Biography of Thomas L. Clingman

The sketch of General Clingman which his niece, Mrs. Kerr, contributed to The Archive for March, 1899, deals with the personal side of her distinguished uncle. It has, therefore, seemed to me that a further sketch which should deal with his political career would not be without value to North Carolinians. There have been many sons of our State who are ranked by their admirers as the equals of General Clingman in political ability; but there are few who can be thought to have equaled him in party prominence. His tireless activity kept him thoroughly up in any line of business in which Congress might be interested. In the exciting debates that preceded the Civil War he made it a custom not to retire before two o’clock. He soon was able to learn who were the men who were up latest and by talking to the others early in the evening and to these later on he was able to exchange views with a large number of men, so that when he went into the House in the morning his information as to the latest changes in public opinion was remarkably accurate. His impetuosity, fearlessness, and honesty made him an effective debater. He was ambitious. He determined early in life that he would be President, and but for the sectional issues that stood in his way, it is possible he would have reached that goal. He had the good sense to be a practical politician in the better nature of the term. He knew the people, without pandering to their prejudices; he knew the point beyond which it would not be safe to try to lead them, and in the event he was with them. More than this he was a man of the people. His ideals were their ideals and it was no violence to his conscience when he stood for the things they believed in. He was not fastidious in his dress, although he was neat. He loved homely virtue and those who knew him well believed that in this respect his love was but an outcome of his own character.

It was in 1842 that he was first elected to Congress. He was then thirty years old. In politics he was a Whig, but he was too original in his way of thinking to yield himself to the current of a party majority. He always ran as an independent candidate, and late in life congratulated himself that lie had always been free from the tyranny of a nominating convention. His district was a mountain district, lying around Buncombe County. The inhabitants were as independent as he. They were accustomed to look more closely at the leader than at the party. To them he became an ideal – “Tom. Clingman” he was affectionately called by man, woman, and child. He first asked these people for their suffrages in 1840, when he was a candidate for a seat in the State Senate. They responded liberally and he was elected by two votes to his opponent’s one. In 1844 in one of his first speeches in the House of Representatives lie said of the people of his district: “My district is unapproachable. She stands alone in her strength and dreads no contact with Democracy. On the contrary she courts it. She would gladly embrace in either arm the two strongest Democratic districts in the State and they would fall under that grasp as did the columns of the Philistine edifice before the strength of Sampson.” His prediction was a good one. As long as he led the Whigs in his district the district was theirs beyond question; and when at last he appeared as a Democrat candidate he carried it for that party.

His first notable action in the House was to oppose the rule by which the House refused to receive petitions to abolish slavery. This was a measure which the Southern members, whether Whigs or Democrats had supported generally. It had arisen out of a foolish idea that such petitions were insulting to the dignity of the South. It had given the abolitionists an opportunity to cry that the right of petition was abrogated at the behest of the overbearing slave-owners. Moreover, it did not stop anti-slavery petitions. On the contrary they came faster than ever. Mr. John Quincy Adams, who was the leader of the anti-slavery sentiment in Congress, always appeared at his desk on the day for receiving petitions behind a huge pile of those documents. To read the titles of these and to refuse to receive them had a greater effect on the popular mind than to have received them would have had. Mr. Clingman realized that the rule in question was inexpedient from a party standpoint and in point of fact futile. He with a half dozen other Southern Whigs voted against the rule and it was defeated. He gave his reasons as follows: “I voted against the rule excluding abolition petitions, not only because I regarded that rule as an infringement of the right of petition, but because I was well aware that most of the citizens of the Northern States viewed it in that light; and I was not willing to do violence to the feelings of a large portion of the Union, for the mere purpose of preserving a rule that was of no practical advantage in itself.” It is certain that his opposition did much to defeat the measure.

