(February 11, 1812–March 4, 1883)
Jon L. Wakelyn
Few of the Confederacy’s great leaders disappointed fellow Southerners as much over his contributions to the defense of his homeland than did its vice president, Alexander H. Stephens. In his prewar career, Stephens had soared to the top of political life, as he displayed an enormous intelligence and a gift for political propriety the envy of his peers. Thus, when President Jefferson Davis (q.v.) selected him for vice president over a number of able leaders, many applauded that appointment. Certainly the Confederate leadership expected much from that talented public figure. Within months, however, Stephens became an impediment to the government as he pouted over supposed neglect by the president. Stephens soon began to fashion a phalanx of political opposition to the administration that he would use to do much damage. How does one explain the discrepancy between Stephens’s great talents and reputation for moderate behavior with his seeming traitorous activities toward the government he had pledged to support?
On one level of analysis, students of the war have turned to the man’s personal quirks and even his appearance to attempt a judgment of his supposed contradictory behavior. Most explicitly and brilliantly, Edmund Wilson described Stephens thusly: “It was as if he had shrunk to pure principle, abstract, incandescent, indestructible” (221). Those who knew him well, of course, contributed to the images used by later commentators. During the hectic and eventually frustrating negotiations at the Hampton Roads peace conference in February 1865, President Abraham Lincoln (q.v.) described his good friend as unhealthily thin and probably ill and that he took the longest time to shed layer after layer of clothing to get down to his essence. Much less charitably, Confederate President Jefferson Davis blamed Stephens’s personality traits for his perverse resistance to the Confederate war effort. All of those critics had used the man’s manners to sum up his actions. But doubt lingers that his appearance and mood alone led to his negative actions during the Civil War. Instead, he