Thomas R. R. Cobb – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Thomas RR Cobb was one of the foremost legal authorities in antebellum Georgia and the most outspoken advocates of slavery and secession from the Union. He fought for the Confederacy as a brigadier general and was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.
Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb was born in Cherry Hill, a plantation in Jefferson County, on April 10, 1823. His family moved to Athens when he was still a child and he resided there until his death. Cobb attended the University of Georgia, graduated at the top of his class, and was called to the Georgia bar in 1842. In 1844 he married Marion Lumpkin, the daughter of Judge Joseph Henry Lumpkin. They had two sons, who died in infancy, and four daughters.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Cobb and his older brother, Howell Cobb, campaigned against northern and southern radicals whose ideas threatened the Union. While Howell, an influential Democrat, served as Thomas’s political mentor, the younger Cobb focused most of his energies on pursuing his brother’s career.
Cobb became the State Supreme Court Reporter in 1849. While serving in this capacity, he published several highly respected legal works, including The Digest of Georgia State Statutory Laws (1851), a supplement to the existing code of state laws; fifteen volumes of supreme court reports; and a substantial part of the Georgia State Code (1861), effective after his death.
Beyond Georgia, Cobb was best known for his major contribution to the defense of slavery by the South, which he presented in a massive volume, An investigation into the law of black slavery in the United States of America (1858). The only legal defense of slavery produced by a Southerner, Cobb’s Treaty covered a wide range of arguments, from historical precedents and property rights to black inferiority.
Despite his arguments that the concept of slavery was good and was the foundation of all great civilizations, Cobb considered only African slavery acceptable in practice because he believed that God intended Africans to be inferior to whites. . Enslavement allowed white Christian masters to “improve” those they enslaved. While much of Cobb’s defense against slavery was discredited after the Civil War (1861–1865), some of its legal components continued to influence court decisions more than a century after emancipation.
Cobb was a deeply religious man and leader of the Presbyterian Church in Athens. His legal opinions reflected his Puritan religious beliefs and a desire for restraint and self-control. He supported the banning of alcohol and prostitution, and he introduced Bible reading in area schools. Cobb advocated forced marriage for couples caught engaging in premarital sex.
Cobb’s evangelistic zeal also motivated him to improve educational opportunities. In 1854, her sister, Laura Cobb Rutherford, appealed for a girls’ high school in Athens. Cobb responded by raising funds and organizing a group of trustees to form Athens Women’s High School. The school opened in January 1859 and was soon renamed the Lucy Cobb Institute in honor of Cobb’s eldest daughter, who died of fever at the age of thirteen in 1858.
Cobb was also instrumental in the reorganization and expansion of the University of Georgia. In 1859, he established Lumpkin Law School with the help of his stepfather, Joseph Henry Lumpkin, a state Supreme Court justice after whom the school is named.
After the election of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Cobb renounced his Unionist leanings and became a strong proponent of secession. On November 12, 1860, he delivered a persuasive speech in favor of immediate secession before the state legislature in Milledgeville. He believed that a Republican victory along strict cut lines would irreversibly shift the balance of national power to the North, reducing the South to a powerless minority unable to defend both slavery and its way of life. Thereafter, Cobb and his brother Howell campaigned vigorously around the state for secession.
After Georgia seceded from the Union on January 19, 1861, Cobb was elected to the Provincial Congress of the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama, and served on the committee that drafted the Confederate constitution. The original manuscript is believed to be in his hand. Cobb also headed the committee responsible for rewriting Georgia’s state constitution.
Frustrated by a lack of cooperation, Cobb resigned from the Confederate Congress and, in August 1861, formed a regiment of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, known both as the Georgia Legion and Cobb’s Legion. Commissioned as Colonel by Governor Joseph. E. Brown, Cobb led his regiment into battles at Seven Days, Second Manassas, and Antietam. He became frustrated with his slow rise through the ranks of command and felt that President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and others were discriminating against him. In October 1862, after taking command of a brigade formerly led by his brother, Cobb was finally promoted by Lee to brigadier general. He was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia in December 1862.
In 2004, Cobb’s former home sparked controversy in Athens. Built in 1839 and presented to Cobb as a gift from his father-in-law, the Federal-style mansion was saved from a wrecking ball in 1985 and moved from Prince Avenue in Athens to Stone Mountain Park, where it languishes. The Georgia Trust and the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation (now Historic Athens) partnered with the Watson-Brown Foundation to return the house to Athens in 2004. The move was applauded by conservatives but clashed with the opposition from some local residents, who questioned the recognition. he brings in the pro-slavery lawyer who owned the house. The renovation was completed in 2007 and the house is now open as a house museum and conference venue.
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