The Littlest Giant
For forty years in the middle of the 19th Century in Georgia, Alexander Hamilton Stephens towered over most of his political colleagues in the Empire State of the South. Weighing between ninety and a hundred pounds, the frequently frail, regularly sickly, five-foot, seven-inch-tall leviathan served more terms than any other Georgian in the Congress during the 1800s. Although a proponent of slavery, Stephens fought hard to keep his native state in the Union. When all of his efforts failed, Alexander Stephens, Laurens County's first Congressman, accepted the nomination as Vice-President of the Confederate States of America.
Alexander Stephens was born on February 11, 1812 near the town of Crawfordville in Taliaferro County, Georgia to his parents Andrew Stephens and Margaret Grier Stephens. After losing his mother as an infant, Alex suffered the loss of both his father and stepmother in 1826. With no family to raise him, Alex was blessed to be taken in by the Rev. Alexander Hamilton Webster. Stephens changed his middle name to honor his counselor and mentor. Alex Stephens graduated with highest honors from the University of Georgia, where he was a roommate of Dr. Crawford W. Long, the discoverer of anesthesia. He taught school for a year and a half before his admission to the bar in 1834. Two years later, Stephens was elected to represent Taliaferro County in the Georgia Legislature, serving through 1841, when he was elected to represent his county in the Georgia Senate. In his relatively brief legal career, Stephens earned a reputation as a highly effective criminal defense lawyer.
A member of the southern branch of the Whig Party, Stephens was elected to fill the unexpired term of Congressman Mark Cooper in 1843. The following year, Georgia adopted a new system of Congressional Districts which replaced the at-large system. Stephens was elected to the 7th Congressional District of Georgia, which covered an area composed of Baldwin, Greene, Hancock, Laurens, Morgan, Oglethorpe, Putnam, Taliaferro, and Washington counties. Stephens served on the Committee of Twenty- One to ensure the election of Whig candidates along with Winfield Wright of Laurens County.
Congressman Stephens, whose Unionists' views made him popular with local voters, continued to represent Laurens County until congressional districts were redistricted in 1852. After rifts developed between northern and southern members of the Whig Party, Toombs, Stephens and Douglas left the party in the early 1850s to form a new party, the Constitutional Union Party. Stephens, then a full-fledged Democrat, was a strong supporter of President James Buchanan and served as a presidential elector for Stephen Douglas, seen as a traitor by many in the South, in the 1860 election.
Stephens, who served in Congress until 1859, was not the strongest advocate of slavery in his early years, although his best friend, Robert Toombs, was. As the winds of war began to howl in 1860, Stephens was elected to attend the Secession Convention held in Milledgeville in January 1861. He desperately implored the delegates to cast their ballots in favor of Georgia's remaining in the Union in an attempt to save her from what he foresaw as her inevitable destruction. Although opposed to Abraham Lincoln's policies, Stephens knew that the Republicans, who had just come onto the national scene, did not possess the requisite number of votes to adopt Lincoln's policies into law.
Despite his desperate struggles to keep Georgia as a part of the United States, Alexander Stephens accepted his nomination to serve in the Confederate Congress. On his forty-ninth birthday, Congressman Stephens was sworn in as the first and only Vice-President of the Confederate States of America.
Alexander Stephens took a more cautious approach to prosecuting a war against the North. Stephens favored delaying offensive actions in order to build up and train Southern forces. During the second year of the war, Stephens first began to reveal his differences with those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Stephen's criticism of Davis's military strategies increased. So did his disdain for the Confederate president's policy of conscription and suspension of the constitutionally guaranteed right of habeas corpus, policies which were also adopted by Abraham Lincoln in the North. All the while, Stephens sought out ways to end the hostilities after the pivotal battle of Gettysburg.
Thirty-two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Union forces arrested Stephens at his home, Liberty Hall, in Crawfordville. After serving five months in the prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, Stephens returned to Georgia. Elected to the United States Senate from Georgia in 1866, Stephens was denied his seat as Georgia had not formally returned to the Union.
After the virtual end of Reconstruction, Stephens filled the unexpired term of Ambrose R. Wright in the United States Congress. Stephens won reelection for four more terms bringing his total service in the Congress to twenty-six years, a record only matched in the 20th Century by Carl Vinson, Paul Brown, John Lewis and Edward Cox.
At the age of seventy, Stephens resigned his seat in Congress following his election as the 50th Governor of Georgia. On March 4, 1883, some four months after his election, the ailing scion of Georgia politics passed away in his home.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens made few reported appearances in Dublin and Laurens County. The little man, with a shrill voice and a highly intelligent mind, made at least one stop in the county during his travels across the state. Stephens accepted the invitation of Ira Stanley, who invited the traveler into his home. According to Stanley family tradition, when the men were discussing Stanley's desire to build a new home in the northern tip of Laurens County, Stephens called for a pen and paper and sketched out a design of his own home. Stanley reproduced his elegant home, near Chappell's Mill, in close conformance with Stephen's drawing.
It has been said that Alexander Stephens had a desire to help those less fortunate than himself. His home was frequently open to all travelers, rich or poor. More than one hundred students, of both races and both sexes, were said to have benefitted from his generous private scholarships.
Like Thomas Jefferson, another great American of the same ilk, Alexander Hamilton Stephens died with little or no assets, other than the infinite number of friends and a long legacy of service to our state and our nation. And, it was in this week, two hundred years ago, that the "littlest giant" in our state's political history was born.