November 3, 2012 8:54:14 PM
As we near the end of the long slog of another presidential campaign, the mind drifts back to colorful politicians of eras past.
The South has always been blessed or, depending on your point of view, cursed with colorful politicians. We have without a doubt had more than our fair share of politicians who appealed more to emotion than logic. Least we think that politics today includes horrible name calling, we only need to remember Mississippi's Theodore G Bilbo. In a campaign for governor Bilbo once referred to his opposing office seeker as "a vicious, malicious, deliberate, cowardly, pusillanimous, cold-blooded, lop-eared, blue-nosed, premeditated and self-made liar." And we think it's bad today.
For the old foot-in-the-mouth, it would be hard to top the comments of a certain mouth-in-motion-brain-not-in-gear Texas state representative. During the 1920s there was a move in Texas to abolish execution by public hanging. One Texas politician has long been quoted for his speech in the legislature in opposition to eliminating the spectacle of public hangings. He is said to have concluded his speech by saying; "I don't know what you think about it, but as for me, hanging was good enough for my father and it's good enough for me."
Columbus has had its fair share of interesting political figures. Probably the first was William Cocke. Cocke, who moved to Columbus around 1819 had a political career of legendary proportions. During the American Revolution he represented Washington County in the Virginia Assembly and the North Carolina House of Burgesses at the same time. He moved to Tennessee and became one of the state's first two U. S. senators. He and Andrew Jackson were at various times close political allies and bitter enemies. On one occasion they were about to fight a dual when mutual friends intervened and stopped the potentially bloody affair. In 1821 Cocke was elected the first president of the Trustees of Franklin Academy which was the original governing body of Columbus, as the town turned out to have been built on 16th Section school lands.
There is another political figure from Columbus, who though little known now, had a most interesting political life. He was Hendley S. Bennett. Bennett was a lawyer, judge and U. S. Congressman from Columbus but is often listed as being from Grenada.
Bennett was born in 1807 near Franklin, Tenn., and moved to Kentucky where he studied law. In 1830 he passed the Kentucky Bar and moved to Columbus to open a law practice. When he arrived in Columbus he owned no real property and rented a house at the corner of Franklin (Third) and Washington (College) Streets. He established a reputation as an excellent attorney and in 1838 he was elected circuit judge.
The official U. S. Congress biography of Bennett even says he attended the public schools in West Point. I find that most interesting as it has him attending school in West Point while that location was still part of the Chickasaw Nation and about 35 years before the town was even founded.
Bennett did play a role in the development of what became Clay County, though, for in 1848 he invested in the new Town of Barton on the west side of the Tombigbee between present day West Point and Columbus Air Force Base. Barton rapidly declined after the opening of the Mobile and Ohio railroad to West Point in 1857.
In 1855 Columbus was in the Third Congressional District and represented by the popular William Barksdale. The congressional race of 1855 took a strange turn. Barksdale ran for re-election from Columbus and Bennett who had been living in Lowndes County since 1830 shows up running for Congress from Grenada in the Second Congressional District. He was running as a Democrat against a candidate from the "Know Nothing" Party. Bennett won the election for a two-year term.
When Bennett ran for re-election in 1857, popular Aberdeen attorney Reuben Davis ran against Bennett claiming that Bennett had double-crossed him in political matters. Davis defeated Bennett and Bennett shows back up in Columbus practicing law. In 1859 Bennett moved to Texas where continued his practice. He retired to Franklin, Tenn., in 1886 where he died in 1891.
If you think about it, politics really has not changed all that much.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.