Meet Henry Foote, the man who — one gun duel and fistfight at a time — shows that politics today aren’t as divisive, dangerous or downright violent as they could be.
Foote, a former governor, U.S. senator and a player in the Civil War, is the subject of a new biography from Ben Wynne, a professor of history at the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus.
The book is titled, “The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis,” a title that befits the man whom the book is about.
“(Foote) pulled a gun on somebody on the floor of the U.S. Senate — he pulled a gun on another senator — and then he got in this famous fistfight with Jefferson Davis,” Wynne told The Times in November. “I mean, what’s not to like about all of that? He was either a genius or a fool depending on who you talk to.”
Wynne discovered Foote while researching his doctoral dissertation and discovered that, while he’s mentioned in just about every biography of his contemporaries from the 19th century, no one had published a biography on Foote himself.
“He was a governor of Mississippi, a senator from Mississippi; he was in Texas right after the Texas revolution; he was out in California right after the Gold Rush; he ended up representing Tennessee in the Confederate Congress,” Wynne said. “I mean, he was everywhere.”
Foote was a political hothead who fought in five duels — all of them over politics — and was involved in “innumerable fistfights,” Wynne said. He was a bitter enemy of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, and a Southern Unionist before the war began.
But Foote was a kind of dual traitor, first betraying the United States with Southern secession. Originally a Unionist, he signed on to the movement after the Southern states voted to secede.
“He had to jump on the bandwagon to save himself politically,” Wynne said.
His second betrayal was of the Confederacy itself, when Foote attempted to cross into Union territory to broker a peace between the two sides.
“Henry Foote, toward the end of the Civil War, for some reason decided that he would negotiate a peace settlement with the Union — he alone would do that — and he makes an unauthorized trip to Washington, D.C., to try to meet with federal authorities there. He was arrested immediately and sent back to the Confederacy.”
Though violent, Foote was an intelligent man and could quote Greek and Latin classical authors and debate with the best of his political class in the 1800s.
“He was just a wild character,” Wynne said.
Foote was born in Virginia in 1804 but is mostly associated with Mississippi. He died in 1880 in Nashville, Tennessee.
“The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis” is Wynne’s fourth book. The UNG professor has written on both history and music, and his next book will explore the musical past of Macon.
You can find Wynne’s latest work on Amazon, and it can be ordered by most book sellers if not carried in the store.
Wynne has taught at UNG for 14 years and is originally from Florence, Mississippi.