Before the Flood: Alexander H. Stephens and Abraham Lincoln

By Jamil Zainaldin

“We are passing through one of the greatest revolutions in the annals of the world — seven States have, within the last three months, thrown off an old Government and formed a new. This revolution has been signally marked, up to this time, by the fact of its having been accomplished without the loss of a single drop of blood.” Alexander H. Stephens, Savannah, March 21, 1861

Alexander Stephens met and became friends with Abraham Lincoln when the two began their first terms in Congress, in 1843.

Alexander Stephens met and became friends with Abraham Lincoln when the two served in Congress in the 1840s.

With the Confederacy barely a month old, so began Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, in a speech in Savannah. This sesquicentennial season of the Civil War gives us an opportunity to explore the most devastating event in American history and one of the deadliest of all civil wars: more than 600,000 combatants died, leaving no American household untouched.

An examination of the letters exchanged between Stephens and Abraham Lincoln before the outbreak of any hostilities can perhaps shed a little light on the war’s origins, just as they as they also highlight their complex nature.

Stephens was no newcomer to politics. A native of Crawfordville in Taliaferro County, near Athens, Georgia, Stephens was a “near-constant force in state and national politics for a half century,” writes New Georgia Encyclopedia author Chad Morgan. Though sickly and weighing no more than 100 pounds — he referred to himself as “malformed” — “Little Aleck” was a lifelong bachelor inside of whom burned a ceaseless ambition.

He helped write the constitution of the Confederacy and was serving as its vice president at the time of his Savannah speech in March 1861. Before that he had served as a member of the House and Senate in the Georgia General Assembly, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1843 to 1859.

Abraham Lincoln, pictured in the 1840s, around the time he and Alexander Stephens developed a friendship and mutual respect for each other, despite their profound differences on the issue of slavery.

Abraham Lincoln, pictured in the 1840s, around the time he and Alexander Stephens developed a friendship and mutual respect for each other, despite their profound differences on the issue of slavery.

Lincoln served one term in Congress, from 1847 to 1849, and it was there that Stephens and Lincoln became friends. They acquired a sincere, lifelong mutual respect for each other. In agreement on many things while in Congress, they differed on the morality of slavery.

In a letter dated December 22, 1860, Lincoln reached out to the highly influential Georgian in hopes of finding a way of dampening talk of secession.

“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,” Lincoln wrote.

Preservation of the Union was his priority — even to the extent that he “would not object” to amending the constitution to bar Congress forever from interfering on matters of slavery.

In spite of Lincoln’s conciliatory words, Stephens responded on December 30 by stating that the tolerance of slavery by the North alone was not enough to bridge the differences of North-South sentiment: “We at the South do think African slavery, as it exists with us, both morally and politically right,” he wrote to Lincoln. “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.”

Despite that difference, he joined hands with Lincoln when it came to secession, believing the Constitution a “leaky boat” that could be repaired, and advocates of secession a “people . . . run mad. They are wild with passion and frenzy, doing they know not what.” This did not mean Stephens doubted the legality of secession. He saw the Union as a “compact” from which a state could withdraw to protect a preexisting state right — the regulation of the institution of slavery being one. Very many did. Lincoln replied: “Only unanimous consent of all the States can dissolve the Union.” Anything else was rebellion.

After Georgia’s special convention voted to secede in January 1861, Stephens threw in with the secessionists, now characterizing the growing movement in the South as a “revolution” that hearkened back to the noble cause of the War for Independence.

The handwritten note that Lincoln sent home with Alexander Stephens's nephew. Out of respect for his old friend, Lincoln arranged for the nephew's release from military prison in 1865. The letter is held at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.

The handwritten note that Lincoln sent home with Alexander Stephens’s nephew. Out of respect for his old friend, Lincoln arranged for the nephew’s release from military prison in 1865. The letter is held at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.

Interestingly, we can see that both men changed in their original stated opinions: Stephens on secession and Lincoln on slavery. While Stephens moved from decrying secession to embracing it, Lincoln’s arc was dramatic, too. He moved from a willingness to accommodate slavery, to a more radical position on January 1, 1863, when his Emancipation Proclamation made freedom for slaves in the Confederacy (but not in other slaveholding states) a war strategy. That November, in his famous Gettysburg Address, he elevated freedom to the war’s very purpose. For Lincoln and many Union soldiers and civilians, a new day dawned.

How difficult it was even in those days to fully comprehend the true motivations of government leaders as they expressed evolving justifications and rationales in response to emerging public and political events that had the power to shape, reshape, and even transform their original arguments and goals.

Stances shifted and faltered in response to changing events, sometimes in small incremental degrees, other times rapidly. It is difficult enough to untangle why one person acted as he did; even more challenging is understanding how the public and the leaders who represented them made their final choices, such as to secede or not — to accommodate slavery or not.

What were the tipping points that caused forces and emotions to be released, from which there was no turning back? If the Civil War in retrospect seems an inevitability, on close examination it is just as much a jumble of circumstance, accident, and random occurrences.

