomas Jefferson under John Adams. Howe wrote: "Because he conceptualized secession as revolution, he was particularly sensitive to the danger of an autocratic reaction, as in France under the Directory. Consequently, he tried to prevent executive and military usurpation of authority."295 Stephens' discontent, however, did not spur him into much direct action. He seemed instead to revel in his despair - inventing the Lost Cause ahead of his time. "Little Aleck stayed at home month after month, nursing his resentment at being left an outsider and his growing discouragement that 'it is too late for anything,'" wrote historian William C. Davis.296 Stephens did not enjoy presiding over a Confederate Senate for whom he had no respect. And he did not relish dealing with the Confederate President who did not wish his counsel. The Confederate vice president bestirred himself twice in May and June 1863 to visit Richmond - the second time to participate in the ill-fated peace mission to Washington. Most of the time, Little Aleck stayed at his Crawfordville home - nursing his grievances and his aching body.
According to historian James Z. Rabun, Stephens was influenced by the growing animosity of three fellow Georgians to Davis. They were Governor Joseph Brown, long-time friend and colleague Robert Toombs who served as the Confederate secretary of state before becoming a Confederate general, and Stephens' half-brother Linton, who served in the Georgia State Legislature and therefore was in a position to push legislation critical of the Confederate government in Richmond.297 Historian James M. McPherson wrote that Stephens, Brown, and Toombs "turned their opposition into a personal vendetta against Davis. Stephens likened the president to 'my poor old blind and deaf dog.'"298 Rabun noted that Brown "seldom allowed an opportunity for criticizing, harassing, or obstructing the Davis administration to pass him by."299 Part of the conflict was personal - but there were also political differences over civil liberties and peace negotiations. Part was attributable to the sheer pressure of Union General William T. Sherman's Union troops who traversed the state in the second half of 1864 - laying waste to it as they did so.
Davis was frequently stubborn and Stephens was frequently unrealistic. Stephens and Governor Brown were strongly opposed to Davis's policies - especially regarding conscription and civil liberties. In March 1864 Linton Stephens and Governor Brown developed a careful strategy to challenge Davis. They pressured the Georgia Legislature to pass resolutions favoring civil liberties and peace negotiations. Historian W. Buck Yearns wrote: "After careful planning with Alexander and Linton Stephens, Brown and the two-half-brothers addressed a special session of the state legislature. Linton Stephens denounced the suspension of the writ as 'a dangerous assault upon...the liberty of the people,' while Brown denied that Congress had legally suspended the writ and accused Davis of making 'illegal and unconstitutional arrests.' This coordinated attack on Confederate policies included legislative resolutions that endorsed negotiations as the means to peace and invited the people to act 'through their state organizations and popular assemblies' to end the war."300 These actions created a storm of controversy inside and outside the state.
"Having cast his lot with the Confederacy, Stephens committed to Confederate independence, supported the war as long as it seemed necessary to the achievement of that goal, but welcomed opportunities for an honorable peace," wrote historian Cara L. Shelly.301 Stephens believed that the Confederate government should encourage the peace movement in the North - especially that in the Democratic Party. He gave a lengthy speech before the Georgia State legislature on March 16, 1864 objecting to conscription and defending civil liberties. "Some seem to be of the opinion, that those who oppose this act are for a counter-revolution," said Stephens of his opposition to a military draft. "No such thing; I am for no counter-revolution. The object is to keep the present one, great in its aims and grand in its purposes, upon the right track-the one on which it was started, and that on which alone it can attain noble objects and majestic achievements. The surest way to prevent a counter-revolution, is for the State to speak out and declare her opinions upon this subject."302
"I was not born to acknowledge a master from either the North or South. I shall never choose between candidates for that office," Stephens said at the speech's end. "I shall never degrade the right of suffrage in such an election. I have no wish or desire to live after the degradation of my country, and have no intention to survive its liberties, if life be the necessary sacrifice of their maintenance to the utmost of my ability, to the bitter end. As for myself, give me liberty as secured in the constitution with all its guaranties, amongst which is the sovereignty of Georgia, or give me death. This is my motto while living, and I want no better epitaph when I am dead."303
Stephens and his rebellious allies came under attack from Davis and his allies. The Atlanta-based Southern Confederacy defended Stephens: "Mr. Stephens is the second individual in our government; that if one man dies, he is our chief; that he has staked his all upon the result, and is as deep in the mud, if we fail, as Mr. Davis can be in the mire; but above all, will they forget that he is the wisest man living to-day under the confederate sun. He is a person, in the first place, of an enlightened understanding. He adds to a fine intellect by nature, the cultivation of earnest inquiry and long experience. He has been a brilliant actor in public affairs, as well as a close student in his own library. His perceptions are clear; his vision far-sighted; his disposition temperate. No man but a fool can doubt the loyalty of his nature to fixed principles, for, as a citizen and a statesman, he is a man of integrity. He seems to have made the science of government a system of profound research, the good of his people his chief purpose; and, since the advent of the revolution, the success of our cause the aim of his existence. Had his counsels prevailed, we would have had peace this day. There is no sort of question of it; for they would have given us an army at the start, and both a financial and diplomatic system throughout the war. The modest bearing, the earnest truths, the calm good sense, the sagacious hints, the eloquent pictures and appeals, which gleam among the sturdy issues presented in his late speech, cannot fail to find the heart of all who read them."304
Stephens' strategy had no chance of success - with North or South.. James M. McPherson wrote that "Brown and Stephens wanted to begin negotiations after the next Confederate victory, with independence as a precondition of peace. No one, Stephens included, expected Lincoln to negotiate on such conditions." The Georgians did, however, expect to undermine Lincoln in the North and thus create the conditions for an end to the war.305 They misread northern opinion. And they underestimated the impact of General William T. Sherman's burning of Atlanta and crushing march to the sea.
