Alexander Hamilton Stephens was born two centuries ago today. Despite a difficult childhood in which he lost both his parents, he went on to study law, enter politics and become vice president of the Confederate States. He delivered a famous speech declaring that ‘slavery, subordination to the superior race, is [a] natural and normal condition.’ He was arrested towards the end of the Civil War, and while in prison kept a detailed diary in which, early on, he wrote: ‘Never before was I deprived of my liberty.’ How ironic.
Stephens was born on 11 February 1812 in Taliaferro County, Georgia, US. His mother died when he was very young, and his father and stepmother died when he was but a teenager. A Presbyterian minister, Alexander Hamilton Webster, helped him continue his education, leading him later to take on his middle name. After studying at Franklin College (later University of Georgia), he taught for several years before turning to the law, and passing the bar in 1834.
However, it was politics to which Stephens was most drawn, and by 1843, he had been elected to the US House of Representatives where he served eight terms, in various political parties, including the Whig party and, eventually, the Southern Democratic party. In time, he acquired wealth and bought land and slaves. His generosity, it is said, was legendary, often opening his house, and financing students’ education.
In 1858, Stephens returned to private law practice, but in 1861, was elected to the Georgian special convention to decide whether or not to secede. He changed his mind on the issue, voting initially against, and then for, with the majority. Subsequently, he was elected as vice president of the Confederate States of America by the Confederate Congress. A few weeks later, he gave his famous so-called Cornerstone Speech in which he declared that slavery was the natural condition of blacks and the foundation of the Confederacy.
Through the war, though, Stephens was a critic of the Confederacy’s President, Jefferson Davis, and he persistently sought ways to improve a chance of peace. He was arrested in May 1865, and imprisoned in Fort Warren, Boston Harbor, for five months. The following year, Stephens was elected to the US Senate but was refused his seat because Georgia had not yet been re-admitted to the Union. Thereafter he returned to the law, until 1873, when he was elected to the US House of Representatives, and served another five terms. In 1882, he was elected Governor of Georgia, but died after only four months in office. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Georgia’s Blue and Gray Trail website, and from The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
While in prison, Stephens had plenty of time for writing, and kept a detailed diary. This was edited by Myrta Lockett Avary and published (by Doubleday, Page and Company, New York, in 1910) as Recollections of Alexander H Stephens; his diary kept when a prisoner at Fort Warren, Boston Harbour, 1865; giving incidents and reflections of his prison life and some letters and reminiscences. This first edition is freely available at Internet Archive, but the book was reprinted in 1998 by Louisiana State University Press, and can be viewed at Amazon
The book’s very long introduction also contains a few snippets of a diary he kept 20 years earlier when just starting out as a lawyer. Here are most of those early extracts, and two early entries from the prison diary of 1865.
2 May 1834
‘The other day, as I was coming from my boarding-house in a cheerful brisk walk, I was laid low in the dust by hearing the superintendent of a shoe-shop ask a workman, “Who is that little fellow that walks so fast by here every day?” with the reply in a sarcastic tone, “Why, that’s a lawyer!” ’
8 May 1834
‘Read Jackson’s Protest to the Senate. Am pleased with it in general ... I feel interested for him ... I see vile attempts made to fix infamy upon him. His Proclamation of December, 1832, I condemn. But for one error a man who has done much good for his country should not be abandoned. For where we find a president who will commit only one wrong, we shall find few who will not commit more.’
12 May 1834
‘My desires do not stop short of the highest places of distinction. Yet how can I effect my purpose? Poor and without friends, time passing with rapid flight and I effecting nothing.’
17 May 1834
‘Brother still with me. Had an introduction to a man who addressed me familiarly as “My son.” Such often happens to me. My weight is 94 pounds, height 67 inches, and my whole appearance that of a youth of eighteen.’
19 May 1834
‘Inferior Court sat; no business. Starvation to the whole race of lawyers!’
30 May 1834
‘Examined some drawings of the ancient statues. With the Gladiator and Venus I am delighted. Pity but some of our fashionable belles would take a lesson from this elegant form of true grace, the Venus; they would change their present disgusting waspish taste.’
3 June 1834
‘The railroad is the topic of the day. Railroads, it is true, are novel things. The greatest obstacle is the greatness of the enterprise. The stupendous thought of seeing steam-engines moving over our hills at the safe and rapid flight of fifteen miles an hour, produces a greater effect in dissuasion of the undertaking than any discovered defect in arguments in its favour.’
7 June 1834
‘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.’
25 June 1834
‘Went to a party. Witnessed the new dance [the waltz] which disgusted me very much. Oh, the follies of man!’
12 May 1865
‘This is one of the most eventful days of my life. Never before was I deprived of my liberty or under arrest. Reached Atlanta about eight-thirty. Quite unwell. Carried to General Upton’s headquarters. The first person I saw that I knew was Felix, a coloured man who was a servant to Mr Toombs and myself when we lived together in Washington City. He was very glad to see me and I gave him a hearty handshake. He was our cook in Washington, and a good cook he was. General Upton had gone to Macon but was expected back that night. Captain Gilpin, of his staff, received me and assigned me a room. Anthony made me a fire; Captain Gilpin ordered breakfast and Felix soon had it ready: fried ham and coffee. Walked about the city under guard. The desolation and havoc of war here are soul-rending. Several persons called to see me, Gip Grier [his cousin] the first; my heart almost burst when I saw him, but I suppressed all show of emotion. [. . .] Captain Saint called and said he would send the surgeon of his regiment to prescribe for my hoarseness. The surgeon came, and his remedies did me good. Major Cooper called and gave me a bottle of whisky.
I started from home with about $590 in gold which had been laid up for a long time for such a contingency. I got Gip Grier to exchange $20 of it for greenbacks and small silver. I had first asked Captain Gilpin if this would be allowed and he made no objection. Gip offered me $100 additional in gold if I wished it. I declined it. Duncan offered any amount I might want. I told him I hoped I had enough. All this was in the presence of the officers. General Foster, in his note, offered any funds I might need. I informed him in my answer that I had plenty for present use and hoped I should need no more.’
13 May 1865
‘General Upton called early. I was so hoarse I could hardly talk. He informed me that he had removed all guards, that I was on my parole. I told him I should not violate it. He was very courteous and agreeable; told me my destination was Washington. [. . .] He gave me choice of route: by Dalton and the lines of railroads northwest and north, or by sea from Savannah. I selected the sea route [. . .]
From my window, just before night, I took a bird’s-eye survey of the ruins of this place. I saw where the Trout House stood, where Douglas spoke in 1860 - I thought of the scenes of that day, and my deep forebodings of all these troubles; and how sorely oppressed I was at heart, not much less so than now, in their full realization with myself among the victims. How strange it seems to me that I should thus suffer, I who did everything in the power of man to prevent them. I could but rest my eye for a time upon the ruins of the Atlanta Hotel, while the mind was crowded with associations brought to life in gazing upon it. There, on the fourth Sept., 1848, I was near losing my life for resenting the charge of being a traitor to the South: and now I am here, a prisoner under charge, I suppose, of being a traitor to the Union. In all, I have done nothing but what I thought was right. The result, be it what it may, I shall endeavour to meet with resignation.’