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“The South’s Forgotten Fire-Eater: David Hubbard & North Alabama’s Long Road to Disunion” By: Chris McIlwain

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“The South’s Forgotten Fire-Eater: David Hubbard & North Alabama’s Long Road to Disunion”

Author: Chris McIlwain

Publisher: NewSouth Books

Pages: 288

Price: $27.99

Historian Tells Story of Secessionist Politician

Chris McIlwain, Tuscaloosa attorney, practices law all day, and every evening, for decades, we understand, reads nineteenth-century Alabama newspapers to understand, on a day to day, town to town basis, how Alabama moved toward secession, how the Civil War affected the state. Along the way he draws our attention to Alabama figures we might have overlooked. His book “The Million Dollar Man Who Helped Kill a President” told of George Washington Gayle, who put an ad in the “Selma Dispatch” hoping to raise one million dollars to finance the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a nineteenth-century secular fatwa.

That one million would be twenty million today

A twentieth-century reader might be forgiven for minimizing the possibilities of success there, but, in the nineteenth century, Alabama and the South teemed with newspapers. Every hamlet, it seemed, had one. In this study, McIlwain makes constant reference to editorials, articles, anonymous and signed letters to the editor, in dozens of papers. People read these pieces, and other newspapers picked them up and republished them. It was a slower but amazingly effective journalism internet.

David Hubbard, like George Washington Gayle, is little known today.

McIlwain explains why.

He served in the Alabama legislature and won a seat in the U. S. House, but, although he tried often, never became a U.S. senator or Alabama governor.

Hubbard wrote no memoir. He did not attend university, was not a Black Belt planter, and was not an aristocrat.

Hubbard was pretty consistently a Jacksonian Democrat, most importantly concerning the removal of the Indians and improving the lives of common people. In an age of oratory, Hubbard was a clever, sarcastic speaker but did not have a pleasing voice.

While not exactly a loner, he had no coterie to write about him and insure his place in history.

Born in 1792, David Hubbard had served under Jackson in the Indian wars and was seriously wounded. Several times during this study McIlwain reminds the reader of how often Hubbard reminded voters of his wound. That proof of manliness was really politically important, as it would be again in the late nineteen-forties and -fifties.

He was always on the make financially, especially in his speculations in land in north Alabama and north Mississippi, and as an advocate of railroad funding, especially the railroad he was invested in, which would have bypassed the troublesome Muscle Shoals.

Hubbard, whose home base was Moulton, Laurence County, in the teens and twenties, speculated wildly in land, having caught a serious case of “Alabama Fever.”

The idea was simple.

By the 1820s, land in Virginia and the Carolinas was mostly played out. Here in Alabama, cotton grew beautifully in the rich soil. Those with land and slaves became absurdly rich.

As the years went by, however, McIlwain reminds us, the price of cotton would fluctuate madly, sometimes 31 cents a pound, sometimes 5.

Planters became millionaires or went bankrupt in the twinkling of an eye.

And of course, with each crop the land grew less productive.

By the 1830s and ’40s, a strong reason why the South fought ferociously for more slave states across the Mississippi, in Kansas, even in California, was that the expansion of slavery would give them a place to sell their now-excessive stocks of enslaved people, and also make Alabama whiter.

Radicals like Hubbard even wanted war with Mexico, and then the annexation of Texas, and even advocated war to conquer Cuba, and perhaps some Central American countries.

Parts of this book are a revelation. Other parts move slowly as McIlwain gets into the weeds on internal Alabama politics, North vs. South, rules governing state vs. national banks and where they would be built, and sometimes, when they failed, how they were to be liquidated, state vs. private financing of railroads, rates of interest, laws governing international tariffs, internal improvement, the various treaties with Indian tribes, and the shifting positions of political parties: Whigs, Republican Democrats.

In Hubbard’s eyes, many Alabama Democrats who were insufficiently secessionist, who considered compromise to maintain the union were “Submission Democrats,” a kind of antebellum RINO.

With utter consistency, however, Hubbard was always a states’ rights fanatic, an ardent supporter of slavery and an early and dedicated secessionist, sooner rather than later. He feared that the North would grow ever stronger, more industrial and more populous, and died in 1872, having seen that he was right.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.