Historical Highlights

Speaker of the House Howell Cobb of Georgia

October 09, 1868
Speaker of the House Howell Cobb of Georgia Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The portrait of Speaker Howell Cobb, purchased by the House of Representatives in 1912, was painted by Lucy May Stanton, a well-respected Georgia artist.
On this date, former Speaker of the House Howell Cobb of Georgia died of a heart attack in New York City. Born on September 7, 1815, at his family’s “Cherry Hill” plantation in Jefferson County, Georgia, Cobb trained in the law and started in politics in 1836 as a pledged vote from Georgia for presidential candidate Martin Van Buren in the Electoral College. As a result, Cobb was rewarded with the post of solicitor general for the western judicial circuit of Georgia. He joined the Democratic slate of nominees in 1842, and won a Georgia At-Large seat in the U.S. House for the 28th Congress (1843–1845). Cobb broke with other Southern Members who sought to combine their state delegations into a sectional voting bloc in order to protect the system of slavery. In 1849, his pro-Union stance thrust him into the Speakership on the 63rd ballot as a compromise candidate, paving the way for him to oversee passage of the Compromise of 1850. After serving a single term as Speaker, Cobb was elected governor of Georgia on the Unionist ticket. He served in the governor’s mansion for one term, later running for the Senate but failing to secure the Democratic nomination in 1853. He returned to the House of Representatives in 1855 where he was drawn further and further into sectional politics. He served on the committee that determined the fate of South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, who had savagely caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate Floor after Sumner delivered a passionate antislavery speech. Cobb stood with fellow Southerners who believed Brooks’ action was justified. “We hold that there has been no violation, in this case, of the privileges of either House of Congress, or any member thereof, over which this House has any jurisdiction,” Cobb wrote on behalf of the committee minority. The incident marked the start of a public turn in Cobb’s sympathies from Unionist to Secessionist. In 1857, Cobb left Congress to become Secretary of the Treasury in the cabinet of Democratic President James Buchanan. Cobb resigned a month after the election of President Abraham Lincoln and returned to Georgia, where he took up the cause of secession and served as chairman of the convention which formed the Confederate States. Cobb joined the Confederate army as a colonel in 1861, eventually surrendering to Union forces as a general in April 1865. President Andrew Johnson pardoned Cobb on July 4, 1868, only months before his death.

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