by Larry Upthegrove
Hill began his political career in 1851, being elected to the State Legislature of Georgia as a member of the Whig Party. As his political stature grew, he became widely known as a debater and orator of great skill. Always fiery in speech, Hill’s criticisms of Alexander Stephens about the Compromise of 1850 led to Stephens publicly challenging him to a duel. However, as time progressed he and Stephens would become allies of a sort, with Hill becoming the most respected of Georgians to speak against seceding from the Union.
In 1857, Hill ran for governor of Georgia against the Democratic nominee Joseph E. Brown, who was elected to his first term and would become the wartime governor. In 1859, Hill was elected to the state senate as a Unionist, and the next year he was an elector for John Bell and the Unionist Party.
On January 16, 1861, Hill was the only non-Democratic member of the Georgia Secession Convention, where both he and Alexander Stephens spoke strongly against pulling out of the Union. Hill felt that the surest road to ending slavery would be secession, but he also felt that the South should prepare for secession and war, if it should become necessary.
When the Confederate government was formed, the Georgia legislature elected Hill to the Confederate States Senate, an office he held throughout the length of its existence. During that time Hill became a close ally of Jefferson Davis and remained a political enemy of Brown. At the end of the war in 1865, Hill was arrested as a Confederate official and confined in Fort Lafayette for three months.
After the war, Hill became a Democrat and strong spokesman for the New South. In a series of speeches, he passionately spoke out against the punitive legislations of the Radical Republicans and the Reconstruction Acts. Crowds would flood into venues to hear Hill, and he was renowned as a great orator of his times.
In 1875 Hill was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives and served for two years. Just as Reconstruction was ending, the state legislature elected him to represent the State of Georgia in the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death on August 16, 1882.
Hill retired permanently and passively into the earth beneath the soil of Historic Oakland Cemetery. Suffering from tongue cancer and too feeble to speak, once the greatest of orators penned the words now on his stone:
“If a grain of corn will die, and then rise again in so much beauty, why may not I die, and then rise again in fertile beauty and life. How is the last a greater mystery than the first, and by as much as I exceed the grain of corn in this life, why may not I exceed it in the new life.
How can we limit the power of Him, who made the grain of corn, then made the same grain arise in such wondrous newness of life!”