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Howell Cobb
About North Georgia

Born: September_7, 1815, Jefferson County, Georgia,
Died: October_9, 1868 New York City, New York,

by Carole E. Scott

Howell Cobb, Sec. of the Treasury, Speaker of the House, Presidential Candidate and Confederate General
A full time politician whenever it was possible and a lawyer when it wasn't, this son of a then wealthy planter who resided in Athens, Georgia was governor of Georgia, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan.

Despite his success, Cobb's wife was unhappy with his career because, she said, "politics" is like a "filthy pool--now and then throwing up mud and slime from the bottom." Although Cobb was the product of a Protestant family and region, he defended the rights of Catholics against the attacks of the American Party (Know-Nothings). This Georgia Falstaff was President Buchanan's favorite, and, if political considerations had not interfered, he would have made Cobb his Secretary of State. Disappointed at failing to get this coveted post, the personally profligate Cobb nonetheless successfully dedicated himself to being a good Secretary of the Treasury.

Cheerful, gregarious, and a talented jester addicted to talking, Cobb's fondness for fine food and wine was revealed by his physique. However, behind his jolly-fat man facade lay a shrewd and very ambitious politician who was one of several men hoping to be elected president of the U.S. in 1860. Because he often took positions popular among Northern Democrats, his opponents called him a Southern man with Northern principles. A Jacksonian Democrat, he had opposed nullification (a state's right to nullify a federal law) and its leading proponent, South Carolina's Senator John C. Calhoun. Like most Southern politicians other than Calhoun, Cobb believed that the best way to protect slavery was for Southerners to gain power in national parties and, playing on Northerners' desire for gaining national power, supporting their programs in exchange for a hands-off attitude towards what Calhoun labeled the South's "peculiar institution". (Radicals like Edmund Ruffin had nothing but scorn for this plan.)

Being a Jacksonian was very much a mainstream position in the South. But, unlike most Georgians, Cobb was able to swallow Jackson's hand-picked successor, New Yorker Martin Van Buren and his running mate, who lived openly with a mulatto woman by whom he had two children. (Cobb reportedly had some one-night stands with slave girls as a youth.)

In 1850s Southern Democrats and Whigs split over the issue of secession, and two new parties were formed, both of which included former Democrats and Whigs. Cobb became a leader in the Unionist Party, which was opposed by a secession-favoring Southern Rights Party, which was recognized at the national level by the Democratic party. (Cobb was eventually successful in getting the Democratic Party to accept Unionists, too, as Democratic convention delegates.) These parties where short-lived, and most Unionists who, like Cobb, had been Democrats returned to the fold, as did Cobb. Unlike Northern Whigs, Southern Whigs did not defect to the new anti-slavery Republican Party. Instead, Southern Whigs became Democrats.

Like many other Unionists, Cobb was propelled into the Secessionist camp by the steady rise in the popularity in the North of the Republicans, the nation's first sectional party. It was at this time that it became clear that the South was destined to become a minority in the Senate as well as the House. Some believe that Cobb's pro-secession stance was purely opportunistic, and that he was not really convinced that the South's position with Lincoln in the presidency was hopeless. To Southern Unionists dismay, Cobb resigned his post in the Buchanan administration shortly before its conclusion and returned home to campaign for secession.

His resignation did not much impress those who had long advocated disunion because they believed he should have joined hands with them years earlier. According to Clement Clay, if Cobb had resigned in 1859, instead of merely publicly dissenting from Buchanan's tariff policy, "he would have done more to reinstate himself with the Southern Rights Democracy than by any act since his defection in '50-51." Cobb's excuse was that his personal attachment for "Old Buck", as he called Buchanan, is what deterred him from resigning earlier when more radical Southerners gave up on Buchanan.

Southern opposition to the presidential candidacy of Illinois' Stephen A. Douglas at the 1860 Democratic convention led to a Southern walkout and the nomination by these delegates of a second, rival Democratic candidate, Senator John Breckinridge of Kentucky. The presence in the 1860 race of two Democratic candidates plus a Constitutional Union Party candidate made possible the election of the nation's first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, with a minority of the popular vote. Almost immediately the states of the deep South, which had voted for Breckinridge, declared their independence and arranged for a convention at which they would form a new confederacy. Border states, which had voted for the Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, remained in the Union until Lincoln declared that he was going to use force against the seceded states.

At the first meeting of the Convention of Seceding States in Montgomery, Alabama Cobb, by obtaining votes of both Unionists and Southern Rightists, was elected its president. His fellow Georgian and--periodically--political ally, ex-Whig Alexander H. Stephens, observed in surprise, that this legislative-selected group was the "ablest, most intelligent, and conservative body I was ever in." Edmund Ruffin, who disdained the generally demagogic types selected by voters, probably was not surprised, but he was probably disturbed by the fact that almost half the delegates at the Montgomery convention were Cooperationists or Unionists, rather than radicals who had long preached secession.

Firebrands like Alabama's Yancey and South Carolina's Rhett brought about secession, but they were deemed to be too radical to entrust the Confederacy's fortunes too; so two vastly more conservative men, former U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis and Representative Alexander H. Stephens were elected president and vice president. Stephens', who had voted against secession, only significant role during the War was a fruitless meeting with Lincoln seeking a compromise which would end the War. One of his proposals to his old friend Lincoln was rapprochement via a uniting of the North and South in a campaign to expel the regime Napoleon III had imposed on Mexico.

Because Texas' delegates arrived late, Davis and Stephens were elected by the forty-three delegates representing the other six states which had left the Union by that time. Because their meetings were secret, there are conflicting stories about why Davis was selected. All agree that Cobb was considered for the presidency. Based on Cobb's correspondence, it seems that he let it be known he did not want the office. After the convention Cobb, for the first time in his life, gave up politics in order to become a general in the Confederate army. Financially ruined by his pre-war debts and loss of property during the war, he died in 1868 while visiting New York.

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