Alexander Stephens: “On Reconstruction” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alexander H. Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, testified before the US Congress's Joint Committee on Reconstruction in April of 1866. This congressional committee was formed in 1865 to address the vexing questions that arose with the end of the Civil War. Stephens, who was a slave owner and believed in the natural mental and physical inferiority of black people, was asked to comment on whether Georgia would return to the Union if African Americans were given full citizenship and equal protection under the law, and if they would accept reduced representation in Congress based on subtracting the numbers of people who had been denied full citizenship. Stephens argued that Georgia's return to the Union should not be contingent on giving African Americans full citizenship rights–the key issue in the Fourteenth Amendment, then awaiting ratification by the states. He believed that once the states that had joined the Confederacy had given up the war, they should be freely admitted back to the Union with full representation.

Summary Overview

Alexander H. Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy, testified before the US Congress's Joint Committee on Reconstruction in April of 1866. This congressional committee was formed in 1865 to address the vexing questions that arose with the end of the Civil War. Stephens, who was a slave owner and believed in the natural mental and physical inferiority of black people, was asked to comment on whether Georgia would return to the Union if African Americans were given full citizenship and equal protection under the law, and if they would accept reduced representation in Congress based on subtracting the numbers of people who had been denied full citizenship. Stephens argued that Georgia's return to the Union should not be contingent on giving African Americans full citizenship rights–the key issue in the Fourteenth Amendment, then awaiting ratification by the states. He believed that once the states that had joined the Confederacy had given up the war, they should be freely admitted back to the Union with full representation.

Defining Moment

The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution established that anyone born in the United States (including, by implication, African Americans) was a US citizen, entitled to equal protection under the law; this amendment was awaiting ratification by the states when Stephens testified before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. Since before the end of the Civil War, Congress had hotly debated what the citizenship rights of former slaves should be when the Confederate states were returned to the Union; the issue of black suffrage was particularly thorny. If freedmen were not given the vote, but their numbers still counted toward a state's representation in Congress, the Southern states (meaning Democrats) would gain significant political power over what they had before the war (when only three-fifths of the number of slaves in a state were counted toward that state's number of congressional representatives). If, on the other hand, freedmen were given full citizenship rights, including the right to vote, their votes would bolster the strength of the Republicans in Congress, who were driving Reconstruction. After much wrangling over this issue between congressional Democrats and Republicans, the final language of the Fourteenth Amendment stopped short of granting explicit voting rights to black men, instead establishing that if a state denied the vote to any subset of eligible adult men, that state's representation in Congress would be reduced proportionately.

The Joint Committee on Reconstruction was formed in 1865 to study how to readmit the states of the former Confederacy into the Union. It was this committee that drafted the Fourteenth Amendment and heard testimony and gathered evidence from a variety of sources about how best to reintegrate the former Confederacy into national politics and government. This committee interviewed Stephens to ascertain whether Georgia would be willing to accept the full citizenship of African Americans.

The Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction was issued on June 20, 1866, and urged caution in the readmission of representatives from the former Confederacy to Congress. The report did not make the recommendation that states needed to immediately give black men the vote, but stated instead that a state's representation in Congress could only be based on the total number of voters. The former Confederate states, while theoretically able to deny black men the vote, would only do so by giving up significant political power.

It was this trade-off that Stephens objected to in his testimony. He argued that the states of the former Confederacy should be readmitted to the Union with full representation as before the war, and then all the states could settle these vexing issues together. The Joint Committee disagreed, pointing out that relations between states that had rebelled and states that had not were vastly different than they were before the war and that people who had taken part in an active rebellion against the government should not immediately be allowed to resume positions of authority in that government. Before the states of the former Confederacy could be given full representation, the civil rights of black citizens needed to be protected. The issue of voting rights for black men was settled definitively with the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, which states that the right to vote cannot be denied because of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Author Biography

Alexander H. Stephens was born in 1812 in Crawfordville, Georgia. Despite a difficult childhood and an adolescence marked by illness and the death of both his parents, Stephens was a precocious student and passed the bar in 1834. During a successful career as a lawyer and politician, first in the Georgia House and Senate and then in the US House of Representatives, Stephens amassed considerable wealth and purchased slaves. In 1861, Stephens became a delegate to the Georgia Secession Convention, and he was elected vice president of the Confederacy in November 1861. During the Civil War, Stephens gave several speeches, in which he described slavery as the natural state of people of African descent. Stephens was briefly imprisoned in Boston in 1865; shortly after his release, he was elected senator for his home state of Georgia. He was not allowed to take his seat, however, because, at the time, there was a federal ban on rebel leaders holding office. He continued to believe in the inferiority of black people after the Civil War ended, arguing against black suffrage and civil rights. In 1873, Stephens was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he served until November 4, 1882, when he was elected governor of Georgia. He died less than a year later, in 1883.

Document Analysis

Stephens's replies to questions posed by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction illuminated the feelings that many Southerners had about the treatment they deserved at the end of the Civil War. Stephens stated that the citizens of Georgia were “unwilling [to] do more than they have done for restoration.” He argued that the issue of universal versus limited suffrage in the South–that is, whether or not the vote would be extended to African Americans–should be “one of State policy exclusively,” and not made a condition for readmission to the Union. Besides, if the reason for the Civil War was to bring the states back into the Union, then with the conclusion of the war, it was time to do just that–bring the states of the former Confederacy back as full political participants–and then these thorny issues could be settled in a proper way, with full participation and representation. “It would be best for the peace, harmony, and prosperity of the whole country that there should be an immediate restoration.”

Stephens took the position that secession had happened in the first place, in part, because of the attachment of the people of the South to the Constitution. When they felt that their constitutional rights were being violated, they rebelled to protect these rights. Now that they were prepared to rejoin the Union, they once again stood ready to take their place in a government supported by the Constitution. Decisions could then be made by all states properly represented. Stephens chose his words carefully and did not directly attack the idea of the vote for black men. He argued instead that it was unfair for the former Confederate states to be shut out of the process of government decision-making.

Essential Themes

The primary issue in Stephens's testimony before the Joint Committee on Reconstruction was giving full citizenship rights to black men, including the vote and how this would affect the process of returning former Confederate states, such as Stephens's home state of Georgia, to the Union. With the Civil War over, a conflict ostensibly fought to reunite the country, many Southern states believed that they should be readmitted to the Union on the same terms they had left. The Republican-led Congress, however, had a vested interest in establishing legal rights and protections for former slaves before allowing states, such as Georgia, to have full representation. It was also not clear what full and fair representation would be, since, if slavery no longer existed, then the formula that states had used to count a percentage of their enslaved population in determining their representation no longer applied.

Stephens argued that voting issues could be determined only by states, and so holding these issues over the states' heads as a prerequisite to their return to the Union was unfair. Stephens argued against settling these issues through constitutional amendments without full Southern participation in the process, as this took away the ability of states to determine voting laws.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Alexander, Danielle. “Forty Acres and a Mule: The Ruined Hope of Reconstruction.” Humanities 25.1 (2004): 26–29. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.
  • Schott, Thomas E. Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988. Print.
  • “Stephens, Alexander Hamilton (1812–1883).” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. US Congress, n.d. Web. 8 Jan. 2014.
  • Sterling, Dorothy. The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans. New York: Da Capo, 1994. Print.
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