BETWEEN 1849 and 1859 Georgia politics had taken their course with scarcely any participation by Thomas Butler King. The long struggle in Congress over the Compromise of 1850 had produced a party revolution in the state, which saw Alexander H. Stephens and Robert Toombs, King’s Whig colleagues in Congress, join with the Union Democrat Howell Cobb to form the Constitutional Union Party, which was dedicated to upholding and defending the Compromise. This new alliance of moderates proved an unstable combination. In 1852 the Union Democrats returned to their old allegiance, but the Whigs were unable to regain the strength that had enabled them to win state elections during the previous twenty years. Many Whigs shifted to the Democratic Party, some joined the ranks of the Know-Nothings, and others dropped their old name and simply ran Opposition candidates in local elections. The net result was almost complete control of state politics for the Democrats after 1852.
For the political leaders of Georgia, this transitional era was a difficult one. Howell Cobb, who had led his followers into the Constitutional Union Party, managed to return to the Democratic party and even to hold national cabinet office. Toombs and Stephens made the shift from Whiggery to Democracy without having to give up their congressional seats, but they continually faced the problem of finding a place in the party which they had once regarded as the enemy. All three of these leaders of the 1840’s had to bow to the nominal leadership of Herschel Vespasian Johnson, the Democratic governor from 1853 to 1857. In 1857 the stresses among the different leaders bearing the Democratic label opened the way for a new personality in state politics, Joseph Emerson Brown. At the time Brown was a relatively obscure judge of the Cherokee Circuit, but the Democrats fixed on him as a compromise candidate for governor. After his election he caught the imagination of the voters with his able administration, his devotion to the cause of Southern Rights, and his championship of the common man. He remained a power in Georgia politics for many years.
In the First Congressional District of Georgia the triumph of the Democratic Party came early. When King resigned his seat in 1850 his successor was a Savannah Democrat, Joseph Webber Jackson. After one term Jackson gave way to James Lindsay Seward of Thomasville, who belonged to the extreme Southern Rights wing of the party. One of Seward’s main themes in campaigning was the unjust domination of the First District by Savannah and the seaboard area; he himself gloried in the nickname “the Wire-Grass Boy.” With his back-country origin, his extreme Southern Rights views, and his appeal to the common man, Seward resembled Governor Brown, whose political beliefs have been described as “the social gospel of Jacksonian Democracy blithely astride the credo of John C. Calhoun.”1 Twice Seward won reelection to Congress in King’s old district, and he was the incumbent congressman when King made his decision to reenter politics.
During the same ten years King’s own political allegiance went through rapid changes. He had been the acknowledged leader of the Whig Party in California and its candidate for the United States Senate. In 1852 he supported the Whig candidate for the presidency, General Winfield Scott. For the next three years his railroad interests took him out of the field of open political activity, although he was constantly involved in the political aspects of railroad building. In January 1855 a group of his old political friends in Glynn County proposed his name as a candidate for Congress from the First District of Georgia, but he was at the time preoccupied with the organization of the Texas Western Company, and nothing came of this move.2 Instead, after a summer spent on Saint Simons he announced his candidacy for the Senate of Georgia in the columns of the Savannah Republican, a Know Nothing newspaper. Immediately, his opponents brought up all the charges that had been levelled against him at the time of his California mission, and to them added an accusation that he had mishandled the county school funds which had been entrusted to him in 1832. As a Know Nothing candidate for state office, therefore, King entered into a defense of his entire political career. He published a long explanation of his activities in California, demanded an audit of the old accounts, and canvassed the county for votes. Despite these efforts, he was defeated by an Independent Democrat, T. T. Long.3 Essentially, King’s unsuccessful candidacy for the Senate in 1855 was an episode between journeys on the business of the Texas Western Railroad Company. Yet the experience showed what obstacles King would face if he tried to resume his political career in Georgia. The investigation of the charges of mishandling the school funds brought him a small financial windfall, for a balance was found to be due him on the old account.4 That ghost, at least, had been put to rest.
