Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review--Robert Toombs

Scroggins, Mark. Robert Toombs: The Civil Wars of a United States Senator and Confederate General.  McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, N.C. 2011. 230 pages, 198 pages of text. Index, bibliography, notes, b/w photos. ISBN 9780786463633, $40.

As a lifelong politician, Robert Toombs gained a reputation as an outspoken yet influential speaker. In his new book author Mark Scroggins shows us the growth of Toombs and his views and in doing so also helps give us a history lesson on 19th century politics in the state of Georgia.

Toombs began his rise to political fame as a rather unremarkable student first at Franklin College, from which he was expelled, to graduating last in his law school class at the University of Virginia. After having passed the Bar Exam in 1830 he joined the Washington Guard Militia in 1836 being elected Captain. This brief stint in the military did nothing to hurt his political ambitions.

Toombs was first elected to the Georgia legislature in 1837 right before the States Rights party aligned with the Whigs in 1839/1840. The Whigs were many things but most of all anti-Democrat. Toombs made his national debut as a Whig delegate to the 1844 Presidential election. He stumped for high protective tariffs and defended the constitutionality of the national bank.

Call Number: LOT 13301, no. 39 [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division
Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
During his political career leading up to the Civil War Toombs took part in the major events of the time such as the issue of Texas becoming a state, the war with Mexico, the Wilmot Proviso, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and every Presidential election up until 1860. It was however Toombs belief that the north was unwilling to see the southern point of view in regards to slavery that tipped him into pushing for secession.

As a leader of the secession movement in Georgia Toombs put forth that the government of the United States was unable to protect southern interests due to abolitionists, anti-slavery laws, and Republicans who would act against the Constitution to deny southerners their property rights. Once the states that were to make up the Confederacy had seceded from the Union it was widely believed Toombs would be elected President. His outspoken views however turned enough men against him and as we all know Jefferson Davis was chosen. Toombs was however nominated to be Secretary of State, a job for which his firebrand attitude made him uniquely unqualified.

Eventually resigning his post Toombs became a political general receiving the rank of Brigadier General. His days in the army were mixed including extremes of being arrested for disobeying orders from General Longstreet to a successful stand at Rohrbach Bridge during the battle at Antietam (Sharpsburg). Despite having resigned before the end of the war Toombs was considered a wanted man which led him to leave the country eventually ending up in Cuba and then France before returning to the States to again practice law in his native state of Georgia.

Toombs later years saw him considered to be more an elder statesman who could be counted on for a good line or story rather than a real political insider. Toombs was out of touch with the new south and the changing economics of the Reconstruction world. He still espoused a belief that slavery would have eventually died out on its own once it was no longer profitable. To Toombs slavery was not a moral issue but rather an issue of profit and loss. While there appears to be no proof he was ever a member Toombs had ties to the Klan and voiced sympathetic words towards the group. As he continued aging Toombs was willing to voice his views as to what doomed the Confederacy. Further alienating himself from the current times he believed that the Conscript Act, which he claimed demoralized troops, and Jefferson Davis and his inefficient leadership led to Confederate defeat. In his last interview in 1885 he still spilled anger toward Davis.

Author Mark Scroggins has written an interesting and highly readable book. Toombs is an important figure not just in the history of Georgia politics but also the whole pre-Civil War period. For those who feel the world of politics is ugly today a read through of this book will show that the bitterness and animosity between political parties has been around for well over a century. With the mark Toombs left it is surprising there are only three other full length works about him. While somewhat high priced, especially for a paperback, this is a work that anybody with an interest in Georgia history should seek out.

*Thanks to the author for sending a complimentary review copy which he graciouslly signed as well.

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