His next notable speech was one delivered on January 6, 1845, on “The Causes of Mr. Clay’s Defeat.” There was in Mr. Clingman a strain of Indian blood, his mother’s grandmother being Elizabeth Pledge, a daughter of the Cherokee chieftain. It seems to me that from this source Mr., Clingman must have received a certain amount of savage vindictiveness, which came to the front only when he was aroused and which spared no feelings. Here the speaker was smarting under the recent defeat of Mr. Clay, to whom he was ardently attached. He was in no mood for mercy and he attacked his opponents in the most candid manner. He charged them with favoring the abolitionists in the North and opposing them in the South, with being held together solely by “the cohesive power of public plunder,” with favoring a high tariff in Pennsylvania and opposing it elsewhere, and with deliberate “misrepresentation and fraud” generally. Mr. Polk was accused of using language “as double-faced as the responses of the old Delphic oracle,” and the history of the world afforded no other “example of fraud and falsehood on a scale so extensive.” The Democrats were charged with election frauds through the use of “repeaters” as well as through illegal voters. The members of the “Empire Club,” a political organization of New York which had rendered good services to the cause of Mr. Polk, were denounced as “gamblers, pickpockets, droppers, thimble-riggers, burners and the like.” Moreover in this case lie gave a bill of particulars. This he did with great plainness, so that there was no need that any one should not see what he meant.

Mr. Clingman was never an admirer of Mr. Calhoun. In fact he regarded that gentleman as inimical to the true interests of the South, and at this early period in his career in Congress he was accustomed to speak of him with much bitterness. In this speech he said: “Mr. Senator Benton did great injustice to John C. Calhoun, when he said, if common report be true, that the same John C. Calhoun, so far from being a statesman, had ‘never invented even a humbug.’ The fact cannot be disputed that John C. Calhoun was the first to take ‘the very highest ground for the South,’ the prime originator of the policy of objecting to the reception of petitions, of which the twenty-fifth rule was a parcel. Hard then is the necessity which compels the peculiar followers of that gentleman to make a burnt offering of the first and only offspring of that idol.” Later on in this same speech he again took up the same subject. He said: “As I have had occasion to allude to John C. Calhoun, I take it upon myself to say that looking at his course for more than twelve years, with the exception of a few years after 1837, when he hoped from his new connection with the Democratic party that he might become President of all the United States. – I say, sir that his course, whether considered with reference to the tariff and nullification, to agitation on the subject of abolition and slavery, or his mode of managing the Texas question, is precisely that which a man of ordinary sagacity would take who designed to effect a dissolution of the Union. And that such is his object can only be denied by those who hold him a monomaniac.”

Of this speech Mr. Clingman himself said: “To those unacquainted with the state of political excitement then prevailing, this speech will seem excessively violent; but in giving expression to my own earnet feelings, I did not exceed the bounds which party friends justified. The Rev. Mr. Hammett, a Democratic Representative from Mississippi, but a personal friend, afterwards told me that I had said the bitterest things ever uttered on the floor of the House. Mr. Mosely, of New York, a political friend, said that the Democrats, while I was speaking, reminded him of a flock of geese on hot iron. During the first part of the speech, Dromgoole, of Virginia, who sat just by me, seemed to enjoy quietly my hits at the Calhoun wing of the party, between which and the Van Buren or Hunker Democrats there was much jealousy and ill feeling; but after I had directed my attack on the Northern wing of his party, his manner changed and his countenance indicated much anger. I was subsequently told that many members of the party insisted that unless Mr. Yancey, who obtained the floor to speak the next day, would assail me violently, that he should give way to some other member of the party. Hence his remarks, which led to a personal difficulty, were perhaps influenced to some extent by the wishes of his political friends.” To the Whigs the speech was greatly satisfactory. It opened the eyes of many of them and aroused the indignation of all; so that Mr. Clingman was of the opinion that at that moment they might have carried the country.
The Democrats did indeed put up Mr. Yancey to reply to this speech of Mr. Clingman’s. Ordinarily Mr. Yancey’s speeches were dignified, cultured, and considerate. As a whole this speech, as it appears in the Globe was of the same nature. But in a short passage he referred to Mr. Clingman in terms of the greatest contempt. This was more than that gentleman would take. He was a born fighter and no one who knew ever doubted his courage. He challenged Mr. Yancey to fight a duel. The latter was an excellent shot. He accepted and chose pistols for his weapons. At the first shot Mr. Yancey missed and Mr. Clingman unwilling to make any woman a widow fired over his antagonist’s head. Then friends interfered and the affair ended.