In September 1864, General Sherman reached out to Governor Brown as he marched through Georgia - sending messages to Brown that he could avoid the devastation of the state by taking it our of the war. Sherman reported on September 17 to Lincoln about the pressure he was bringing on state officials: "Mr. Wright, former member of Congress from Rome, Georgia, and Mr. King, of Marietta, are now going between Governor Brown and myself. I have said to them that some of the people of Georgia are engaged in rebellion, begun in error and perpetuated in pride, but that Georgia can now save herself from the devastations of war preparing for her, only by withdrawing her quota out of the Confederate Army, and aiding me to expel Hood from the borders of the State; in which event, instead of desolating the land as we progress, I will keep our men to the high-roads and commons, and pay for the corn and meat we need and take.
I am fully conscious of the delicate nature of such assertions, but it would be a magnificent stroke of policy if we could, without surrendering principle or a foot of ground, arouse the latent enmity of Georgia against Davis. The people do not hesitate to say that Mr. Stephens was and is a Union man at heart; and they say that Davis will not trust him or let him have a share in his Government.306 In his memoirs, Sherman added: "I have not the least doubt that Governor Brown, at that time, seriously entertained the proposition; but he hardly felt ready to act, and simply gave a furlough to the militia, and called a special session of the Legislature, to meet at Milledgeville, to take into consideration the critical condition of affairs in the State."307
Sherman passed on a verbal message to Stephens to meet with him. Stephens wrote out his reply to the interlocutor: "That message was a verbal invitation by him, through you to me, to visit him at Atlanta, to see if we could agree upon some plan of terminating this fratricidal war without the further effusion of blood. The object is one which addresses itself with peculiar interest and great force to every well-wisher of his country - to every friend of humanity - to every patriot - to every one attached to the principles of self-government, established by our common ancestors. I need not assure you, therefore, that it is an object very dear to me-there is no sacrifice I would not make, short of principle and honor, to obtain it, and no effort would I spare, under the same limitations, with reasonable or probable prospect of success." But in the present instance, the entire absence of any power on my part to enter into such negotiations, and the like absence of any such power on his part, so far as appears from his message, necessarily precludes my acceptance of the invitation thus tendered. In communicating this to General Sherman, you may also say to him that if he is of opinion that there is any prospect of our agreeing upon terms of adjustment to be submitted to the action of our respective governments, even though he has no power to act in advance in the premises, and will make this known to me in some formal and authoritative manner (being so desirous for peace himself, as you represent him to have expressed himself), I would most cheerfully and willingly, with the consent of our authorities, accede to his request thus manifested, and enter with all the earnestness of my nature upon the responsible and arduous task of restoring peace and harmony to the country, upon principles of honor, right, and justice to all parties. This does not seem to me to be at all impossible, if truth and reason should be permitted to have their full sway."308
Although Sherman's offer fell short, historian Michael E. Vorenberg noted that "rumors circulated [in the North]...that Brown and...Stephens...were ready to settle a peace."309 New York attorney George Templeton Strong committed to his diary on September 29, 1864 the kind of skeptical reaction that Lincoln might have anticipated regarding the Georgians' initiatives: "The 'overtures by the state of Georgia' for a separate peace and return to the Union, about which so much has been said, are now pretty generally understood to be bogus and bosh...Propositions from Vice-President Stephens and Governor Brown and Robert Toombs would probably made in bad faith, and mean only to embarrass the Administration, divide the North, and help their friends McClellan and Pendleton into power."310
Former Union commander McClellan and his Ohio running mate labored under a Democratic platform committed to peace. Under these conditions, Stephens was sorely disappointed in the failure of Jefferson Davis to pursue an accommodationist course - especially his failure to work with northern Democrats to promote a Democratic victory over Lincoln. Stephens believed that only a Democratic president would negotiate with the Confederacy to maintain its independence and that a military victory was impossible. Stephens wrote: "I know that many of our people think that any allusion to peace on our side is injurious to our case. Some maintain that we cannot entertain any propositions unless they be based upon our Independence. I concur in none of this reasoning. Nothing would give us more strength at home or abroad, with our armies and the world, than to keep constantly before the public what we are fighting for, and the terms upon which the contest forced upon us may be ended."311 Stephens believed a Democratic victory in the North would shorten the war and he doubted that the Confederacy could achieve independence militarily. Historian Thomas E. Schott wrote: "Stephens wasn't naive. He wanted peace and independence for the Confederacy, but he also knew most northerners wanted reunion....Lincoln had to be defeated, and the peace party appeared to be the only way to do it."312