With this campaign King brought to an end his brief excursion into the Know Nothing camp. For the past two years his business associations had been largely with prominent Democrats, and his old Whig associates in Georgia were also turning Democratic. King followed them into the party that he had once anathematized, and capped the change by attending the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati in 1856. He held no official status as a delegate, but his interest in a transcontinental railroad made his presence understandable. One of his closest associates in the railroad was Robert J. Walker, and there is one vague hint that at Cincinnati King was part of a coterie working for Walker’s nomination for the presidency. In New York a month later he declared publicly his support of the Democratic nominee, James Buchanan.5
For the next three years King was more involved in Texas politics as a lobbyist than in Georgia politics as a candidate; not until 1859, when the personal tragedy of his son’s death had kept him at home for several months, did he once more show an interest in the contest for office. In March of that year he embarked on an intensive campaign to secure the nomination as the Democratic candidate for the First District congressional seat. With his son Lord, he travelled about the area, renewing old political ties and speaking frequently at public gatherings. The cordiality with which he was received pleased him and encouraged him to continue his efforts. To his wife he wrote jubilantly: “… my old friends go for me as well as the entire body of the democratic party.”6 After a month’s tour that covered seven counties Lord King reported optimistically that his father’s “energy and ability are truly wonderful,” and that “he leaves the most favorable impressions wherever he goes.”7 The campaigning continued into April, when King invaded the back-country stronghold of the incumbent congressman, James L. Seward. The Wire Grass Reporter dragged out the old charges that he had been responsible for the anti-slavery clause in the California constitution and that he had handled funds improperly. To refute these accusations King returned to Retreat and drafted a pamphlet reply. He published a collection of letters from associates in California in 1849 to prove that he had nothing to do with the movement for the formation of that state, including the anti-slavery clause in the constitution. He also defended at length his handling of various funds.8 Through an old political friend he secured a mailing list of the voters of the district, and he arranged for the pamphlet to be distributed at public places throughout the area. After a brief rest at home toward the end of May, King and his son again set out on a campaign tour, this time in the northern counties of the district, near Savannah.9
The First District Democratic Convention to nominate a candidate for Congress met in Waresboro, Georgia, July 13, 1859. Over one hundred delegates attended from twenty-five of the twenty-eight counties. Despite the rural setting, the convention was a full-dress performance, complete with caucuses among the delegates. A city reporter satirized the little knots of politicoes “… scattered for a quarter of a mile up and down the road… four men with their right legs thrown over a stump—two whittling together mounted on a pile of boards—three squatted in the middle of the road.…”10 The sectional cleavage within the district was clearly marked. Seward, the incumbent, appealed for renomination frankly on the grounds that for twenty years previous to his election either Savannah or Brunswick had monopolized the office. However, at the time of his nomination in 1857 Seward had agreed to throw his influence at the next election behind the candidate of the Chatham County (Savannah) delegation. Since Savannah offered no local resident as a candidate, Seward felt that he was not bound by his earlier pledge. Even so, he had to deal with William H. Stiles, whose strength lay in the northern part of the district, and King, who held the allegiance of the southeast. When the convention moved toward the adoption of a rule requiring the nominee to receive the support of two-thirds of the delegates, Seward announced that he would not seek renomination, apparently preferring to withdraw gracefully rather than suffer a possible defeat. The four names put into nomination were King, Stiles, Powhatan B. Whittle, and Peter Early Love. Love was assailed as a mere catspaw because he was Seward’s law partner, but Seward’s support made him the strongest candidate. He led on the first ballot, while King, Stiles, and Whittle divided the other votes. King’s supporters watched his bloc dwindle from 14½ to eleven through five roll calls, and on the sixth they attempted to lead a break to a dark-horse candidate, Alexander S. Atkinson. When their move failed they joined in the nomination of Love by acclamation on the seventh ballot.11
In his bid for the nomination King failed signally to capture the vote of Savannah and the northern part of the district, formerly centers of his strength. The loyalty of Glynn and the adjoining counties proved him to be still a political force in the state, although far weaker than he had been in the 1840’s. Nor could King ascribe his failure to want of energy or publicity; he had made his views widely known and had campaigned vigorously. Few of his previous campaigns had been so bitterly fought, and in this one, as in the election of 1844, he felt that an opponent had impugned his honor. William H. Stiles, writing under the name “Philippi” in the Southern Georgia Watchman, repeated the charge that King was responsible for the anti-slavery clause in the California constitution and implied that King had mishandled funds when he served as Collector of San Francisco. King demanded that Stiles publicly retract his charges, and after further exchanges of correspondence he sought satisfaction on the field of honor. When Stiles refused to meet him in a duel, King denounced him “as a malicious slanderer and a coward.”12 This unsuccessful bid for the nomination to Congress, with its bitter rivalry and unhappy conclusion, would have convinced a less determined man that his political star had set.
