This great statesman was born in Georgia on February 11, 1812, and was left an orphan at an early age. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1834, having the advantage of a college education. He entered upon the practice of law at Crawfordsville in his native State, and his natural ability and splendid education soon won for him a most lucrative practice.
Mr. Stephens early became a convert to the Calhoun school of politics, and he remained firmly fixed until death in the belief that slavery was the proper sphere in which all colored people should move. He believed it was better for the races both white and black.
Though physically weak he was wonderfully developed in personal courage. In 1836 Mr. Stephens was elected to the State legislature, to which he succeeded five successive terms. In 1842 he was elected to the State senate, there to remain only one year when he was sent as a Whig to the national congress, there to remain until 1859 when, July 2nd, in a speech at Augusta he announced his intention of retiring to private life. When the old Whig party was superceded by the present Republican party Mr. Stephens joined the Democrats. During the presidential canvass of 1860 Mr. Stephens supported the northern wing under Douglass, and in a speech at the capitol of his State bitterly denounced secession. As the speech so well illustrates his powers of oratory, so far as words can portray that power, we give the speech as follows:—
This step, secession, once taken can never be recalled, and all the baleful and withering consequences that must follow, as you will see, will rest on this 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 yours will inevitably provoke, when our green fields and waving harvests shall be trodden down by a murderous soldiery, and the fiery car of war sweeps over our land, our temples of justice laid in ashes and every horror and desolation upon us; who, but him who shall have given his vote for this unwise and ill-timed measure shall be held to a strict account for this suicidal act by the present generation, and be cursed and execrated by all posterity, in all coming time, for the wide and desolating ruin that will inevitably follow this act you now propose to perpetrate?
Pause, I entreat you, and consider for a moment what reasons you can give that will satisfy yourselves in calmer moments? What reasons can you give to your fellow-sufferers in the calamity that it will bring upon us? What reasons can you give to the nations of the earth to justify it? They will be calm and deliberate judges of this case, and to what cause, or one overt-act can you point on which to rest the plea of justification? What right has the North assailed? Of what interest has the South been invaded? What justice has been denied? And what claim founded in justice and right has been unsatisfied? Can any of you name to-day one governmental act of wrong deliberately and purposely done by the government at Washington, of which the South has a right to complain? I challenge an answer.
On the other hand, let me show the facts (and believe me, gentlemen, I am not here the advocate of the North, but I am here the friend, the firm friend and lover of the South and her institutions, and for this reason I speak thus plainly and faithfully for yours, mine, and every other man’s interest, the words of truth and soberness), of which I wish you to judge, and I will only state facts which are clear and undeniable, and which now stand in the authentic records of the history of our country. When we of the South demanded the slave trade, or the importation of Africans for the cultivation of our lands, did they not yield the right for twenty years? When we asked a three-fifths representation in Congress for our section was it not granted? When we demanded the return of any fugitive from justice, or the recovery of those persons owing labor or allegiance, was it not incorporated in the Constitution, and again ratified and strengthened in the fugitive slave law of 1850? Do you reply that in many instances they have violated this law and have not been faithful to their engagements? As individuals and local committees they may have done so, but not by the sanction of government, for that has always been true to the Southern interests.
Again, look at another fact. When we asked that more territory should be added that we might spread the institution of slavery did they not yield to our demands by giving us Louisiana, Florida and Texas out of which four States have been carved, and ample territory left for four more to be added in due time, if you do not by this unwise and impolitic act destroy this hope, and perhaps by it lose all and have your last slave wrenched from you by stern military rule, or by the vindictative decrees of a universal emancipation which may reasonably be expected to follow.
But again gentlemen, what have we to gain by this proposed change of our relation to the general government? We have always had the control of it and can yet have if we remain in it and are as united as we have been. We have had a majority of the presidents chosen from the South as well as the control and management of most of those chosen from the North. We have had sixty years of Southern presidents to their twenty-four, thus controlling the executive department. So of the judges of the supreme court, we have had eighteen from the South and but eleven from the North. Although nearly four-fifths of the judicial business has arisen in the free States, yet a majority of the court has been from the South. This we have required so as to guard against any interpretation of the constitution unfavorable to us. In like manner we have been equally watchful in the legislative branch of the government. In choosing the presiding officer, pro tem, of the Senate we have had twenty-four and they only eleven; speakers of the house we have had twenty-three and they twelve. While the majority of the representatives, from their greater population, have always been from the North, yet we have generally secured the speaker because he to a great extent shapes and controls the legislation of the country, nor have we had less control in every other department of the general government.
Attorney-Generals we have had 14, while the North have had but five. Foreign ministers we have had 86, and they but 54. While three-fourths of the business which demands diplomatic agents abroad is clearly from the free States because of their greater commercial interests, we have, nevertheless, had the principal embassies so as to secure the world’s markets for our cotton, tobacco and sugar, on the best possible terms. We have had a vast majority of the higher officers of both army and navy, while a larger proportion of the soldiers and sailors were drawn from the Northern States. Equally so of clerks, auditors, and comptrollers, filling the executive department; the records show for the last 50 years that of the 3,000 thus employed we have had more than two-thirds, while we have only one-third of the white population of the Republic.