In September, Stephens wrote a letter which was published in southern newspapers. After reviewing the actions of the Georgia legislature and his own philosophical position on the nature of the national union, Stephens stated: "The action of the Chicago Convention, so far as its platform of principles goes, presents, as I have said on another occasion, "a ray of light, which, under Providence, may prove the dawn of day to this long and cheerless night.' The first ray of real light I have seen from the North since the war began....whether it shall bring healing in its beams, or be lost in dark and ominous eclipse ere its good work is done, depends so much upon the action of others who may not regard it and view it as I do. So, at best, it is but a ray-a small and tremulous ray-enough only to gladden the heart and quicken hope. The prominent and leading idea of that convention seems to have been a desire to reach a peaceful adjustment of our present difficulties and strife through the medium of the convocation of the States. They propose to suspend hostilities to see what can be done, if any thing, by negotiation of some sort. This is one step in the right direction. To such a convention of the States, I should have no objection, as a peaceful conference and interchange of views between equal and sovereign Powers, just as the convention of 1787 was called and assembled. The properly constituted authorities at Washington and Richmond, the duly authorized representatives of the two confederacies of States now at war with each other, might give their assent to such a proposition. Good might result from it."313
The New York Times editorialized in mid-October: "What comes from ALEXANDER H. STEPHENS always commands peculiar attention in the North, for he is believed to possess the clearest mind and frankest heart in the Confederacy." The newspaper, whose editor Henry J. Raymond had himself sought negotiations with Richmond in August, then detailed Stephens's response to the Democratic platform passed by the Chicago convention at the beginning of September:
The present manifestation has all the greater interest because it points directly at the prime proposition in the Chicago platform - "a cessation of hostilities with a view to an ultimate convention of the States." This journal has from the beginning declared that the States of the Confederacy would go into such a convention only in their original independent capacity, and not at all as members of the Federal Union; and that no State would consider itself bound by its conclusions, even though they might be ratified by three-fourths of the other States - which concurrence, under the present Constitution, is enough to make all amendments valid, and binding upon all. If this view was right it was of supreme importance. A convention of the States, so organized, would in fact be a remitting of the old Union to its original elements -- in other words, a positive and formal dissolution of the Union, with an uncertain prospect of forming another.
Well, how does Mr. STEPHENS, the most moderate and sagacious of the Southern leaders regard this? He expresses himself with all his characteristic straightforwardness. Averring that "no person living can possibly feel a more ardent desire for an end to be put to this unnatural and merciless war upon honorable and just terms," he yet declares that he can favor only a convention which is based upon "the sovereignty, the ultimate absolute sovereignty of the States."...
So we know precisely for what Mr. STEPHENS hails the Chicago platform "a ray of light." It gives him joy, because it leads straight to a recognition of disunion, leaving the formation of a future Union an open question. He makes good every argument here in the North that the platform was planned in disloyalty to the old Union. It is now shown better than ever why it was that the framers of the platform were so set against the first resolution, as drafted by WASHINGTON HUNT, pledging a maintenance of the unity of the Union, and insisted upon a more indefinite and equivocal phraseology. Mr. STEPHENS, in fact, claims that the action of the Northern Opposition is "part of the fruits" of the peace resolutions passed by the Georgia Legislature last Winter, which were predicated upon the assumption that secession was right and valid, that the old Union is dead, and which held out that Georgia was ready to negotiate for a new Union. Doubtless these resolutions were inspired by Mr. STEPHENS himself. The idea is an old one with him. In his former "corner-stone" speech in Savannah, in March, 1861, he said, in speaking of the Confederacy as it would be: "To what extent accessions will go on in the process of time, the future will determine. So far as it concerns States of the old Union, they will be upon no such principle of reconstruction as is spoken of, but upon reorganization and new assimilation."