Whatever disappointment the failure to be nominated may have brought to King, it was eclipsed by the personal tragedy that assailed him. On August 22, 1859, occurred the death of Anna Matilda King, his wife of thirty-five years. She had been unable to reconcile herself to the loss of her son Butler, and the twice-bereaved family attributed her death directly to her grief. Yet it may have been some consolation to King that in their common suffering in the months before her death, he and his wife had found another bond of affection and regarded one another with increased tenderness.13
The death of Anna King brought about many changes at Retreat. Georgia, the eldest unmarried daughter, tried to fill her mother’s place both as mistress of the plantation and as center of the family. Now it was Georgia King, not Anna, who had to make decisions on all the daily activities of the plantation—gardening, dairying, preserving fruits, conserving supplies, managing the servants. She treated illnesses among the slaves, planned wardrobes for her schoolboy brothers, and kept the absent members of the family informed on developments at home. To her brother Cuyler, when she informed him of the death of their “inestimable servant” Quamina, she confessed: “I feel sometimes as tho’ I shall grow old very fast now.”14 In addition to supervising the household, Georgia King tried to supply her father with companionship, and she sometimes acted as his secretary.15
While Georgia managed the housekeeping, her younger brother Mallery conducted the planting operations, having succeeded, unintentionally, to the position once occupied by Butler. Under Mallery’s direction Retreat prospered, and the cotton crop of 1859 was the largest that had been harvested for several years. But even the return of $11,000 which this crop brought on the Savannah market failed to lift all indebtedness from the plantation. With more than $7,000 debt remaining to be paid, Mallery determined to expand the planting area by reclaiming a marsh. For the summer of 1860 he planned an experimental reclamation project of between sixty and seventy acres, with more to follow if this was successful. “We must have new lands,” explained Georgia King to her brother Lord; “these old ones are so worn out, that we cannot expect to make good crops.”16
After Anna King’s death a legal division of her property took place. Retreat and its slaves had been secured to Mrs. King’s children by her father’s will, and her death brought about an accounting of the family finances. After the crop of 1859 had been sold the estate was appraised and the 139 slaves were apportioned among the surviving children. The debt of the plantation was similarly divided. In actuality, this division of the property took place only on paper, and the estate continued to operate as a unit. By agreement among themselves, King’s children deeded their father a half interest in their individual shares of their mother’s property. To her brother Floyd, Georgia explained:
… of course we all felt, as you do, that Father is master and all ours was his.… To settle everything properly for Father, Lord prepared the paper sent to you, giving Father a half-interest in the share of each of us, so our husbands, if any, won’t expect more than half our shares.17
A balance sheet of King’s financial status in 1860 would have shown only this half-interest in Retreat as a solid asset. He had hopes, besides, of returns from a legal action and of some profits from his stock in the Southern Pacific Railroad.18
With two of his children taking up the responsibilities of the plantation, King turned his energies once more to politics and promotion. He announced for the Senate of Georgia and was chosen over a fellow Democrat in the October elections.19 It was in the lesser arena of the Georgia legislature, rather than in Congress, that he renewed his career in elective office.
King met a warm reception when he returned to the legislative halls at Milledgeville. Even after the passage of a decade, many of his colleagues in the Senate were old acquaintances from his earlier political career. Of particular importance to King was his meeting and reconciliation with Governor Joseph E. Brown, who in 1850 had led the movement in the legislature to censure King for his activities in California. The Governor was already secure in the leadership of the Democratic party that was to name him governor for four terms; his friendship or enmity could prove decisive in the Democratic Party of the state. In the 1859 session of the legislature the rapprochement between the two men bore fruit in their joint efforts to pass legislation to aid railroad construction in the state.20
Governor Brown called on the legislature to foster the building of new lines of railroad by extending the credit of the state to such projects. He pointed with pride to the success of the state-owned Western and Atlantic and to the existing privately owned railroads. Yet he felt that the benefits of the transportation system should be spread more widely over the state and that healthy competition should be encouraged. To accomplish these ends he recommended a general law permitting the state to endorse the bonds of railroad companies.