Except for his position in favor of receiving anti-slavery petitions, Mr. Clingman had at this time said but little about the slavery question. The Wilmot Proviso, however, made it necessary for him to take a stand. Accordingly on December 22, 1847 he spoke on “The Political Aspects of the Slavery Question. ” He began by discussing Mr. Calhoun. That gentleman had said in the Senate that the territories being common property of the whole Union, Congress had no right to exclude from them any citizen from any State. This statement, said Mr. Clingman, was not true. The territories were truly held for the use of all the people; but all of the citizens could not go to one State. Congress could not carry out that kind of a distribution, but it could do the next best thing; it could distribute the territories among the citizens on a sensible basis. He thought, furthermore, that Congress might regulate all property in the territories, acting however under the provisions of the Constitution. But it must be just to all citizens. He did not discuss the moral grounds of slavery, but he spoke very bitterly of the abolitionists, whose influence, however, he thought to be of no consequence. As for the Negroes themselves he pronounced them an inferior race and by no means able to exercise the gift of citizenship which the abolitionists proposed to give to them.

The most striking part of this speech is that in which reference is made to Mr. Calhoun. Mr. Clingman now returned to, and amplified, the charges he had hinted at in his speech of March 7, 1844; viz., that Mr. Calhoun was responsible for the great feeling in the country on the question of slavery he said: “After the unpleasant difficulty growing out of Nullification had been satisfactorily settled, there was a general disposition both at the South and the North to bury all sectional and local ill feelings and differences. Unfortunately, however, for the repose of the country, Mr. Calhoun, who had been a prominent actor on the side of Nullification, found himself uncomfortable in his then position. The majorities of everyone of the Southern States were not only opposed to him politically, but viewed him with suspicion and distrust. Being ambitious of popularity and influence, he sought to restore himself to the confidence of the South in the first place and seized upon the slave question as a means to effect his end. He professed to feel great dread lest the North should take steps in contravention of our rights, and to desire only to put the South on her guard against the imminent danger which was threatening her. He only wished to produce agitation enough to unite the South, though every body knew that there was, in relation to this subject, no division there. Whether he had ulterior views against the integrity of the Union, it is not my purpose to inquire; I am only looking at acts, not inquiring into motives. The former obviously looked to the creation of a political party based on the slavery question.” To this general charge he proceeded to bring evidence. The conduct of the United States Telegraph was cited. In 1833 this journal was known as the organ of Mr. Calhoun. It was edited by Mr. Duff Green. It began at that time to publish a series of inflammatory articles calling on the “South to awake, to arouse to a sense of her danger.” At the same time it charged the North with the intention of liberating the slaves. It published every abolition document or “frothy incendiary paragraph” that it could find. This matter was printed not occasionally but daily, and whole columns of it at a time. Some sensible democratic papers repudiated this plan. The Telegraph denounced them as traitors to the South. In response to this the Richmond Enquirer said: “We do not declaim about slavery because we do not believe that the citizens of the North are mad enough to trench upon our rights.” The Pennsylvanian, another democratic journal, declared: “The conduct of the United States Telegraph in relation to the slavery of the South is incomprehensible. Day after day that incendiary print is endeavoring to stimulate an excitement on this fearful topic, by representing the desperate journals of a few fanatics in New York and Boston as emanations of the late patriotic proclamations of our beloved President” – an allusion to President Jackson’s proclamation against Nullification. When the Telegraph took up this line of action, continued Mr. Clingman, the country was resting quietly in the influence of the Missouri Compromise. Neither the South nor the North was alarmed. Nobody was uneasy save Mr. Calhoun and his uneasiness was due to the fear that he was about to be shelved by the public; and so the Southern people must be stirred. “Already,” shrieked the Telegraph to the South, “has the ban of empire gone forth against your best and wisest statesmen. Fidelity to you is political death to them! Treason to you is the surest prospect to federal promotion! Is it wise, is it safe, is it honorable to sleep over such wrongs?” “When this occurrence began,” continued Mr. Clingman, “the people of the North, not understanding the game that was to be played, seemed to be surprised. They declared that the South was too timid and too sensitive on the question; that there was no danger to be apprehended from the machinations of the abolitionists; and that their movements were condemned by ninety-nine out of every one hundred of the citizens of the free States. Intelligent Southern men, too, who traveled through the Northern States declared the same thing. “Yet the Telegraph was not satisfied. It became more furious than ever. “Such returns seemed to chill the generous enthusiasm of the North.” This is strong; and not uncertain language. If the charges contained in it are true it marks the beginning of great national calamity. The infuriation of the South in the beginning brought about the conditions of out of which war could not but come. If, as Mr. Clingman charged, Mr. Calhoun wrought that infuriation, and for his own selfish political ends, it is to him that we must charge the misery and death that the war brought to the South and to the North. Is the charge a true one? I am not at present able to say. I have seen politicians do as much in my own day. I am not sure that they would not have done it in 1833. It is but just to add that in 1848 Mr. Clingman retracted this charge to the extent that it gave Mr. Calhoun the intention of dissolving the Union. This change of view was due to an incident which happened at that time and which, said Mr. Clingman, “satisfied me that Mr. Calhoun was really a friend of the Union on the principles of the Constitution.’ Here it must be remembered, however, that Mr. Clingman’s own views were changing, and that when they had completed that process of change he was a Democrat, and one of the most advanced defenders of the Southern rights side then in the party.