In history, questions of right and wrong are inseparable from the lens that we use in our own day. Historical judgments are rarely final, even when they have already been “decided” in law, or in war, or in scholarship.

Issues that divide have a tendency to reappear in new or different guises, often still traceable back to their earlier manifestations. As we try to learn about our past, it is incumbent upon each of us to filter through many factors, never expecting an easy answer, but always realizing that history is made up of human beings, like Lincoln and Stephens, whose minds and hearts can change in critical ways in response to the events of the days they lived in.

Actor Jackie Early Haley's uncanny resemblance to Alexander Stephens in the film Lincoln. The movie includes the secret peace conference between Lincoln and Stephens that took place in January 1865.

Actor Jackie Early Haley’s uncanny resemblance to Alexander Stephens in the film Lincoln. The movie includes the secret peace conference between Lincoln and Stephens that took place in January 1865.

Stephens and Lincoln did, incidentally, meet again in January 1865, at a secret peace conference in Hampton Roads, Virginia — an episode that Steven Spielberg thought worthy of including in his film Lincoln. Nothing came of the negotiations, but at the end of the meeting, Lincoln asked Stephens if there was anything he could do for him. Yes, said Stephens, he could help in the release of his nephew, a Confederate lieutenant imprisoned in a military camp in Ohio.

Lincoln promptly arranged the release, sending home with the nephew this handwritten note: “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.”

The letter, with the nephew, arrived at Stephens’ home after the president’s assassination. “I almost wept when I saw it,” Stephens recalled.

Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

1 reply
  1. FilmCriticOne says:

    Such bullshit — Lincoln changed his mind on slavery? REally?  No, he always hated slavery and always said so. Let me guess, you got this information from Southern apologist .
    Trashing Lincoln — partly by saying he was for slavery or for inequality  — has been a favorite sport for the stupid.  In fact, you should read newspapers and speeches from 1855-1861.  Lincoln was called a nigger lover, a nigger worshiper, and in every single Lincoln Douglas debate, Douglas painted him as a nigger lover radical who “harps constantly” on equality for the Negro like his friend Lovejoy.   You don’t know it, but Lovejoy was killed for speaking too candidly for equality, as Lincoln would be killed, hours after Booth heard him speak for voting rights for blacks.
    If you bother to read Lincolns actual full speeches, in stead of buying into the nonsense about Lincoln being for slavery, you might learn something.  But you’d have to actually read them.    The Lincoln haters just take a few sentences, where Lincoln SEEMED to agree with racist sentiments, but then LINCOLN REVERSES course.   Lincoln sets it up, to mow it down. Again, and again, and again he does this rhetorical rope a dope.  
    In fact, NO ONE ALIVE in 1858 -1861, running for office, in Lincoln’s part of the country even came close to being as radical and zealous for equal rights. NO ONE.   LIncoln was speaking to crowds from parts of Illinois that had recently killed abolitionist — do you know that, or not?  Seriously do you know that? 
    So Lincoln did speak carefully — but profoundly, in a way only he was doing, or could do.   And if you don’t know what Lincoln was up against — such as in the Lincoln Douglas debates, YDKS.  Douglas would get up an rant for an hour how Lincoln was a nigger lover — he said nigger, and so did his men in the crowd, who would shout Nigger lover at Lincoln.  Douglas would tell people Lincoln was seen with a white woman and Frederick Douglass in a carriage –practically an invitation to kill Lincoln. No, Lincoln and Douglas were NOT friends, don’t believe that bullshit.  Douglas was playing hardball, and literally told people Lincoln was for their daughters to SLEEP with Negroes.

    Do you get this or not? Too complicated?  SO then Lincoln had to get up — and disarm that crap.  He would SEEM to agree with Douglas, and say he never supposed blacks were equal to whites — ANY MORE THAN I AM JUDGE DOUGLAS equal.  Do you get the parsing of words, or do I have to explain that to you?   Then Lincoln would utter profoundly powerful language — I am not equal to a colored women, perhaps, but IN HER RIGHT TO EAT THE FOOD OF HER LABOR SHE IS  MY EQUAL AND THE EQUAL OF ANY MAN.

    Gee — I wonder they those who trash Lincoln leave that part out?  Any clue?  Take your time, it will come to you.

    SO those who trash Lincoln always, and I mean always, fail to explain context, and they fail to give his full quotes.   Lincoln does this time and time and time again.  He does it speech after speech.  Too complicated?   

    That’s why people can pick quotes and make Lincoln seem for slavery if they want to.  

    Frederick Douglass explained it best, and he claimed Lincoln was “swift, radical, zealous, and determined”.  There simply was no one like Lincoln — the “abolitionist” like Garrison was not only paid, he was not running for office, and he was speaking to crowds in Boston and Maine – not Alton IL, where blacks were still hunted as fugitive slaves and abolitionist were sill  killed if they spoke too bluntly.

    SO get it right  — don’t give this crap. Learn real  history or shut the hell upReport

    Reply

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