John Forsyth Jr.

John Forsyth Jr. Newspaper editor and politician John Forsyth Jr. (1812-1877) established the Mobile Register as one of the nation’s foremost nineteenth-century newspapers. A fervent Democrat, he was a political activist and voice of moderation in Alabama in the years just preceding the American Civil War. After Alabama seceded, however, Forsyth became an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. During his four-decade journalistic and political career, Forsyth’s outspoken opinions and political actions gained national attention.

Forsyth was born in Augusta, Georgia, on October 31, 1812, into a prestigious family. John Forsyth Sr. served as Georgia’s governor and senator and also as minister to Spain and Secretary of State in the presidential administrations of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. John Jr. was educated abroad and at Princeton University, where he was class valedictorian in 1832. He married Margaret Hull of Georgia, and the couple had two sons who would later serve as Confederate officers in the Civil War.

Forsyth began his long association with Alabama when he was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in Mobile in 1836. Two years later, he abandoned the law profession and bought an interest in the Mobile Daily Commercial Daily Register. After the death of his father in 1841, Forsyth returned to Georgia to run the family plantation. He also edited the Columbus Times, served as an adjutant with the First Regiment of the Georgia Infantry in the Mexican War, and became deeply involved with the Southern Rights Party movement. In 1854, he returned to Mobile and purchased the Register, for which he served as editor.

In 1856 Pres. Franklin Pierce appointed Forsyth as minister to Mexico, a position that would prove difficult at times. Several of the treaties Forsyth presented to Pierce and his successor, James Buchanan, were rejected, he feuded with his own government over policy issues, unilaterally recognized a revolutionary Mexican government, and broke off relations with his host country. Forsyth left Mexico under duress from both governments. By the time Forsyth returned to the Register in 1858, the national debate over slavery had reached its peak regarding whether to allow slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1859, Forsyth supported a compromise position championed by Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas. Known as popular sovereignty, the position stated that the people in those territories should decide the issue for themselves.

1860 Presidential Election Cartoon The 1860 presidential election proved to be the most controversial period of Forsyth’s life. The Democrats held two conventions that year. At the first in April the Alabama delegation walked out when their platform for federal protection of slavery in the territories, known as the Alabama Platform, was defeated. At the second convention in June, the party split. The northern Democrats, along with some southerners such as Forsyth, backed Douglas and prevailed over the southern Democrats, who nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge, a proponent of the Alabama Platform. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, who supported prohibiting slavery in the territories. John Bell, a Whig senator from Tennessee, headed the Constitutional Union ticket, which backed a compromise platform. Although Forsyth had himself owned slaves, he felt only a national candidate such as Douglas had any chance of victory over Lincoln.

Jefferson Davis During the fall of 1860, Forsyth led the Douglas campaign in Alabama. The partisan editor used the Register to wage a war of words with Democratic newspapers that supported slavery and states’ rights, such as the Montgomery Advertiser. On election day Forsyth was with Douglas in Mobile as the Illinois senator gave his last campaign speech. Douglas and Bell carried only five counties each, and Breckinridge carried the rest of the state. Forsyth’s response to Lincoln’s election was typical of many southern moderates, and once the decision to secede was made, he fell in step and supported the Confederacy. A few days after the formation of the Confederate States of America, Pres. Jefferson Davis appointed Forsyth to a three-man commission assigned to Washington, D.C., to negotiate favorable relations with the United States. One of the tasks given to the commission was to secure the peaceful transfer of Fort Sumter in harbor off Charleston, South Carolina, from the United States to the Confederacy. The commission was refused a direct audience with the Lincoln administration, however, and the Confederates soon fired on the fort, thus beginning the American Civil War.

Braxton Bragg When Forsyth returned to Mobile, he accepted an appointment to finish an unexpired term as mayor of the city. During his six-month tenure, he focused on improving the city’s finances, citizens, and defenses. In September 1862, Gen. Braxton Bragg asked Forsyth to accompany him and the Army of Tennessee into Kentucky as a reporter. Forsyth sent back stories to several newspapers about the failed venture to recruit Kentucky to the Confederate cause. From 1863 until the end of the war, Forsyth served in Mobile in the more traditional role of a southern editor, trying to boost morale by exaggerating Confederate victories while minimizing setbacks. After the war, Forsyth became nationally recognized as an outspoken critic of Reconstruction. During this period, his writings reflected the most rabid partisan and racial opinions, including the restriction of freedmen’s rights as well as intimidation and threats of violence. Forsyth served another term as mayor of Mobile in 1865 and in 1874 was again elected to the state legislature. He died on May 2, 1877, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile.

Further Reading

  • Andrews, J. Cutler. The South Reports the Civil War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.
  • Burnett, Lonnie A. The Pen Makes a Good Sword: John Forsyth of the Mobile Register. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
  • Osthaus, Carl R. Partisans of the Southern Press. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

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