George Thomas Goldthwaite (1809-1879) served a term in the U.S. Senate from 1871 to 1877 as a Democrat. An opponent of secession, he nevertheless served the Confederate war effort in Alabama but had little influence in state and national politics because of partisan politics.
Goldthwaite was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1809, to Thomas and Anne Wilson Goldthwaite. He had at least two siblings, Henry and Robert. He entered the Latin school in Boston around age nine. Appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at age 14, among his classmates were future Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. A hazing incident in Goldthwaite's third year led to his expulsion from the academy. Relocating to Montgomery, Montgomery County, around 1830, he read law in the law office of his older brother, Henry (later a state legislator and member of the Alabama Supreme Court), and was admitted to the bar when he was 18 years old.
In 1835, Goldthwaite married fellow Bostonian Olivia Price Wallach, in Washington, D.C. The couple would have six children. Goldthwaite first practiced law in Monticello, Pike County, but returned to Montgomery and developed a successful and lucrative law practice. In 1843, he was elected as a judge on the state circuit court, a position he held until 1852 when he was elected to the Alabama Supreme Court. In 1856, Judge William P. Chilton resigned, and Goldthwaite was appointed chief justice but resigned from the post 13 days later, deciding to return to private practice. He was regarded by his colleagues as one of the most learned lawyers in the state and an excellent public speaker and conversationalist. Though a staunch Unionist, he was a close friend to many of his notable contemporaries, even the fiery secessionist, William L. Yancey.
During the secession crisis, Goldthwaite and several friends attempted but failed to purchase the influential Montgomery Advertiser; they hoped to use its editorial pages to stem the tide running in favor of secession. When secession became inevitable, Goldthwaite remained in Alabama, unlike many of his fellow Unionists. Goldthwaite accepted Gov. Andrew B. Moore's appointment to the post of adjutant general for the brief period between secession and formally joining the Confederacy in order to organize and mobilize the state's war materiel.
Although a northerner by birth, Goldthwaite remained loyal to his adopted state during the war. And despite his opposition to secession, his career suffered during the post-war Reconstruction era, when Republicans controlled state and federal governments. Elected in 1866 to a seat on the circuit court, he was disqualified two years later and removed from office because of his prior service on behalf of the Confederacy. At a time when more Democrats began to win elections, he was chosen by the state legislature in December 1870 to fill Sen. Willard Warner's vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. When he arrived in Washington, D.C., to take the oath of office on March 4, 1871, a protest lodged against him by more radical Republicans in Congress delayed his seating until January 9, 1872.
Failing health and the frustration of serving during a period of national disfranchisement of the South hampered Goldthwaite's efforts as a senator to represent his state, and he did not seek reelection in 1877. He died in Tuscaloosa on March 18, 1879, and was buried in Montgomery's historic Oakwood Cemetery.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama United States Senators by Elbert L. Watson (Huntsville, Ala: Strode Publishers, 1982).
Elbert L. Watson
Easley, South Carolina
Published November 9, 2010
Last updated October 3, 2011