In this same speech, Mr. Clingman discussed secession, which was then much talked of. He did not consider secession as beyond the range of the probable, and when it should come lie thought that the slave States would be able to maintain themselves. For himself he said: “I am for maintaining our present Constitution of government as long as any human exertion can uphold it. But when a great organic change is made in that Constitution – a change which is to degrade those who have sent me to represent them here-then, sir, at whatever cost of feeling or of personal hazard, I will stand by the white race, the freemen of the South.”

However much he might have condemned the efforts of Mr. Calhoun in stirring up the South as early as 1833, it is evident that the South once excited he was on the Southern side. As the Northern Whigs came more and more under the anti-slavery influence the Southern Whigs veered more and more away from them. As early as 1848, says Mr. Clingman, he was convinced that the Northern Whigs could not be relied on to keep their promises to the South. In the fall of 1849 he was traveling in the North and he was convinced from what he saw and heard there that in the coming Congress the Northern Whigs and Van Buren men would support the Wilmot Proviso. Moreover, he was of the opinion that many Northern Democrats, tired of contending against the strong anti-slavery current at home, would help to pass the Proviso and thus force President Taylor, the head of the Whigs, either to approve the measure and so to alienate his Southern vote, or to veto it and alienate the Northern Whigs. On his return to Washington he proposed to some of his colleagues that an effort be made to arouse Southern sentiment so that the North should not dare to proceed to extremes. The proposition was agreeable, and by request he wrote to Mr. Foote, of Mississippi, a letter in which he declared that all the South ought to unite in resisting the encroachment of the North < In the same session Mr. Clingman made a speech “In Defence of the South against Aggressive Movement of the North.” He eulogized the civilization of the South as follows: “I regard it as right to say on this occasion, that whether considered with reference to the physical comfort of the people, or a high state of public and private morals, elevated sense of honor, and of all generous emotions, I have no reason to believe that a higher state of civilization either now exists elsewhere, or has existed at any time in the past, than is presented by the Southern States of the Union.” The Missouri Compromise, the constantly growing tariff, the Wilmot Proviso, and the kindred measures were enumerated as acts of Northern aggression. Secession he discussed as a near possibility and he declared “calmly to Northern gentlemen that they had better make up their minds to give us at once a fair settlement; not cheat us by a mere empty form, without reality, but give something substantial for the South.” What he wanted was a compromise line at 40° north latitude, with California left to the North, although he said he would be willing to accept the Missouri line for that purpose. The region south of this line was to be left open for a time to all classes and then the inhabitants were to decide its relation to slavery. This he thought an air compromise. The North would find the South patient under wrongs. But let her beware. “We do not love you, people of the North,” he exclaimed,” well enough to become your slaves. God has given us the power and the will to resist. Our fathers acquired our liberty by the sword, and with it, at every hazard, we will maintain it. But before resorting to that instrument, I hold that all Constitutional means should be exhausted. Sooner than submit to what they [the abolition press] propose, I would rather see the South, like Poland, under the iron heel of the conqueror.”

