Robert Toombs

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The Honorable
Robert Toombs
File:Robert Toombs - Brady-Handy.jpg
1st Confederate States Secretary of State
In office
February 25, 1861 – July 25, 1861
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Robert Hunter
United States Senator
from Georgia
In office
March 4, 1853 – February 4, 1861
Preceded by Robert Charlton
Succeeded by Homer Miller
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's 8th district
In office
March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1853
Preceded by Constituency established
Succeeded by Alexander Stephens
Personal details
Born Robert Augustus Toombs
(1810-07-02)July 2, 1810
Washington, Georgia, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Washington, Georgia, U.S.
Political party Whig (Before 1851)
Constitutional Union (1851–1853)
Democratic (1853–1885)
Alma mater University of Georgia
Union College
University of Virginia
Religion Methodism

Robert Augustus Toombs (July 2, 1810 – December 15, 1885) was an American politician who was a founding father of the Confederacy and its first Secretary of State.

A lawyer by training, he proved an impressive speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives, and later in the senate. Believing strongly in states’ rights and the extension of slavery, he found common ground with fellow-Georgian Alexander H. Stephens. He had supported the Compromise of 1850, but came round to advocating secession. In the newly-formed Confederate government, Toombs was appointed Secretary of State, but criticised the attack on Fort Sumter, which put him at odds with President Jefferson Davis, and he quit to join the Confederate States Army. He became a Brigadier-General, wounded at Antietam, but was denied higher promotion and resigned, continuing to feud with Davis to the last. When the war ended, he fled to Cuba, later returning to Georgia. But he refused to request a pardon, thus sacrificing his political future.

Toombs had always made a powerful impression on the public with his emotive oratory, backed by a strong physical presence, but his intemperate habits and volatile personality limited his career potential.

Early life

Born near Washington, Wilkes County, Georgia, Robert Augustus Toombs was the fifth child of Catherine Huling and Robert Toombs. He was of English descent.[1] His father died when he was five, and he entered Franklin College at the University of Georgia in Athens when he was just fourteen. During his time at Franklin College, Toombs was a member of the Demosthenian Literary Society, which honors him as one of its most legendary alumni to this day. After the university chastised Toombs for unbecoming conduct in a card-playing incident, he continued his education at Union College, in Schenectady, New York, which he graduated from in 1828; he went on to study law at the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville, Virginia. Shortly after his admission to the Georgia bar, Toombs married his childhood sweetheart, Julia Ann DuBois; they had three children.

Public service

Toombs was admitted to the practice of law in Georgia in 1830, and served in the Georgia House of Representatives (1838, 1840–41, and 1843–44). His genial character, proclivity for entertainment, and unqualified success on the legal circuit earned Toombs the growing attention and admiration of his fellow Georgians. On the wave of his growing popularity, Toombs won a seat to the United States House of Representatives (1844–53), 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.

Toombs stood with most Whigs regarding the status of Texas as the 28th state. Historian William Y. Thompson writes that Toombs was "prepared to vote all necessary supplies to repel invasion. But he did not agree that the territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande was a part of Texas. He declared the movement of American forces to the Rio Grande at President Polk's command "was contrary to the laws of this country, a usurpation on the rights of this House, and an aggression on the rights of Mexico."[2]

From 1853–61 Toombs served in the United States 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. He had opposed the Annexation of Texas but vowed to defend the new state once it was annexed late in 1845. He also opposed the Mexican-American War, President Polk's Oregon policy, the Walker Tariff of 1846 and the Wilmot Proviso, first introduced in 1846. In common with Alexander H. Stephens and Howell Cobb, he defended Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850 against southerners who advocated secession from the Union as the only solution to sectional tensions over slavery. He denounced the Nashville Convention, opposed the secessionists in Georgia, and helped to frame the famous Georgia platform (1850). His position and that of Southern Unionists during the decade 1850–60 has often been misunderstood. They disapproved of secession, not because they considered it wrong in principle, but because they considered it inexpedient.

Toombs objected to halting the spread of slavery into the territories of California and New Mexico and even the abolition of what John C. Calhoun had called the "peculiar institution" in Washington, D.C. He took the view that the territories were the common property of all the people of the United States and that Congress must ensure equal treatment of both slaveholder and non-slaveholder. If the rights of the South were violated, Toombs declared, "Let discord reign forever."[3]

Toombs favored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution, and the English Bill (1858). However, his faith in the resiliency and effectiveness of the national government to resolve sectional conflicts waned as the 1850s drew to a close.

On June 24, 1856, Toombs introduced the Toombs Bill, which proposed a constitutional convention in Kansas under conditions which were acknowledged by various anti-slavery leaders as fair, and which mark the greatest concessions made by the pro-slavery senators during the Kansas struggle. The bill did not provide for the submission of the constitution to popular vote, and the silence on this point of the territorial law under which the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas was framed in 1857 was the crux of the Lecompton struggle.