From the Committee on Internal Improvements Chairman Thomas Butler King brought in two reports: the majority recommended inaction; the minority, of whom King made himself the spokesman, endorsed the policy of general grants of credit. The supporting arguments pointed out the key position of Georgia as a transportation link between the Atlantic and inland cotton areas, emphasizing the desirability of competition to keep rates low. The building of competing lines between Georgia ports and connections in western states would secure to Georgians the profits from the transportation of the bulk of the American cotton crop. State aid would enable railroad companies to complete links with western roads and extend their lines into sparsely settled areas. As an example of the latter type of development, King pointed to the Savannah, Albany and Gulf road, which had doubled the value of taxable property in its vicinity. A similar result from roads built under the proposed measure would more than repay the state for extending its aid to new lines generally. The Committee concluded that the state needed three more railroads leading from the coast to the interior. If proper safeguards were provided, no one could seriously doubt the financial prudence of the plan. The bill accompanying this report followed closely the recommendations of Governor Brown and set the amount of the loan credits at $7,000 per mile.21
As Chairman of the Committee on Internal Improvements, King led the legislative battle over this measure. Against considerable opposition he succeeded in bringing his state aid bill to the floor of the Senate for debate. After speaking briefly in its favor he surprised observers by calling for a vote on the previous question, thus cutting off further discussion. The bill passed the Senate, sixty-one to forty-nine. The following day opponents moved for a reconsideration of the measure and launched an attack on specific provisions of the bill. Experience had proved the system unworkable, according to one critic, and if it did work it would promote useless short lines, benefit the low country to the detriment of the mountainous regions, and lead to unsound financial operations. King replied that the safeguards in the act would protect the state from losses. He denounced the Central and the Georgia railroads as monopolistic enterprises which had profited from state aid in the past and now sought to forestall the building of competitive lines. He pointed to the exorbitant freight rates charged by the two companies where they had monopolistic control of the traffic of an area. The state could rid itself of this evil by encouraging competitive lines. Kings forces maintained their majority on the motion to reconsider.22
The railroad question arose in several guises during the session, and from the debates and votes it is clear that King gave leadership to the back-country representatives who opposed the influence of Savannah and Augusta and of the two railroad lines originating in those cities. The vote on the state aid bill shows a pronounced geographical breakdown. The senators from the northern portion of Georgia were almost unanimous in their approval, and they were joined by a bloc of nine senators from southeastern counties. Some strong support came from southwestern Georgia, and a few senators from midstate gave the bill their vote. The proponents of the bill came from roadless sections or from mountainous or swampy areas where railroad building presented difficult engineering problems and higher costs. In general, the seacoast and mid-state areas, already served by existing rail lines or by sea and river transport, opposed state aid. King’s principal opponent in the Senate debate was Alexander R. Lawton of Savannah; when the bill reached the floor of the House, Julian Hartridge, another Savannah resident, led the opposition. King’s chief supporters in the discussion of the bill were Philemon Tracy of Macon and James Lindsay Seward of Thomasville. When a bill was presented to permit the Central Railroad to absorb a short subsidiary line, Tracy proposed an amendment requiring the Central to charge uniform freight rates on long and short hauls. James L. Seward even suggested that monopolistic control promoted such high charges that the legislature should assume general rate-making powers.23
As King had expected, his measure met defeat in the House of Representatives. But the setback in the lower house did not discourage him at all, he informed his son. “As you have seen, our measure in favour of State ade [sic] was lost in the House. It can be carried next year. The foundation of success has been laid.”24 On that optimistic note, the matter rested until the next session of the legislature.