He always, as a Secessionist, has looked to a new Union, made up from certain selected parts of what we call the present Union. It is in perfect consistency that he closes his letter by saying, in reference to this new Union: "All questions of boundaries, confederacies, and union or unions, would naturally and easily adjust themselves according to the interests of parties, and the exigencies of the times." He would shape his Union with express reference to the interests of the parties, North and South, which believe with him that "slavery must be the controlling element on this continent."
When Mr. STEPHENS sees the election returns of Ohio and Indiana, he will apprehend his mistake in counting on the Northwest as an ally in this reorganizing scheme. The Northwest is as firm as New-England itself for the old Union, and will fight the South to extermination sooner than barter away its birthright for the chimeras of new confederacies which are floating in the brains of peace men like him and VALLANDIGHAM. The whole North means to redeem and hold fast to the old heritage. Neither Southern rebellion nor Northern conspiracy can shake that determination.314
In the first three years of the war, Stephens' criticisms of Davis and critiques of the war had mostly been confined to letters to fellow Georgians, but he became more bold in 1864 - leading to a pointed exchange of letters with Davis. Stephens was frustrated that not all Confederate leaders understood that Democrats like General McClellan would be better for the South than President Lincoln. "Judging from his acts," wrote Stephens of Davis in November 1864, "I should think that he did" prefer Lincoln to McClellan.315 Davis's "whole policy has been to weaken, cripple and annihilate" the Peace Democrats.316 As a consequence, Davis and Stephens exchanged a series of letters about their respective actions and attitudes. In some ways, each represented strains of southern thinking. "The loss of the will to fight became pronounced in the Southern people after the reelection of Lincoln in November, 1864," noted historian Clement Eaton.317 But Davis represented "the spirit of the people to unconquerable resistance against their foes."318
In January 1865, Stephens "emerged from exile to lead a headlong attack on the Administration, not only for its failure to check Sherman's march through his beloved Georgia, but also for all its previous sins of omission and commission," wrote Civil War historian Shelby Foote. "Resuming his vice-presidential chore of presiding over the Senate, Stephens arrived in time to cast the deciding vote restoring habeas corpus, then moved on to deliver a ringing speech in which he arraigned the government for incompetence, slack judgment, and despotic arrogance at all levels. The war having failed, he called for the removal of Davis or, short of impeachment, the opening of direct negotiations for peace with Washington."319 But the Confederate senators were not much in the mood to hear the views of the irritable, absentee Georgian. In the midst of the crumbling Confederacy, Stephens pushed his notion of a Confederate convention to make proposals for peace between the South and North - at least until Davis called his bluff and sent him and two colleagues to Hampton Roads.320
After the unsuccessful negotiations with Lincoln and Seward, Stephens reported back to Jefferson Davis. Stephens told Davis that he was going 'to go home and remain there." He said he would "neither make any speech, nor even make known to the public in any way of the general condition of affairs, but quietly abide the issue of fortune." Shelby Foote wrote: "Discredited, outmaneuvered, he threw in the sponge at last."321 Stephens realized the Confederacy was doomed, but he was passive even in response to the suggestions of his allies. Thomas Schott wrote: "Rumor had it that Stephens had reacted to the Hampton Roads failure the same way many other southerners had and would be returning to Georgia to fire zeal for patriotic resistance. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Stephens was through talking. Pleas for speeches came in daily; he ignored them all. Words were pointless. Stephens had accepted the inevitable."322
Stephens' life had often been one of disappointment - but perhaps never more so than the period of the Civil War. Harper's Weekly commented years later: "When all his dreams of compromise were rudely interrupted by the ripening of the secession plots, made by men who accomplished events instead of accepting them when accomplished, Mr. Stephens protested, but yielded. He not only consented to take part in the Confederate government, but he had the imprudence to defend it and the principle on which it was based, and to declare that 'slavery was the corner-stone' of 'the new civilization.' It is of the irony of fate that this announcement did more than any utterance from the Union side could do to prevent the Confederacy from gaining sympathy abroad, where sympathy was absolutely essential to it, and that the unprejudiced love of that liberty which he had praised so eloquently was turned by his words to implacable hatred of the cause in which he enlisted. And in many ways Mr. Stephens suffered inconceivably from his one fatal weakness. The leaders of the rebellion utterly distrusted him. He was almost without influence in the counsels of the Confederacy, and before the close of the struggle was driven into retirement. The officers of the Union army found him alone in his deserted mansion, surrounded by a half-dozen of his slaves, a saddened spectator of the general ruin which he had resisted at first, but had finally aided to bring about."323
