Henry Stuart Foote (1804-1880) bucked the tide of public opinion as an opponent of secession and the expansion of slavery in Civil War-era Mississippi.
The career of Henry Stuart Foote is a profile in political courage-or at the very least, political stubbornness. For Foote swam against the tide of public opinion and defied the wishes of the political establishment in opposing southern secession and the expansion of slavery in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Serving Mississippi as its senator, governor, and even, paradoxically, as a representative of the Confederate Congress, Foote argued consistently for peace and against the inevitability of war between the states. His stubbornness in political convictions was an outgrowth of his personal character, which was marked by a propensity to engage in feuds and duels with his rivals.
Henry Stuart Foote was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, on February 28, 1804. His parents, Richard Helm Foote and Jane Stuart, were cousins of English and Scottish descent. Henry undertook a course in classical studies at Washington College (today Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia and graduated in 1819 at the age of 15. He then began the study of law and was admitted to the Virginia bar at the state capital of Richmond in 1823.
After passing the bar, Foote moved to Tuscumbia, Alabama, where, in 1825 he began plying the legal trade. The following year he moved on to Jackson, Mississippi, which would be his home base for the next 28 years. Foote practiced law in the cities of Natchez, Vicksburg, and Raymond, specializing in criminal cases. According to many historians, Foote had no equal in Mississippi when it came to trying criminal cases. Foote also edited newspapers during this period.
Foote began his political career in 1832, by campaigning for a spot in the Mississippi constitutional convention. While that effort was unsuccessful, it enhanced his statewide reputation. Turning to national politics in 1835, Foote, then a Democrat, took to the stump to defend the policies of President Andrew Jackson. As a reward, he was named to the office of United States surveyor-general south of Tennessee, but resigned that post in 1839 to run for-and win-a seat in the Mississippi state legislature. Representing Hinds County, Foote showed an interest in regional issues as well. He visited Texas in 1839 and took up the cause of independence for that state. The result was his book, Texas and the Texans, published in 1841.
In 1847, Foote was elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat, and served with distinction as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations in the 31st and 32nd Congresses. Foote became well-known for his skill as a public speaker and for his engaging conversation, but he could just as easily rub people the wrong way and got into a number of celebrated feuds. Foote is said to have engaged in four formal duels, twice facing off against Representative Sergeant S. Prentiss of Mississippi. He was wounded three times in these encounters. Often it was political arguments that prompted the physical confrontations. Foote once tussled in the aisles of the Senate with one of his opponents, Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania. Another time, he threatened to hang New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale if he ever set foot in Mississippi.
However, it was Foote's position on slavery that proved most controversial. He earned the everlasting ire of his Mississippi brethren by supporting the Compromise of 1850, a measure which severely restricted the slave trade. When Senator Thomas Hart Benton obstinately refused to back the legislation, Foote castigated him on the floor for weeks. Finally, Benton had had enough. He confronted Foote in a rage, prompting Foote to draw a pistol from his pocket. "Let the assassin fire!" Benton is said to have bellowed, tearing open his vest. Foote later claimed that he drew his weapon only because he suspected that Benton was armed as well.
Foote's defense of his maverick views extended even to his own Mississippi colleagues, including the state's senior senator, Jefferson Davis. The two men clashed for years over the right of the south to secede from the union. The conflict eventually came to blows, with Foote and Davis at one point exchanging punches at the boarding house they shared. Before long, Foote was a pariah among his fellow legislators and the Mississippi legislature passed a resolution censuring him for his views on slavery. Four years into his six-year term in the senate, Foote seemed destined for the political graveyard.
In 1852, Foote ran for governor, this time on the Unionist ticket, against Jefferson Davis. The popular tide seemed to be against him, but his ability as a public speaker helped him carry the race in a shocking upset. It was the last time a pro-Union Whig would win a political contest in pre-Civil War Mississippi. However, the old conflicts over slavery and secession continued to bedevil Foote, and his administration split into factions. Frustrated, Foote left office in 1854, five days before his term expired. He moved to California, where he hoped to continue his political career in a state more receptive to his anti-secession views.
Foote had difficulty establishing a foothold outside of Mississippi. He ran for the United States Senate from California in 1856, but lost in a tight race. He briefly returned to his home state, settling in Vicksburg, but still found his views out of step with the political establishment. In 1859, he moved to Tennessee, serving as a delegate to the Southern convention held in Knoxville in that year. He later settled near Nashville.
With America on the brink of civil war in 1861, Foote found himself in the unlikely position of secessionist legislator. He was elected to terms in the lower house of the First and Second Confederate Congress, but he refused to moderate his views on disunion. He repeatedly criticized the war policies of the Confederate president, his old enemy Jefferson Davis, and lobbied for a peaceful settlement, but when President Abraham Lincoln's peace overtures were rejected by the Confederate Congress, Foote resigned in disgust. He was detained briefly by Confederate authorities, but eventually made his way onto Northern soil.
Foote hoped to find a receptive audience to his peace overtures in the Lincoln administration, but when the president and his secretary of state, William Seward, responded coolly to his plans for a settlement, Foote left his native land for Europe. Here he worked on his memoir of the war years, The War of the Rebellion (1866), which stated his case that conflict between north and south was not inevitable and could have been avoided. Other books by Foote appeared in the post-war period, including Casket of Reminiscences (1874), a commentary on his times and contemporaries, and the legal tome The Bench and Bar of the South and Southwest (1876).
After the war, Foote returned to Washington and resumed the practice of law. He became an ardent Republican, supporting the administrations of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1878, Hayes appointed him superintendent of the United States mint at New Orleans, Louisiana. He served almost two years in that post and died in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 20, 1880. He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Biographical Annals of the Civil Government of the Unted States, James Anglim, 1876, reprint, Gale 1976.
Biographical Dictionary of Southern Authors, Martin & Hoyt Co., 1929, reprint, Gale, 1978.
Biographical Dictionary and Synopsis of Books Ancient and Modern, Werner Co., 1902, reprint, Gale, 1965.
A Dictionary of American Authors, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1904, Gale, 1969.