King’s leadership of the internal improvement forces in the Senate was reminiscent of his early career in state politics. Similarly, he showed enthusiasm about the movement for direct trade between Georgia and Europe, another subject of interest when he had formerly held a Senate seat. Between 1837 and 1839 he had been among the leaders of the commercial conventions that attempted to stimulate direct trade between Europe and the cotton ports of the South. By 1840 the commercial convention movement had withered away, but interest in the idea revived once more in the 1850’s.25 On December 9, 1859, King laid before the Senate a series of resolutions empowering the governor to appoint a commissioner to accompany the representatives of the Cotton Planters Association abroad and report on the possibilities of direct trade. By this maneuver King, who was already contemplating a trip to Europe on railroad business, may have been making a bid for the official standing that the appointment might have given him, but nothing more came of the resolutions after they were buried in committee. Later, he lost confidence in this particular project for direct trade and abandoned his tentative plans for a journey.
In addition to their legislative duties, the assembled politicians were already looking forward to the national presidential contest of the next year. Howell Cobb, the Georgian who was Secretary of the Treasury in President Buchanan’s cabinet, had been suggested as a possible successor to Buchanan, but an almost mandatory requirement for his candidacy would be the united support of his home state’s delegation at the national nominating convention. The Democratic members of the legislature obligingly resolved themselves into a Democratic caucus to name delegates to the Democratic convention scheduled to meet in Charleston the following April. Proponents of Cobb as the choice of Georgia’s Democrats were selected for the Charleston meeting by the caucus, which also wrote resolutions endorsing the Buchanan administration. King spoke in favor of the resolutions endorsing Cobb, and he was named as an alternate delegate to the convention.26 But Cobb’s supporters in the legislature found that they had adopted an unpopular course. The cry for a regular state convention, led by anti-Cobb factions, became too strong to resist. At the convention to choose delegates to Charleston, Cobb’s enemies managed to name a different slate of representatives who were less sympathetic toward the ambitions of the Secretary of the Treasury. Disturbed over the prospect of contesting groups vying for Georgia’s seats at the convention, compromisers within the party arranged for a merging of the two lists of delegates. The final roster contained approximately equal numbers of pro- and anti-Cobb members, and King was dropped from the list of alternates. Cobb, thus deprived of the wholehearted support of his own state, saw his hopes of nomination disappear.27
King the railroad promoter could hardly be expected to disregard the measures being advocated by King the legislator at Milledgeville. Early in 1860 the senator from Glynn joined forces with a group who were promoting a railroad line from central Georgia to Brunswick. After one abortive beginning as the Fort Valley Railroad Company, this project took form as the Macon and Brunswick Railroad Company. It was envisioned as a competitor with the Central Railroad for the traffic of central Georgia. Local investors subscribed to enough stock to begin building the first forty-seven miles of road. Obviously, if King could bring about the passage of his railroad bill at the next session of the legislature, the prospects of the company would be improved. However, the promoters were unwilling to rely wholly on such a contingency, and they planned an elaborate scheme by which they hoped to secure capital in Europe. To present their project to European investors at some unspecified future time, they chose Thomas Butler King.28
Along with his involvement in local Georgia railroading, King retained an interest in the transcontinental project, although he had dropped out of the leadership of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company after the sale of the road in May 1858. In April 1859 a truce was effected between the rival claimants of the Southern Pacific assets, and Jeptha Fowlkes led a movement for still another reorganization. The various issues of stock, estimated to amount to $2,500,000, or double the value of the assets, were called in for reissue on a one-for-two basis. Salaries were to be reduced, dividends were to be foregone until one hundred miles of road were in operation, and all former transactions of the company were to be reviewed by a special board. Fowlkes gave place to J. Edgar Thompson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, as the leader of the reorganized corporation.29 King had been following these moves with the deepest interest, for his financial hopes depended on the success of the company. Besides the stock which he had managed to retain, he held a note from Fowlkes acknowledging the indebtedness of the company to King for $32,500. If Congress should pass favorable legislation, his own prospects would rise with those of the Southern Pacific. Therefore, King journeyed to Washington to use his influence in support of a bill before Congress granting government aid to the Southern Pacific. Fowlkes was confident that the Senate would pass the bill, but doubtful about its success in the House. All possible pressure was needed, and timely action was essential. “The great point,” wrote Lord King to his father, “is to get it up and passed if possible before the Charleston Convention for not one of the Presidential aspirants dares to oppose it.30
In 1860 the battle over routes continued to block the passage of any Pacific railroad bills in Congress. The principal railroad measure of the session was the Curtis Bill, which provided federal aid for a central route that split into two eastern branches. Andrew Jackson Hamilton, a Texas Democrat, protested against the Curtis Bill on the grounds that it discriminated against the South. He pointed out that the House had already passed the Morrill tariff and a homestead bill, both considered inimical to the interests of the South. If a third discriminatory bill was passed, he asserted, he would favor the secession of the Southern states from the Union. Recommitted, the Curtis Bill was amended to include Hamilton’s provisions for aid to a Southern road, and the Southern Pacific was the only likely candidate for the aid that was proposed. While the fight over this bill was at its height, King was in Washington making “efforts among Southern men … to secure the passage of the Pacific Railroad bill.…”31 Dr. Fowlkes was also actively engaged in lobbying, and one observer has left us a graphic picture of “the Doctor carrying all the while, at Washington and elsewhere, a hatful of stock, which he would transfer according to emergencies, saying ‘there’s enough for all, go in and work for the bill.’”32 Even this openhanded policy failed to secure all the votes needed.
