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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,588

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This is the grave of Joshua Hill.

Born in 1812 in Abbeville, South Carolina, Hill went to the common schools, then studied for the law, and then passed the bar. He ended up moving to Monticello, Georgia in 1833, where he started his own practice. He had a nice career, eventually building a big house in the town of Madison, Georgia and basing himself out of there. He bought a bunch of land in the area and of course a lot of slaves. In fact, he owned up to 59 slaves at one time, which is a lot of human property.

Hill was a strong Whig. Now, this wasn’t uncommon at all for a man entering politics in the South. But it got harder over time. When John Tyler effectively made the expansion of slavery government policy and then James Polk won the Democratic nomination over Martin Van Buren based on annexing Texas, it became harder for southern Whigs. After the Mexican War and Compromise of 1850, it was even more difficult. Simply put, the Democratic Party more explicitly made itself not only the party of the white man, but the party of southern expansionism.

Yet this was not universal. Someone like Hill could enter politics and maintain strong Whig principles around development. Whether they could remain in the Whig Party was the bigger question, as increasingly the answer to that was in the negative. Hill was a big time development guy. He believed in industrialization, railroads, and tying the nation together through infrastructure. When the Whigs collapsed in the South, the Know-Nothings initially took its place. In fact, in 1856, that party nominated Hill to run for Congress, without his knowledge. But he was alright with it once he found out. He won that election too, showing that at least in some districts in the South, it wasn’t the most extreme pro-southern expansionist winning every election.

Hill was a pretty strong Unionist as the nation moved toward the Civil War. In fact, he just left politics for awhile when the war began. He did resign his seat in Congress; after all, Georgia was not a state in the United States anymore. But he did not run for Congress in the Confederacy either and was pretty disgusted by the whole thing. That wasn’t universal in his family. In fact, his son fought and died in the war for the traitors. So yeah, Hill obviously supported slavery, but he really did not like the treason in defense of it. He had been a big Constitutional Union Party guy in 1860, with John Bell as its presidential candidate. This was a classic attempt by southern moderates to hold off the far right but with a completely milquetoast position that struggled to deal with the growing extremism. Basically, this was a Both Sides Do It thing.

During the war, Hill just went home and became mayor of Madison. He went pretty far in his opposition to the war. That included denouncing secession publicly and attacking Governor Joseph Brown for his actions to promote the treason. Hill faced real consequences for this, including being burned in effigy. He became a peace candidate for governor of Georgia in 1863, but it was more of a protest thing against Brown and he only got 28 percent of the vote.

When Hill went to collect the body of his dead son in 1864, he met with William Tecumseh Sherman, then in Atlanta, and tried to work with the general to get Georgia out of the war peaceably. Sherman was more than interested in this; he would have greatly preferred it. Didn’t work of course. Hill did intervene during the March through Georgia to save Madison, though his own plantation was razed by soldiers who didn’t know who he was and didn’t care either.

When the war ended, it seemed that Hill had a bright future. But that took awhile. First, Andrew Johnson did not name him provisional governor as many expected, instead choosing a personal friend. Then, many thought he might get sent to the Senate. But in the fall of 1865, the state’s legislature went full resistance and sent Alexander Stephens, the freaking VP of the Confederacy, back to the Senate. This led the Senate to reject him and the new southern governments generally, creating the infamous break between Congress and Johnson and eventually leading to the re-occupation of the South during Congressional Reconstruction. By 1868, the legislature was split between trying to send Stephens back yet again and sending Joseph Brown, who by this time had completely converted to the Republican cause. They couldn’t make a decision, so Hill became the compromise choice.

Despite being a moderate, the Senate still refused to seat Hill until 1871. Much of this was because Georgia was pretty much the first state to disfranchise its Black voters and the Senate still cared about that stuff in 1869. By 1871, less so. Hill tried to move in his old moderate space again. He certainly supported the rise of industrial capitalism. That was easy for his Whig ways. Race was harder. Hill was someone who wanted Georgia to essentially acquiesce on the basics of civil rights. He supported Black voting too. But he also supported segregation in all parts of society. This relative moderation was way too supportive of civil rights for Georgia’s white majority. By 1873, Congress had basically given up on defending Black rights in the South, and that included most of the Republicans in there too. So when Georgia suppressed the Black vote and allowed the hardest core white supremacists to take over, Congress did nothing. Georgia then kicked Hill out and replaced him with Confederate hero John Gordon, who was Henry Grady’s boy of the New South.

After this, Hill was basically in political exile. He was at the state’s constitutional convention in 1877, but with Republicans completely isolated, he didn’t have any more major public roles and certainly was not going to win election to public office. So he went back to his plantation–now worked by paid labor, however limited that pay in fact was–and just spent the last couple decades of his life on his investments and his land. He was still pretty rich when he died. That was in 1891. He was 79 years old.

Joshua Hill is buried in Madison Cemetery, Madison, Georgia.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in the 1868-69 cycle, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Hill is buried in Washington D.C., though he was a senator from North Carolina. Same with Thomas Tipton, though he was from Nebraska. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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