Henry W. Hilliard

Henry Washington Hilliard (1808-1892) represented Alabama’s Second Congressional District in the U.S. Congress from 1845 to 1851. A member of the Whig Party, he was one of the state’s most prominent politicians prior to the Civil War and a leading political moderate. He vehemently opposed secession and was an opponent of “Fire-Eater” secessionist William Lowndes Yancey, yet he held a high rank in the Confederate Army. Hilliard also served in diplomatic positions to Belgium and Brazil.

Henry W. Hilliard Hilliard was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on August 4, 1808, to William and Mary Hilliard. The family moved to Columbia, South Carolina, when he was still an infant. He most likely received his education at home or at a local private academy. In 1823, he enrolled at South Carolina College (present-day University of South Carolina), where he developed his speaking and debating skills. He graduated with a degree in English in 1826. After completing his studies, Hilliard remained in Columbia and entered the field of law. He studied under William Campbell Preston, a prominent local attorney and politician, for two years and then moved to Athens, Georgia, where he continued to study law. In 1829, he passed the Georgia bar exam and remained in Athens, becoming a minister of the Methodist Church in January 1830. On July 25 of the same year, he married Mary Bedell, a member of a prominent family from Columbus, Georgia; together they had three sons, one of whom died at age 17.

In 1831, Hilliard moved to Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, where he became the chair of the English Department at the newly formed University of Alabama. In 1834, Hilliard resigned and moved to Montgomery, Montgomery County, to start a law practice. He became a respected attorney and entered politics as a member of the Whig Party. In 1837, he ran successfully for a seat in the Alabama State House of Representatives, serving from 1838 to 1840 and building a reputation as a skilled orator. Hilliard also gained renown on the national level and was selected as a member of the Whig National Convention of 1839; he served as a presidential elector the following year. He ran for Congress in 1841 and won his district but lost in the statewide election. In 1841, Pres. John Tyler offered him a diplomatic post to Portugal, but he declined, instead accepting a post as Charg├ęs d’Affaires to Belgium and serving from 1842 to 1844, just after that country received independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

In 1845, Hilliard won his first term in the U.S. Congress to represent Alabama’s Second District and was the only Alabama Whig there. His three terms in office were characterized by his support for the Union in opposition to growing sectionalism. When the Wilmot Proviso denied the expansion of slavery to U.S. territories acquired in the Mexican War, Hilliard was forced to navigate between support for the institution of slavery as a southerner and his belief in the Union. His attempts to reconcile the two were unsuccessful, and he appeared indecisive to constituents and rivals. In the early 1850s, as southern politicians began threatening secession, he instead supported national compromise, including the Compromise of 1850. As a result, he became a rival of ardent secessionist William Lowndes Yancey, who viewed Hilliard as a traitor to the South. The two men debated once in Congress and again in Union Springs, Bullock County, and Montgomery in the early 1850s. Other radical opponents denounced his moderate approach and weak support for slavery. Disillusioned and disgraced, Hilliard left Congress in 1851; his seat was taken by Whig James Abercrombie. By the mid-1850s, the Whig Party had disintegrated, and in 1856, he shifted his loyalty to the Democrats. Hilliard had begun supporting southern rights after he left the Whigs, but when it became clear that Alabama Democrats were uninterested in him, he returned to moderate support of the Union.

Even after Alabama’s secession in January 1861, Hilliard advocated assertion of southern rights within the Union. But Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops after the bombardment of Fort Sumter pushed Hilliard to side with the Confederacy. In May, Confederate president Jefferson Davis appointed him Confederate commissioner to Tennessee, where he helped negotiate the state’s admission to the Confederacy. In April 1862, Davis commissioned Hilliard as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. He raised and commanded Hilliard’s Legion, which would later fight in the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga. His superior officers considered him unresponsive and inefficient in moving his troops, however, and he resigned after six months.

On June 22, 1862, his wife Mary died after a long illness. Seven weeks later, Hilliard secretly married Eliza Glascock Mays, Mary’s closest friend and nurse. After his resignation from the army, he returned to Montgomery, but he and Eliza quickly fled after news of their marriage became public. They settled in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, where he set up another law practice and wrote a novel, De Vane: A Story of Plebeians and Patricians, a story of a wealthy Virginia landowner who converts to Methodism while living in the backwoods of Alabama. Later, the Hilliards moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

After the war, Hilliard became a reluctant Republican, supporting newspaper publisher Horace Greeley over the Republican candidate, former Union general Ulysses S. Grant, in the 1872 presidential campaign. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Georgia in 1876. Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes revived Hilliard’s career as a diplomat in 1877, when he appointed Hilliard minister to Brazil. During his service, he became a vocal supporter of the emancipation of Brazilian slaves and received the admiration of leaders of the Brazilian Antislavery Society. Hilliard denounced slavery as an inhumane institution condemned by God and the rest of what he called the “civilized world.” He also argued that emancipation in the United States had enhanced southern agriculture, race relations, and quality of life, leading him to support Brazilian emancipation. When his diplomatic mission ended in 1881, he returned to Atlanta and wrote his memoir, Politics and Pen Pictures at Home and Abroad. He died in Atlanta on December 17, 1892, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery alongside his three sons, his first wife, and his parents.

Further Reading

  • Dorman, Lewy. Party Politics in Alabama from 1850 through 1860. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1935
  • Durham, David I. A Southern Moderate in Radical Times: Henry Washington Hilliard, 1808-1892. Southern Biography Series, ed. Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.
  • Durham, David I., and Paul M. Pruitt, Jr. A Journey in Brazil: Henry Washington Hilliard and the Brazilian Anti-Slavery Society. Occasional Publications of the Bounds Law Library, no. 6. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama School of Law, 2008.
  • Johnson, Evans C. “A Political Life of Henry W. Hilliard.” Master’s thesis, University of Alabama, 1947.
  • Mellen, George F. “Henry W. Hilliard and William L. Yancey.” Sewanee Review 17 (January 1909): 32-50.

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