In April many of the congressmen packed their bags for the trip to Charleston, South Carolina, where the Democratic National Convention was scheduled to take place. With them went King, still the lobbyist for the transcontinental railroad. In Charleston he worked “to secure, in the Platform of the party, a resolution in favour of government aid to the P[acific] R[ail] R[oad] Co[mpany]—This I have done—”33 The adoption of a Pacific railroad resolution by the Democrats augured well for some sort of railroad measure from the next Congress, for the Republicans, who controlled the House, were already on record as favoring such aid.34
King’s pleasure over his success as a lobbyist was tempered by his alarm over the disruption of the Democratic party that began in Charleston. “I believe that the safety of the Union depends on the preservation of the National Democratic party,” he asserted in a letter prepared for publication in Georgia; “… I can see no hope … except in the reunion and patriotic efforts of the Democratic party.”35 Privately, he was even more gloomy about the political future. He declined to predict what would happen, but he expressed the belief that the quarrels within the party might be patched up. Explaining their father’s views to her younger brother, Georgia King wrote: “Father fears that the division at Charleston is but a prelude to a disunion of the States, worked by ambitious politicians—who forget the good of our country in trying to gain notoriety for themselves.”36 Since he entertained these views, it was logical that he should try to help lead those Georgians who favored the reassembling of the Democratic National Convention. Eventually, he served as one of the Georgia delegation to the Baltimore Convention that nominated Breckinridge, but illness prevented his taking an active part in the proceedings. Illness likewise interrupted any plans he might have had for campaigning, but he did take time out from a visit to Newport, Rhode Island, to prepare a Democratic address. Stressing the economic interdependence of the sections, he praised the Union under which the states had so far lived in prosperity, but he insisted that it must remain the constitutional Union of former days, not the consolidated government advocated by the Republicans.37
For King the election-year summer was full of sorrows. Plagued by recurrent illness, he visited his ailing brother Henry in Pennsylvania. From there he was called to the sickbed of his brother Andrew in New York, where his own illness again prostrated him. When he and Andrew regained some measure of health, they went together to Saratoga to convalesce and to taste the pleasures of resort society, and from Saratoga, they went on to Newport, Rhode Island. Hardly had they settled once more in their New York hotel quarters, when Andrew King suffered a relapse and died. On the eve of the national election King was preoccupied with the duties of attending his dying brother, and making funeral arrangements and plans for Andrew’s widow. These private cares continued to overshadow political developments until the time for the meeting of the Georgia legislature.38
The legislative session of 1860 in Milledgeville was a momentous one, for it would decide the state’s course in the secession crisis. The people of Georgia were far from unanimous in their feelings about secession, and the leading political figures stood as far apart on the question as the unionist Alexander H. Stephens and the fire-eating Robert Toombs. Within the legislature the diversity of views was as great. Georgia King, who acted as her father’s secretary for the session, wrote to her brother Floyd:
There will be a heavy battle & fight—Some men are for secession disunion—without deliberation—others, for submission to all things—You know dear Father takes the medium and calm course—Mr. Toombs is here—& also Gov. Johnson. I believe the former is for the most immediate and violent action. Mr. Styles (Wm. Carey) arrived yesterday—I saw him last night—he is for revolution—no convention—“break up the government”—march fifty men into Sav[annah]—seize the Custom House–march to W. seize the treasury—&c &c &c &c &c. These extreme men are to be managed on one side—and on the other there are some you can [’]t move—they think any act on our part will be unconstitutional—39
