Born into a family with Revolutionary War ancestry (his grandfather had fought under Washington), he became a lawyer and, after serving in various local and state political offices, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served from 1843 to 1859. Although he began his political career as a Whig, he later swtiched his allegiance to the Democratic Party and supported Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 Presidential elections.
Following Lincoln's victory in that contest, vigorous debate took place in Georgia over the issue of secession. Stephens, in this debate, opposed secession, taking a position as a conditional unionist, the most conservative of the cooperationists as those who opposed secession were then known.
Soon after taking office as Confederate States' V-P, he delivered the famous Cornerstone Speech in which he stated, referring to the U.S. Declaration of Independence (wherin it is stated that "all men are created equal"): "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man."
Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Stephens was arrested and served 5 months in a prison in Boston before being released. Once Georgia was re-admitted to the Union, he was again sent to Congress where he served from 1874 to 1883. In 1882, he was elected Governor of Georgia but died the following year.