‘Lincoln’ evokes a conflicted figure from Georgia’s past

People who have seen “Lincoln” may little note nor long remember the appearance at mid-film of a character named Alexander Stephens.

But put down your popcorn, Georgia. Stephens, portrayed as a bit of a weasel in the movie, was a product of the Peach State, the vice president of the Confederacy and an aggressively pro-slavery white supremacist.

As it happens, he also is one of the two Georgians whose statues grace the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Tuck this into your “things I didn’t know” file for the holidays: Each state was asked 150 years ago to send statues of two of its most illustrious citizens to the Capitol, there to stand in honor for the decades and centuries to come.

Georgia got around in 1927 to sending up the marbled likeness of the slight and sickly Stephens who, 85 years later, would show up in a Spielberg movie trying to extract a deal from Abraham Lincoln to end the Civil War. In the film Stephens is portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley, who played Rorschach in “Watchmen” and Freddy Krueger in the 2010 remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” In the film, Haley bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Stephens.

In his infamous “Cornerstone” speech in Savannah in 1861, Stephens held that slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy, resting “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

That speech is cited by historians as confirmation that the Civil War really was about slavery.

“It was a very honest statement that he later denied, and that Jefferson Davis denied after the war,” said Emory University historian James L. Roark, an authority on the Civil War. “Both of them revised Confederate history later to lift up the principles of liberty and freedom — the anti-tyranny argument. And slavery all but evaporates as a cause. But (Stephens’ speech) is kind of the smoking gun for those people — which includes me and 98 percent of professional historians – who put slavery at the center of the causes of the Civil War.”

If Jefferson Davis joined Stephens in denying that slavery caused the war, Davis also joined Stephens at National Statuary Hall. Mississippi sent the president of the Confederacy, and the two have several Confederate companions: Virginia sent Robert E. Lee; South Carolina, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton; Alabama, Lt. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Wheeler; North Carolina, Col. Zebulon Vance.

Where most of the Capitol statues stand in stony splendor, however, Stephens is sitting down, clutching the arms of his chair as if it might suddenly lift off its pedestal. Legs crossed, he is contemplative, perhaps melancholy.

The inscription in the pedestal beneath him, now rather worn, says: “Vice president of the Confederacy, governor of Georgia; Statesman, Author, Patriot.” It also quotes him as saying: “I am afraid of nothing on the earth, above the earth, beneath the earth except to do wrong.”

Georgia Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said Stephens’ statue in Washington is not a pressing issue for him, but he wishes it weren’t there.

“I’m not enamored of the idea that this rabid pro-slavery politician represents the state of Georgia,” Fort said. “The symbolic is not irrelevant in politics. These issues of symbols, statues and flags do reflect the culture, and give you an idea of what people on a policy level are or are not willing to do.”

Stephens was in the state Legislature and Congress — where he met and befriended Lincoln — before the war. (The observant viewer will note that Lincoln calls Stephens “Alex” during the movie.) He returned to Congress for 10 years after the war and was elected governor of Georgia in 1882, serving briefly until his death in 1883. Stephens County (Toccoa) in north Georgia is named for him.

“His finest hour, from my perspective, was on the eve of secession, when he argued strongly against secession,” said Roark, the Emory historian. “He said it would be like hitting a hornet’s nest: All those hornets in the north who were now quiet would be aroused and they would sting us do death. And he was right, obviously.”

Stephens attended Franklin College (later the University of Georgia) and graduated with honors in 1832. In college he began a lifelong friendship with another student named Crawford W. Long, the country doctor who would discover the anesthetic properties of ether. Long was Georgia’s other choice for National Statuary Hall.

That a man of Stephens’ physical stature gained such political stature was remarkable.

“He was said to weigh less than a hundred pounds — a tiny, frail individual from birth,” Roark said. “This was an age in which the honor culture of the South really did recognize and celebrate physical strength and appearance. It wasn’t enough to be honorable. You had to look honorable. Alexander Stephens could never do that.”

What carried him, Roark said, was the sheer force of his intellect.

Though no one is clamoring to yank Stephens’ statue out of the Capitol, there is precedent for state statue swapping. Congress in 2000 voted to allow substitutions, and four states have done so, said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, the office that serves as steward of the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and other buildings and grounds.

Alabama, for example, replaced Confederate Lt. Col. Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, a preacher and education visionary after the war, with a bronze of Helen Keller in 2009.

Stephens, however, appears to be in no danger of losing his perch, in spite of such pronouncements as this one before the Virginia Secession Convention: “The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth… . Hence so much misapplied sympathy for fancied wrongs and sufferings. These wrongs and sufferings exist only in their heated imaginations. There can be no wrong where there is no violation of nature’s laws.”

Stephens, a lifelong bachelor, is buried at his estate, Liberty Hall, near Crawfordville, which is now A.H. Stephens Historic Park. Among other things, the park offers tours of Stephens’ house, a Confederate museum, horseback riding and pedal boats.