Thomas Lanier Clingman: Fire Eater from the Carolina Mountains

Article excerpt

Thomas Lanier Clingman: Fire Eater from the Carolina Mountains. By Thomas E. Jeffrey. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, c. 1998. Pp. xiv, 450. $50.00, ISBN 0-8203-2023-4.)

Biographers of nineteenth-century southern leaders have ignored Thomas Lanier Clingman, one of the most flamboyant and gifted men of the Civil War era. To some extent, this negligence can be traced to the lack of a substantial body of Clingman papers for biographers to consult. In addition, Clingman has long been viewed as a North Carolina fire-eater whose fanatical stand for southern rights in defense of slavery propelled his state into the vortex of secession and war. He has usually been linked with such southern nationalists as William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama and Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, a class of political extremists that have lost their appeal as subjects for the modern biographer and historian.

Thomas E. Jeffrey has remedied the biographer's neglect of Clingman. Seemingly contradicting the subtitle of the book, the author has corrected the narrow view of Clingman as a southern fire-eater in the Yancey-Rhett mold. Jeffrey demonstrates how a resourceful biographer can write a first-rate life of an individual in the absence of diaries and personal correspondence. The author, however, is modest when he writes that newspapers, public speeches, pamphlets, military records, and scattered correspondence provide only the public image of Clingman "as he presented himself to others and as he was perceived by them" (p. 9). Actually, in his careful distillation and analysis of the voluminous materials that cover Clingman's long public career, Jeffrey reveals a great deal about the inner man.

A central theme of the account is Clingman's overweening ambition to succeed, primarily but not exclusively, in politics and government. Early in his career, Clingman set his sights on a seat in the U.S. Senate, a goal that he achieved in 1858 only to see his term shortened by the war and his withdrawal from Congress. He subsequently served as a capable brigadier general in the Confederate army.

First elected to Congress in 1843 as a Whig from the mountain district of North Carolina, Clingman recognized the importance of the Democratic swing vote to his political success. …