(April 21, 1809–July 18, 1887)
On the eve of secession, Robert M. T. Hunter stood among the most prominent Southerners in the federal government. Numbered with Jefferson Davis (q.v.) and Robert Toombs in the Senate’s “southern trio,” Hunter had distinguished himself as Senate Finance chairman while concomitantly receiving acclaim in the South for being a consistent proslavery advocate. During the 1850s, he twice turned down cabinet appointments from Presidents Pierce and Buchanan and, in 1860, organized an unsuccessful run at the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. Although he served the Confederacy briefly as Secretary of State (July 1861 to February 1862), Hunter spent most of the Civil War replicating his antebellum service as head of the Confederate Senate’s Finance Committee. Historians have virtually ignored Hunter, especially when compared with the treatment received by his contemporaries Davis, Toombs, Alexander Stephens (q.v.), and Howell Cobb. Why has so distinguished a figure as Hunter received so little scholarly attention?
Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter grew up in Essex County, Virginia (date of birth, April 21, 1809) within a network of prominent Virginia families including the Mercers, Taliaferros, and Garnetts as well as the Hunters. His kinfolk included two maternal uncles who had served in Congress and two Garnett cousins who would become Confederate brigadiers in addition to his beloved nephew, Muscoe Russell Hunter Garnett, who would follow Hunter into the U.S. and Confederate legislatures. Robert received private tutoring before entering the University of Virginia’s first class in 1825. Although a serious scholar, Hunter received the sobriquet “Run Mad Tom “ (highlighting his initials) from his fellow students. After two years in Charlottesville, he joined the Winchester Law School of well-regarded jurist Judge Henry St. George Tucker, half brother of John Randolph of Roanoke. Tucker stood at the top of his profession and ran the most eminent law school in Virginia at this time. In 1830, Hunter returned to Essex to practice law and to construct a political career.