As a practical means of resisting the North he suggested to his friends to make dilatory motions and thus obstruct all business even to the loss of the appropriation bills. This plan was at that time a surprise to the country. It was resorted to for temporary purposes and became known as the “Clingman process.” Mr. Clay asked the author where he got the idea. He answered that it came to him one night between midnight and day as he lay thinking on the distressed condition of the country. “Well, said Mr. Clay indignantly, “it is just such an idea as I suppose a man would get between midnight and day.” “Neither Mr. Clay nor Mr. Webster liked the speech; but Mr. Clay was tactful enough to keep on good social terms with the speaker. Mr. Webster was more abrupt and the winter had not passed ere he had told Mr. Clingman plainly that he could not maintain social relations with him, a position which the great man soon regretted and which he took steps to reverse. Yet all that the two great leaders could do did not keep the representative from the North Carolina Mountains in the Whig fold. He was slowly setting his face towards the Democrats. He opposed the compromise of 1850, but voted for the Fugitive Slave Law. He considered that the measures yielded nothing to the South since the Constitution itself guaranteed the return of fugitive slaves.

His final break with Whiggery came as follows: In April, 1852, a number of Whig leaders in Washington held a caucus to consider the advisability of calling a national convention to nominate a candidate for the presidency. Mr. Clingman favored Mr. Webster for President, because he was conservative. There was a strong tendency to put up General Scott on a platform endorsing the compromises of 1850. This would make him acceptable to the North. Against this scheme Mr. Clingman and a few other Southern Whigs were united. The caucus was plainly against him. He announced that he could not pledge himself to support the nominee of the proposed convention. He had prepared a resolution demanding that the convention should favor a faithful execution of the Fugitive Slave Law. When he saw that the caucus would not do this he and his friends walked out of it, and from that time he ceased to be a Whig. In due time General Scott was nominated on a Southern platform. In his letter of acceptance he managed not to endorse the platform. Thus it was thought he would please both sections. The result showed otherwise. He carried only two Northern, and two Southern States. Mr. Clingman supported Mr. Pierce, but was himself re-elected in his impregnable mountain district. This district had been carried by President Taylor in 1848 by a majority of three to one. It was decidedly a Whig district. It was a great evidence of the confidence of his people in that they re-elected him in 1852 when he was supporting a Democrat for President. In the present day of party machinery such a thing would be impossible.

Mr. Clingman’s next important action was in regard to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. By this measure Mr. Douglas tried to open to possible slave colonization territory made free by the Missouri Compromise. At first Mr. Clingman opposed this measure on the grounds of expediency, although he thought it well founded in theory. He thought it would alienate Northern friends of the South. On the other hand he considered that since the compromise of 1850 had declared for non-intervention, non-intervention it should be everywhere. The Democrats blindly decided to go ahead. They pushed through a bill which the simplest of them must have known would be regarded in the North as a breach of faith. Our North Carolinian did not hesitate for a long time. He supported the bill in a fervid speech and gave it his vote. Later on he said in a letter to some of his political friends: “I declare to you, gentlemen, that after a congressional service of nearly ten years, I would rather that every vote of mine on all other questions should be obliterated from the journals than be deprived of nay participation in that one act.”