To this divided body Governor Joseph E. Brown gave strong leadership down the road to secession. In his annual message he reviewed the measures taken during the past year to strengthen the defenses of the state, and he recommended further military preparations. In a special message he indicted the federal government for its aggression against the South, listed the injuries inflicted on Georgia, and recommended legislation empowering him to call a convention on secession. He left no doubt about his own views. With the election of the Black Republican ticket, he declared, the time has come for action. “The argument is exhausted.”40
Like Brown, King was a seccessionist, although more moderate in his views. In this crisis he acted the part of mediator and manager, rather than prime mover. After the delivery of the special message on the calling of a secession convention, King proposed that the subject be referred to a special joint committee of the House and Senate. To this committee, headed by King, were referred all the various resolutions on secession. On November 17, 1860, King presented the report of his committee, with legislation instructing the governor to call a convention which should decide whether Georgia was to secede.41
Among the measures which Governor Brown proposed to the legislature was one which was to affect Kings life deeply during the next fifteen months. On November 8, 1860, Brown strongly recommended the establishment of a line of steamships between Savannah and some important European port. He had been given to understand that a company in Belgium had five steamers ready to begin the run immediately if they should be guaranteed five per cent on their capital investment. He asked for legislation authorizing the guarantee and for power to appoint a commissioner to conclude an agreement with the company. A special committee endorsed the recommendations, and the legislature unanimously adopted the resolutions. It was clear from this action that most of the members expected a dissolution of the Union to occur shortly.
Governor Brown, like the legislature, acted as if secession was a foregone conclusion. On January 2, 1861, he gave the order for state troops to seize Fort Pulaski, the principal fortification on the Savannah River. On the same day he offered to King the appointment to arrange for direct steamship service between Savannah and the Old World. This appointment was comprehended in a broad commission to represent the State of Georgia in the courts of Europe. Indicating his willingness to accept, King set about arranging his personal affairs for the trip abroad.42
To his past roles as politician, planter, lobbyist, and promoter, King now added a new part: would-be diplomat. There is no indication that the representative of the independent State of Georgia hesitated to choose the way of disunion. In the events at Charleston in the preceding summer he had seen signs of a dissolution of the Union, yet in the final attempt to patch up party differences he chose to go with the minority who rejected Stephen A. Douglas as the party candidate. Perhaps he hoped, like others, that secession would end in reunion, or that if persisted in it would be accomplished peacefully. No statement survives to show exactly when or why he took the path of secession. His plans throw no more light on the decision. His business schemes were based on the assumption that secession, if it occurred, would take place peacefully, yet before he left home he arranged for the evacuation of Retreat. He also refused to allow his daughter to accompany him, partly on the grounds that hostilities might begin.43 From his plans and actions, the inferences are that in the summer of 1860 he reluctantly acquiesced in a course that he judged would lead to secession; thereafter, he hoped for peace but prepared for war.
For two years King’s life had been full of personal losses, financial disappointments, and political setbacks. Financially and politically, gains offset many of the losses. His new connection with a railroad company in Georgia held a promise of substantial profits, and the signs of recovery of the Southern Pacific Railroad had once more raised his hopes for his investment in that company. Politically, he had tested his strength and defended his record in the First District, where he had found a surprising residue of his old political power. His failure to secure the nomination for Congress had been counterbalanced in part by his election to the state Senate. He had effected a reconciliation with the most powerful political figure in the state and had worked with him for the development of a system of state aid for railroads. He had charted a safe course through the political shoals of the election year, and in the legislature had helped guide the members toward united action. From Governor Brown he had received the appointment to a post of honor. It remained to be seen how well he could play the diplomat.