Thompson refers to Toombs as "hardly a man of the people with his wealth and imperious manner. But his handsome imposing appearance, undoubted ability, and boldness of speech appealed to Georgians, who kept him in national office until the Civil War brought him home."[4] According to Jacob S. Clawson, he was "a bullish politician whose blend of acerbic wit, fiery demeanor, and political tact aroused the full spectrum of emotions from his constituents and colleagues....[he] could not balance his volatile personality with his otherwise keen political skill."[5]


In the presidential campaign of 1860 he supported John C. Breckinridge, and on December 22, soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln, sent a telegram to Georgia that asserted that "secession by 4 March next should be thundered forth from the ballot-box by the united voice of Georgia." He delivered a farewell address in the Senate (January 7, 1861) in which he said: “We want no negro equality, no negro citizenship; we want no negro race to degrade our own; and as one man [we] would meet you upon the border with the sword in one hand and the torch in the other.”[6] He returned to Georgia, and with Governor Joseph E. Brown led the fight for secession against Stephens and Herschel V. Johnson (1812–80). His influence was a most powerful factor in inducing the "old-line Whigs" to support immediate secession.

Toombs' house in Washington, Georgia, 1934.

Unlike the crises of 1850, these events galvanized Toombs and energized ambitions for becoming the president of the new Confederate nation.


The selection of Jefferson Davis as the new nation's chief executive dashed any hopes Toombs's had imagined of holding the high office of the fledgeling Confederacy. Confederate leaders rejected Toombs because of his serious drinking problem.[7] He had no diplomatic skills but Davis chose him as the Secretary of State. Toombs was the only member of Davis' administration to voice reservations about the attack on Fort Sumter. After reading Lincoln's letter to the governor of South Carolina, Toombs said memorably: "Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet's nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal."[8]

Army general

Within months of his cabinet appointment, a frustrated Toombs stepped down to join the Confederate States Army. He received a commission as a brigadier general on July 19, 1861, and served first as a brigade commander in the (Confederate) Army of the Potomac, and then in David R. Jones' division of the Army of Northern Virginia through the Peninsula Campaign, Seven Days Battles, Northern Virginia Campaign, and Maryland Campaign. He was wounded in the hand at the Battle of Antietam. He resigned his CSA commission on March 3, 1863, to become Colonel of the 3rd Cavalry of the Georgia Militia, and subsequently served as a brigadier general and adjutant and inspector-general of General Gustavus W. Smith's division of Georgia militia. Denied a military promotion, he resigned his commission in March 1863. He then launched a major attack on Davis and the government, opposed conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus, as newspapers warned that he verged on treason. In the last battle of the Civil War at Columbus, Georgia, Toombs commanded the defense of the upper bridge. When the war ended he fled to Cuba, and then Paris, along with P.G.T. Beauregard and Julia Colquitt, wife of another Confederate general.[9]

Final years

He returned to Georgia in 1867 but he refused to request a pardon from the president and regained neither his right to vote nor his political career. He did restore his lucrative law practice. 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. He gained a populist reputation for his attacks on railroads. In his final years, he was blinded and ravaged by alcoholism.[10]Toombs died December 15, 1885.


Georgia's Toombs County is named for Robert Toombs. So is the Georgia town of Toomsboro, though with a slightly altered spelling. His legacy also lives on in his hometown of Washington, Georgia.[11] Visitors to Washington can tour the Robert Toombs House, a State Historic Site operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Robert Toombs Christian Academy in Lyons, Georgia was named in his honor.

His great-great-grandson was Roderick George Toombs, better known as professional wrestler Roddy Piper.[12]

See also


  1. Robert Toombs, statesman, speaker, soldier, sage: his career in Congress and ... By Pleasant A. Stovall page 2
  2. William Y. Thompson, Robert Toombs of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966, Library of Congress No. 66-25722, p. 38)
  3. Thompson, p 58
  4. Thompson, p. 25
  5. Jacob S. Clawson, "A Georgia Firebrand in the Midst of the Sectional Crisis" (H-CivWar March 2012) online
  7. F. N. Boney (1997). Rebel Georgia. Mercer University Press. pp. 19–20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Mark Scroggins (2011). Robert Toombs: The Civil Wars of a United States Senator and Confederate General. McFarland. p. 134.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Chesson 2000
  10. Chesson, 2000
  11. Washington, Georgia.
  12. Piper's Pit on PodcastOne, Episode 28, "Andre the Giant and Ghost Stories" (32:30)

Further reading

  • Chesson, Michael. "Toombs, Robert Augustus"; American National Biography Online 2000
  • Davis, William C., The Union That Shaped the Confederacy: Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens. University Press of Kansas, 2001. Pp. xi, 284.
  • Eicher, John H., & Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. The Life of Robert Toombs (1913), a scholarly biography focused on his antebellum political career. online
  • Scroggins, Mark. Robert Toombs: The Civil Wars of a United States Senator and Confederate General (Jefferson McFarland, 2011) 242 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-6363-3 online review, scholarly biography
  • Thompson, William Y. Robert Toombs of Georgia (1966), scholarly biography

Primary sources

External links

United States House of Representatives
New constituency Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Georgia's 8th congressional district

Succeeded by
Alexander Stephens
United States Senate
Preceded by
William Dawson
United States Senator (Class 2) from Georgia
Served alongside: Henry Foote, Alfred Iverson
Succeeded by
Homer Miller(1)
Political offices
New office Confederate States Secretary of State
Succeeded by
Robert Hunter
Notes and references
1. Because of Georgia's secession, the Senate seat was vacant for ten years before Miller succeeded Toombs.