Federal troops arrested Stephens at his home on May 11, 1865. Jefferson Davis had been arrested two days earlier. Unlike Davis, Stephens had not sought to flee. As Stephens was transported north to Boston aboard a Union ship, he was briefly reunited on May 15 with the Confederate president. "Much as I disagreed with him and much as I deplored the ruin which, I think his acts helped to bring upon the whole country, as well as on himself, I could not but deeply sympathize with him in his present condition," wrote Stephens in his diary. "We passed but few words; these were commonplace."324
Once Stephens reached Boston on May 20, the former Confederate vice president was imprisoned at Fort Warren for five months. In jail, Stephens wrote in his diary: "I never yet knew one of the coloured race who did not like me. Toward coloured people I have always felt cordial sympathy and it has never failed to be reciprocated."183 Upon his release in October 1865, he traveled home via Washington and met with President Andrew Johnson. No longer a rich man, Stephens continued to be a generous man; in 1872 he was rescued from insolvency by Robert Toombs.325
The aging, always ailing Stephens eventually returned to politics. After several unsuccessful attempts to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate, Stephens won election to Congress and served for a decade from 1873-1882 although his mobility was severely restricted. In December 1873, Harper's Weekly reported "a very striking scene in the House of Representatives when Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, appeared and took his seat. The ex-Vice-President of the Southern Confederacy entered the hall on crutches. He looked feeble and emaciated, but no more so than for several years past. Few of the members recognized him, and of all those in the hall there were probably not more than five or six who were his contemporaries during any part of the fourteen years when he sat in the House, from 1843 to 1857."327
On February 12, 1878, Congressman Stephens spoke at the Capitol on behalf of the South when Francis B. Carpenter's painting, "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation" was unveiled in the Hall of Representatives. Speaking from a wheelchair, Stephens observed of Lincoln: "In bodily form he was above the average, and so in intellect; the two were in symmetry. Not highly cultivated, he had a native genius far above the average of his fellows. Every fountain of his heart was ever overflowing with the 'milk of human kindness.' So much for him personally. From my attachment to him, so much the deeper was the pang in my own breast as well as of millions at the horrible manner of 'his taking off.' That was the climax of our troubles and the spring from which came afterward 'unnumbered woes.'" Stephens went on to recognize that slavery was not only wrong, but "was the leading cause of the late terrible conflict of arms between the States." He urged a peaceful and harmonious reconstruction of the Union so that "we as a whole, with 'peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, and entangling alliances with none,' may...enter upon a new career, exciting increased wonder in the Old World by grander achievements hereafter to be made than any heretofore attained, by the peaceful and harmonious workings of our matchless system of American federal institutions of self-government. All this is possible if the hearts of the people be right."328
Historian James M. McPherson wrote: "After the war...Davis and Stephens changed their tune. By the time they wrote their histories of the Confederacy, slavery was gone with the wind - a dead and discredited institution. To concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in a vain attempt to keep four million people in slavery would not confer honor on their lost cause. Therefore they set to work to purge that cause of any association with human bondage."71 The authors of Why the South Lost the Civil War wrote: "Stephens spent his early postwar years cranking out in two volumes a deadly dull defense of the Confederacy, titled A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States. Slavery no longer supplied a cornerstone. Now the war "had its origin, in opposing principles, which in their action upon the conduct of men, produced the ultimate collision of arms.'"329
Historian James A. Rawley argued that Stephens had been more accurate in 1861: "The Confederate cornerstone was not, as his long apologia...said, state rights, nor, as some historians state, slavery, but racial inequality."330 Always cantankerous, when his two-volume work of political theory was ill-received, Stephens wrote a Review of the Reviewers to respond to his critics. Stephens may have been wrong, but he was never in doubt. He continued to believe strongly in his own correctness.
Stephens did understand that the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy had been destroyed by the Thirteenth Amendment. As he predicted in November 1861 in arguing against secession, "the vindictive decree of a universal emancipation....may reasonably be expected to follow."331 In increasingly ill health, Stephens retired from Congress in 1882. He was elected governor of Georgia the same year, but died in March 1883. Improbably, the sickly Georgian had outlasted his robust Illinois friend by nearly 18 years.
The conflict in principle arose from different and opposing ideas as to the nature of what is known as the General Government. The contest was between those who held it to be strictly Federal in its character, and those who maintained that it was thoroughly National. It was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other." Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States, p. 10.