Robert Toombs, one of
the most ardent secessionists in the U.S. Senate, helped to lead
Georgia out of the Union on the eve of the Civil War.
This was surprising; although Toombs was a slaveholding planter,
he had dedicated the majority of his political career to preserving
the Union. Spanning almost four decades, his career in Georgia
politics began in the state legislature, and he later ventured into
national affairs as a U.S. congressman and senator. During the early
months of the Civil War he became secretary of state for the
Confederacy. He concluded his political leadership as one of the
major architects of the state Constitution of 1877. Toombs's
statesmanship, personality, and unyielding convictions made him one
of Georgia's most influential politicians of the nineteenth century.
Born July 2, 1810, in Wilkes County, Robert Augustus
Toombs was the fifth child of Catherine Huling and Robert Toombs.
His father died when he was five, and he entered the University of
Georgia when he was just fourteen. After the university chastised
him for unbecoming conduct in a card-playing incident, Toombs
continued his education at Union College in Schenectady, New York,
and then studied law at the University of Virginia in
Charlottesville. Shortly after his admission to the Georgia bar, he
married his childhood sweetheart, Julia A. Dubose, with whom he had
His genial character, proclivity for entertainment,
and unqualified success on the legal circuit earned Toombs the
growing attention and admiration of his fellow Georgians. In 1837
his district elected him to the Georgia General Assembly, where,
except for one year, he diligently served until 1843. On the wave of
his growing popularity, Toombs won a seat to the U.S. House of
Representatives in 1844 and joined his close friend and fellow
representative Alexander H. Stephens from Crawfordville, Georgia.
Their friendship forged a powerful personal and political bond that
effectively defined and articulated Georgia's position on national
issues in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Toombs, like
Stephens, emerged as a states' rights partisan, became a national
Whig, and once the Whig Party dissolved, aided in the creation of
the short-lived Constitutional Union Party in the early 1850s. From
1853 to 1861 Toombs served in the U.S. Senate, only reluctantly
joining the Democratic Party when lack of interest among other
states doomed the Constitutional Union Party.
From Unionist to Confederate
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Toombs fought to
reconcile national policies with sectional interests. His support
for the Georgia Platform in 1850 demonstrated his commitment to
preserving the Union. Along with Alexander Stephens and Howell Cobb,
he defended Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850 against "fire-eating"
southern radicals who advocated secession from the Union as the only
solution to sectional tensions over slavery. His faith in the
resiliency and effectiveness of the national government to resolve
sectional conflicts waned as the 1850s drew to a close.
By 1860 Toombs had drifted into the radical camp
with the fire-eaters in opposition to northern abolitionists.
Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860 and the
resulting secession of Georgia from the Union finally prompted
Toombs to resign his U.S. Senate seat on February 4, 1861. Unlike
the crisis of 1850, these events galvanized Toombs's radicalism and
energized ambitions for becoming the president of the new
Confederate nation. The selection of Jefferson Davis as the new
nation's chief executive not only dashed Toombs's highest hopes but
also turned him into one of the most outspoken critics of the
Confederate government and its policies. Nevertheless, Davis chose
Toombs as his first secretary of state. Within months of his
appointment, a frustrated Toombs stepped down to command a Georgia
military brigade in Virginia. Denied a military promotion, he
resigned his commission and returned home to Washington, Georgia.
When the Confederacy finally collapsed in 1865,
Toombs barely escaped arrest by Union troops and went into hiding
until he fled to Cuba, and then to Paris. He returned to the United
States via Canada in 1867. Because he refused to request a pardon
from Congress, he never regained his American citizenship. He did
restore his lucrative law practice as an "unreconstructed"
In addition, he dominated the Georgia constitutional convention
of 1877, where once again he demonstrated the political skill and
temperament that earlier had earned him a reputation as one of
Georgia's most effective leaders.
The year 1883 was traumatic for Toombs. His lifelong
friend and political comrade Alexander Stephens died suddenly after
serving briefly as Georgia's governor. Within a few months his wife,
Julia, suffering from a prolonged illness, also died. Their deaths
devastated the aging Toombs. Once a bulwark of politics, he
descended into depression and self-neglect. Toombs, the political
lion of nineteenth-century Georgia politics, died on December 15,