Historian Tells Story of Alabama Secessionist Politician
Chris McIlwain, a Tuscaloosa attorney, practices law all day. Every night, for decades, we understand, he reads the newspapers of 19th century Alabama to understand, day by day, from city to city, how Alabama moved towards secession, how the Civil War affected the state.
Along the way, McIlwain draws our attention to numbers from Alabama that we might have overlooked. His book “The Million Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President” tells the story of George Washington Gayle, who placed an ad in the Selma Dispatch hoping to raise a million dollars to fund the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a 19th century secular fatwa.
That million dollars would be $120 million today
A 20th century reader could be forgiven for downplaying the possibilities of success there, but in the 19th century Alabama and the South were teeming with newspapers. Every hamlet, it seemed, had one. In this study, McIlwain constantly references editorials, articles, anonymous and signed letters to the editor, in dozens of articles. People read these articles, and other newspapers picked them up and republished them. It was a slower but surprisingly efficient journalism Internet.
David Hubbard, like George Washington Gayle, is little known today.
McIlwain explains why in “The South’s Forgotten Fire-Eater: David Hubbard & North Alabama’s Long Road to Disunion”.
Hubbard served in the Alabama Legislature and won a seat in the United States House, but, though he tried often, he never became a United States Senator or Governor of Alabama.
Hubbard wrote no memoirs. He didn’t go to college, he wasn’t a Black Belt planter, and he wasn’t an aristocrat.
Hubbard was quite consistently a Jacksonian Democrat, especially when it came to eliminating Native Americans and improving the lives of ordinary people. In an age of eloquence, Hubbard was an intelligent and sarcastic speaker, but he did not have a pleasant voice.
While not exactly a loner, he had no coterie to write about him and secure his place in history.
Born in 1792, Hubbard had served under Jackson in the Indian Wars and was seriously wounded. Several times throughout this study, McIlwain reminds the reader of how many times Hubbard reminded voters of his injury. This proof of manhood was truly politically significant, as it still would be in the late 1940s and 1950s.
He was always in good shape financially, especially in his land speculations in northern Alabama and northern Mississippi, and as an advocate for railroad financing, especially the railroad in which he had invested, which would have bypassed the troublesome Muscle Shoals.
Hubbard, whose home base was Moulton, County Lawrence, as a teenager and in his 20s, speculated wildly over land after catching a severe case of “Alabama fever.”
The idea was simple.
By the 1820s, land in Virginia and the Carolinas was mostly depleted. Here in Alabama the cotton has grown beautifully in the rich soil. Those who owned land and slaves became absurdly wealthy.
Over the years, however, McIlwain reminds us, the price of cotton fluctuated wildly, sometimes 31 cents a pound, sometimes 5.
Planters became millionaires or went bankrupt in the blink of an eye.
And of course, with each harvest, the land became less productive.
In the 1830s and 1840s, one of the main reasons the South fought fiercely for more slave states across Mississippi, Kansas, even California, was that the expansion of slavery made them would provide a place to sell their now excessive stocks of slaves. people, and also make Alabama whiter.
Radicals like Hubbard even wanted war with Mexico, then the annexation of Texas, and even advocated war to conquer Cuba, and perhaps some Central American countries.
Parts of this book are a revelation. Other parties are moving slowly as McIlwain gets into the weeds on internal Alabama politics, North vs. South, rules governing state vs. national banks and where they would be built, and sometimes, in case of failure, how they were to be liquidated, state versus private financing of the railroads, interest rates, laws governing international tariffs, domestic improvement, the various treaties with the Indian tribes, and the changing positions of political parties : Whigs, Democratic Republicans.
In Hubbard’s eyes, many Alabama Democrats who were not secessionist enough, who considered compromise to keep the union together were “submissive Democrats,” a kind of RINO (Republican in name only) of before the war.
With complete consistency, however, Hubbard was always a fanatic of states’ rights, an ardent proponent of slavery, and an early and devoted secessionist, sooner rather than later. He feared that the North would become ever stronger, more industrial and more populated, and died in 1872, having seen that he was right.
Don Noble’s latest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson and eleven other Alabama authors.
“The Forgotten Fire-Breather of the South: David Hubbard and the Long Road to North Alabama’s Disunity”
Author: Chris McIlwain
Publisher: New South Books