Stevenson was born in Christian County, Kentucky and moved with his parents to Bloomington, Illinois in 1852. He attended Illinois Wesleyan University at Bloomington and Centre College, Danville, Kentucky. Stevenson was admitted to the bar in 1858 and commenced practice in Metamora, Woodford County, Illinois. He was a presidential elector on the Democratic ticket in 1864. He was district attorney from 1865 to 1868. He was elected as a Democrat to the Forty-fourth Congress (March 4, 1875-March 3, 1877). He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1876 but was elected to the Forty-sixth Congress (March 4, 1879-March 3, 1881). He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1880. He was First Assistant Postmaster General 1885-1889, then elected Vice President of the United States on the Democratic ticket headed by Grover Cleveland in 1892. He was inaugurated March 4, 1893, and served until March 3, 1897. He was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1900 and for governor of Illinois in 1908.
Adlai E. Stevenson retired from public and political activities and resided in Bloomington. He died in Chicago, Illinois and was intered in Bloomington Cemetery, Bloomington, Illinois.
Stevenson was grandfather of Adlai Stevenson, Democratic candidate for President of the United States.