From that time Mr. Clingman was hardly so prominent as formerly. As a Southern Whig he had attracted attention. As a Democrat he was swallowed tip in large numbers. Yet he did his duty faithfully. He opposed the higher tariff, he favored low expenditures, he advocated American intervention in the Crimean War; he wanted the United States to bring on a war with England, or Spain, or France, if possible; so as to overwhelm slavery in the public mind. He favored the Ostend Manifesto and made a speech in its support, and he was bitterly hostile to England and demanded the repeal of the Bulwer-Clayton treaty. His speech to this effect was his last in the House. Shortly after it was made, he was appointed, in May 1858, to the seat in the Senate vacant by the resignation of Mr. Biggs. At the expiration of this term he was elected to the same seat and sworn in at the special session on March 5, 1861. A few weeks later he resigned to follow his State into secession.

In the Senate his career was satisfactory to his friends. He at once became a leader on the Southern side. Although he continued to profess his love for the Union no man insisted more strenuously on the rights of the South. The John Brown Raid was a severe blow to him, and on January 16, 1860, he gave vent to his feelings in a “Speech Against the Revolutionary Movement of the Anti-Slavery Party,” a speech which was thought by some to have been his greatest effort. Those who are acquainted with his intense style of oratory may be somewhat disappointed to find this speech full of calm and rather plaintive feeling. It is as if he were convinced of the hopelessness of his cause and were only bent on making a protest for the sake of posterity against a wrong the consummation of which was already fixed by destiny. He still thought the matter could be settled without disunion, but said clearly that the Southern people were prepared to resort to that if necessary. At this time Mr. Clingman declares that he knew nothing of the plan of Messrs. Slidell and Jefferson Davis to divide the Democratic party, a plan which, he said, “so much surpassed in its insanity and wickedness all similar events in the history of humanity that no one can fairly be blamed for not anticipating it.” Of course he resisted such a plan. When Mr. Davis, as a means of developing this sentiment in the minds of Southern Congressmen, introduced a resolution defining the power of Congress in the territories, he made a speech against the resolution. All his efforts were unsuccessful. The party convention saw the consummation of the Davis scheme. After the conventions were adjourned lie retired from active politics. He could not stay long in retirement. He was called out by a sentiment in a speech of Mr. Douglas, at Norfolk, Va., in which that gentleman endorsed coercion of the South. This sentiment was repeated in Raleigh. Mr. Clingman then decided to support Mr. Breckenridge. He made several speeches in the campaign and in them advocated resistance in case Mr. Lincoln should be elected.

It was in keeping with the above sentiment that on March 6, 1861, he made some remarks on the motion to print President Lincoln’s inaugural. The latter had said that lie would recognize no ‘ resolves or ordinances” to the purpose of secession. Mr. Clingman took his cue from this idea. He declared in all the fervor of his best days “I say the practical question is now upon us; shall we have these forts taken; shall we have a collision; shall there be an attempt to collect a revenue in the seceding States? It will not do to ask the country to wait two, or three, or more years, as the Senator from New York suggests, to obtain constitutional amendments. If Mr. Lincoln intends to use the power in his hands, as lie states in his inaugural, we must have war.” As day after day passed and the President gave no further definite assurance of his policy, this conviction settled in Mr. Clingman’s mind. On March 19, he again addressed the Senate. He said that if the policy of the President was to be peace why had he not given the country assurance of it? The failure to do so he could but believe meant that a policy of force was determined on. The waiting he foresaw was to give time to collect the scattered army and fleet. Later in life he was convinced that the administration had not at that time decided on war. The cause of the change he thought partly to have been the action of Virginia in refusing to secede. This convinced Mr. Lincoln that if war should come it would be with the cotton States alone and these could be easily overcome. But peace was not to be. North Carolina seceded when called on to fight the Confederacy, and Mr. Clingman resigned his seat in the Senate. He passed out of civil service to the field of military activity and became in the war that followed one of the most efficient brigadier-generals in the Confederate service.



Trinity College Historical Society. Historical Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society. Durham, N. C.: The Society. 1897-1956.

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