Southern History Series: Sen. Robert Toombs Farewell Speech

Editor’s Note: For some strange reason, I never see the Rainbow Confederates bring this up either. Robert Toombs spelled out why Georgia seceded from the Union.

Sen. Robert Toombs of Georgia was one of the most important Southern political figures of his time. He was also a member of Georgia’s famous antebellum triumvirate along with Alexander Stephens and Howell Cobb. It was the fiery Toombs who led Georgia out of the Union.

Here’s an excerpt from the Farewell Speech that Toombs gave to his colleagues in the U.S. Senate in February 1861:

“Very well; you not only want to break down our constitutional rights; you not only want to upturn our social system; your people not only steal our slaves and make them freemen to vote against us; but you seek to bring an inferior race in a condition of equality, socially and politically, with our own people.

Well, sir, the question of slavery moves not the people of Georgia one half as much as the fact that you insult their rights as a community. You abolitionists are right when you say there are thousands and tens of thousands of men in Georgia, and all over the South, who do not own slaves. A very large portion of the people of Georgia own none of them.

In the mountains, there are comparatively but few of them; but no part of our people are more loyal to their race and country than our bold and brave mountain population: and every flash of the electric wires brings me cheering news from our mountaintops and our valleys, that these sons of Georgia are excelled by none of their countrymen in loyalty to their rights, the honor, and the glory of the Commonwealth.

They say, and well say: This is our question; we want no negro equality, no negro citizenship; we want no mongrel race to degrade our own; and as one man they would meet you on the border with the sword in one hand and the torch in the other. They would drive you from our borders, and make you walk over the blighted ruins of our fair land.

We will tell you when we choose to abolish this thing; it must be done under our direction and according to our will; our own, our native land shall determine this question and not the abolitionists of the North. That is the spirit of our freemen; beware of them.”

Robert Toombs served as Secretary of State of the Confederacy.

After the war, he fled to Cuba and from there to France and refused to have his citizenship restored and become a reconstructed Southerner. Two years later, Toombs returned to Georgia and along with his lifelong friend Alexander Stephens helped to guide Georgia through Redemption and the Constitutional Convention of 1877. Toombs County, GA is named in his honor.

Here’s an excerpt from Watson W. Jennison’s book Cultivating Race: The Expansion of Slavery in Georgia, 1750-1860 on the White non-slaveholders of Georgia:

“Cultivating Race argues that non-elite Whites in Georgia not only benefited from the rise of white supremacy but pushed hardest to enact legislative changes to make Georgia conform to the tenets of the ideology. White supremacy provided slave owners with an argument to counter the growing assault on slavery by northern abolitionists, but it also provided nonelite whites with a rationale to shape slavery in line with their interests.

Contrary to depictions of white laborers and yeomen as subordinates manipulated or oppressed by their social and economic superiors, nonelite white men actively sought to protect their economic interests. By emphasizing both elite and nonelite white men as agents of change, this study highlights class divisions over issues of race and citizenship.  The vast majority of nonelite white men in Georgia supported the institution of slavery, even in the late antebellum era, when rampant speculation inflated prices and placed slave ownership well beyond their means. But they also believed in republicanism and the revolutionary ideal of the equality of all white men. Cognizant that their numerical advantage provided them leverage to shape social policy and influence political debate, nonelite white men pushed for reforms that democratized slavery.”

Slavery was a middle class institution in the Old South.

While the planter class owned the most slaves, the typical slaveowner wasn’t a planter. It was also the elite planters who tended to be the most skeptical of secession while the smaller slaveholders in the river valleys tended to be the biggest supporters of Southern independence. There was also so much income mobility under Slave Society that for most of the antebellum period a non-slaveholder could reasonably expect to acquire slaves. Contrary to what most people believe, there were also slaves in the mountains and the mountain elite intermarried with the lowland elites.

Note: If you are ever travel through I-20 between Augusta and Atlanta, check out the Robert Toombs State Historic Site in Washington, GA.

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  1. They got the wrong flag flying in front of Toombs’ house.

    Toombs as a American general distinguished himself at Sharpsburg by his actions leading the 10th and 20th GA infantry regiments. His troops held off Burnside’s corps long enough for A. P. Hill’s Light Division to strike them in the flank.

  2. Most Northerners project the 19th Century Northern Sociopolitical dynamic onto Southern society, in order to attempt to understand it. They’ve mostly failed, however, because of this projection, and because the South is nothing like the North at all. Any more than Argentina is.

    They really can’t understand that the South is not a hotter, more humid version of Minnesota or Iowa, with cotton and sugar cane.

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