Thomas Clingman (1812 – 1897)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Thomas Lanier Clingman was born in Huntsville, North Carolina, on July 27, 1812 and passed away in Burke County on November 3, 1897. A Democrat, Clingman served in the United States Senate from 1858 until 1861, and he was a leader of the secession movement in North Carolina before the start of the Civil War.

Clingman graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1832, studied law with William Alexander Graham for a few years, and opened a law practice in his native region in 1834. A year later, Thomas became a House of Commons representative for Surry County. Clingman lost his reelection bid and he moved to Buncombe County in 1836. Four years later, Clingman was elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1840, later to leave office to serve in the United States Congress.

Congressman Clingman served in the House of Representatives from 1842 until 1858, but in the 1845 and 1847 terms, Clingman did not hold office. In 1847, a disgruntled Clingman decided to switch parties, and in 1854, he finally decided become a Democrat when he backed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Senator Asa Biggs resigned his Senate seat in the late 1850s, and Clingman was appointed to replace Biggs in 1858.

During his time in the Senate, Clingman sponsored secession and the state right to slavery. Despite the North Carolina Senator’s staunch views on slavery, Clingman was the last to leave the Union Senate in 1861. Clingman became a commissioner at the Confederate capital in Montgomery, Alabama, after North Carolina left the Union. However, Thomas Clingman eventually became a colonel of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, but his military ventures were unremarkable.

An interesting debate involving Congressman Clingman about North Carolina’s highest mountain developed in the 1850s. Clingman debated his former professor, Elisha Mitchell, on the location of the highest point in the North Carolina Black Mountains. Clingman believed Mitchell was wrong in his calculations, but in 1857, Professor Mitchell died after falling from Mount Mitchell. After Mitchell’s death, the debate faded away.

Clingman is buried in the popular Riverside Cemetery that also contains the remains of Zebulon Vance, Thomas Wolfe, and other notable North Carolinians. Clingman’s Dome, the second highest peak in North Carolina, is named in the Senator’s honor.