Book Review: Alexander H. Stephens

Alexander H. Stephens:  A Bibliography, by Rudolph Von Abele

Is Alexander Stephens a compelling figure?  In some ways he is, to be sure, but he certainly exhibits some of the flaws of the political system of the South.  Stephens was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and had been a powerful Whig in the antebellum political world of the South, but he was a Whig in the sense of being very much pro-slavery and able to hold its own for quite a while against the Democrats on the state level but unable to form a truly cohesive relationship with a national party, given the way that many Whigs in the North were highly antislavery in nature and focused far more on internal improvements than Southern Whigs were.  And Stephens political struggles by no mean ended when the Whigs fell apart because personal grudges and a tension between Unionism and states’ rights politics when it came first to rebelling from the United States and then when it came to working on a successful Southern state.  Why it is that the South chose a reluctant rebel to be Vice President without power who was hostile to the administration of Davis as president is a one of the more mysterious aspects of the time, given that Stephens was unable to help the cause of the Confederacy effectively.

This book is more than 300 pages long and is divided into six relatively large chapters.  The book begins in media res with a discussion of Alexander Stephen’s conduct during the decisive period after Lincoln’s election where he was unable to stop his state from leaving the Union.  After this prelude the author discusses the youth of Stephens including the death of his parents and his education (1) that shaped his early career.  After that the author looks at his apprenticeship as a university student, someone who nearly entered the ministry, as well as his efforts to learn the law (2).  After that the author explores Stephens lengthy time in Congress, mostly in the House of Representatives representing a district in Middle Georgia (3), where he was first a Whig and then a Democrat after the Whigs fell apart in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850.  This leads to an interlude that discusses Stephens actions in the period as the Union was falling apart and he might not have known what to do.  This leads to a discussion of Alexander Stephens in power in the Confederacy (4), then to his arrest and the period of his political and physical decline in the postwar period (5).

Nor do the mysteries of Stephens’ life end with the Civil War.  While Stephens’ Cornerstone Address, which the author does not greatly focus on, even if it was the most pointed discussion of the war aims of the Confederacy, openly admitted the basis of the Confederacy on doctrines of white supremacy, his postwar writings attempted to counteract this with the sort of defense of states’ rights (without referring to which rights states needed to have) that is more familiar to those who have tangled with the lost cause myths.  And yet the author spends more time trying to portray Stephens as being an important political player leading factions and struggling to remain relevant and gain offices even in the postwar period than he does dealing with the content of Stephens’ writing and thinking.  There are a lot of psychological explanations, but the author does not explore his lack of success when it comes to women, or whether he indeed courted any women over the course of his life, even if he appears to have enjoyed the company of women easily enough.  At least this book was written in an age where that did not attract unfriendly speculation.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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