Again, look at another fact, and one, be assured, in which we have a great and vital interest; it is that of revenue or means of supporting government. From official documents we learn that more than three-fourths of the revenue collected has been raised from the North. Pause now while you have the opportunity to contemplate carefully and candidly these important things. Look at another necessary branch of government, and learn from stern statistical facts how matters stand in that department, I mean the mail and post-office privileges that we now enjoy under the General Government, as it has been for years past. The expense for the transportation of the mail in the free States was by the report of the postmaster-general for 1860, a little over $13,000,000 while the income was $19,000,000. But in the Slave States the transportation of the mail was $14,716,000, and the revenue from the mail only $8,000,265, leaving a deficit of $6,715,735 to be supplied by the North for our accommodation, and without which we must have been cut off from this most essential branch of the government.
Leaving out of view for the present the countless millions of dollars you must expend in a war with the North, with tens of thousands of your brothers slain in battle, and offered up as sacrifices on the altar of your ambition—for what, I ask again? Is it for the overthrow of the American Government, established by our common ancestry, cemented and built up by their sweat and blood, and founded on the broad principles of right, justice and humanity? I must declare to you here, as I have often done before, and it has also been declared by the greatest and wisest statesmen and patriots of this and other lands, that the American Government is the best and freest of all governments, the most equal in its rights, the most just in its decisions, the most lenient in its measures, and the most inspiring in its principles to elevate the race of men that the sun of heaven ever shone upon.
Now for you to attempt to overthrow such a government as this under which we have lived for more than three-quarters of a century, in which we have gained our wealth, our standing as a nation, our domestic safety while the elements of peril are around us with peace and tranquility accompanied with unbounded prosperity and rights unassailed is the height of madness, folly and wickedness to which I will neither lend my sanction nor my vote.
This is one of the most eloquent appeals recorded on the pages of history, and had Mr. Stephens carried out his first intention as expressed, “I will neither lend my sanction nor my vote,” in his subsequent career during that war he had so eloquently and prophetically depicted, he would to-day not only be recognized as one of the ablest and most brilliant of orators as he is known, but would have stamped his life as a consistent and constant legislator which is so laudable in any man. But only a month later, after delivering the great speech at Milledgeville in defense of the Union he accepted one of the chief offices in the Confederacy, and began to perpetrate the very wrongs he had so vehemently deplored, seeking by speeches innumerable to overthrow that government he had so eloquently eulogized.
At Savannah he spoke something as follows: “The new constitution has put to rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast had anticipated this as the rock upon which the old Union would split. 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 to the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle socially, morally and politically.”
“Our new government is founded on exactly the opposite ideas. Its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man. That in 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, philosophical and moral truth. It is the first government ever instituted upon principles in strict conformity to nature and the ordination of Providence in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of enslaving certain classes, but the classes thus enslaved were of the same race and enslaved in violation to the laws of nature.”
“Our system commits no such violation of the laws of nature. The negro, by nature or by the curse against Canaan is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect in the construction of buildings lays the foundation with the proper material, the granite; then comes the brick or marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best not only for the superior, but the inferior race that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of his ordinances, or to question them. For his own purposes he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made one star to differ from another in glory. The great objects of humanity are best attained when conformed to his laws and decrees in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders ‘is become the chief stone of the corner’ in our new edifice.”
By both of these speeches he was of great service to the national government. The first was used to justify the suppression of secession, and the second to excite the animosity of the world against secession. After the war Mr. Stephens was once more a member of the National Congress and Governor of his native State. On the 3rd day of March, 1883, he died at his home in Crawfordville. We have thus spoken of Mr. Stephens as a legislator; personally, he was a very pleasant man to meet, loved in society, was kind-hearted, and we believe sincere. His eloquence was at times wonderful, and was augmented rather than diminished by his physical infirmity. Those who have heard him will never forget the squeaking voice and haggard look.
According to Webster, the three cardinal points essential to true oratory are clearness, force and sincerity. In all of these Stephens was proficient. His descriptive powers were remarkable, and he could blend pathos with argument in a manner unusual. He was a warm friend of Mr. Lincoln, and one of the most characteristic stories ever told of Mr. Lincoln is in connection with Governor Stephens’ diminutive appearance and great care for his shattered health. On one occasion before the war he took off three overcoats, one after the other, in the presence of Mr. Lincoln, who rose, and walking around him, said, “I was afraid of Stephens, for I thought he might keep on taking off clothes until he would be nothing but a ghost left,” and speaking to a friend standing by, remarked further, “Stephens and his overcoats remind me of the biggest shuck off the smallest ear of corn that I have ever seen in my life.” One by one the eminent men of State pass away. Their deaths make vacancies which the ambitious and active hasten to occupy whether they are able to fill them or not.