Robert Augustus Toombs
Robert Augustus Toombs
Robert Augustus Toombs (1810-1885), U.S. congressman and Confederate secretary of state, was noted for his opposition to Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Robert Toombs was born on July 2, 1810, in Wilkes County, Ga. He attended the University of Georgia but graduated from Union College in New York in 1828. After his admission to the bar in 1830, Toombs began a successful career as lawyer, planter, and businessman in Washington, Ga.
Toombs served in the Georgia Legislature from 1837 to 1843, establishing a reputation as an expert on financial matters. In 1844 he was elected to the U.S. Congress. At this time Toombs manifested the political philosophy of a conservative Whig; by 1850 he had adopted an aggressively pro-Southern stance.
In Congress, Toombs was influential in securing passage of the 1850 compromise measures. With Alexander Stephens and Howell Cobb, he established the Constitutional Union party, which dominated Georgia politics for several years and was responsible for the Georgia Legislature's election of Toombs to the U.S. Senate in 1851. Upon the party's dissolution, Toombs uneasily joined the Democrats.
Strongly opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, although Toombs had supported the idea of compromise, he advised Georgians to vote for secession. He was a prominent figure in the state secessionist convention in January 1861 and later served at the Southern Convention.
Toombs sought the Confederate presidency but then reluctantly accepted the office of secretary of state. For a man of his financial talent, the post of secretary of the Treasury would have been more suitable. Although he performed his administrative duties efficiently, Toombs grew to regard President Jefferson Davis with contempt. In July 1861 he applied for a military commission and received command of a brigade on the Virginia front.
Toombs was a temperamental officer whose exploits were variously described as cowardly and heroic. In September 1862 he resigned from the military. For a time Toombs did little but criticize Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee.
To avoid arrest at the end of the war, Toombs fled to Cuba and then to London. He returned to Georgia in 1867 but never applied for pardon as a requirement for regaining citizenship. He restored his law practice and reestablished himself as a popular leader who carefully attempted to overturn Radical Republican rule in the South. He never again held elective office. A brilliant raconteur and a man of delightful wit and biting sarcasm, he once referred to prohibitionists as "men of small pints." He died on Dec. 15, 1885.
Although Ulrich B. Phillips, The Life of Robert Toombs (1913; repr. 1968), is dated, it remains a judicious and scholarly work. William Y. Thompson, Robert Toombs of Georgia (1966), is well documented and very thorough, emphasizing Toombs as an undisciplined individualist. For general background see Burton J. Hendrick, Statesmen of the Lost Cause (1939). □