Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, an American statesman, born in Essex co., Va., April 21, 1809. He graduated at the university of Virginia, studied law, and commenced practice in 1830. Having served in the Virginia house of delegates, he was in 1837 elected to congress, and in 1839 chosen speaker of the house of representatives. He was defeated in 1843, but reelected in 1845. In 1846 he was chosen senator in congress, taking his seat in December, 1847. In 1849 he was made chairman of the committee on finance, which post he held until the opening of the civil war. In the mean while he bore a large part in the political discussions of the day. In 1860 he was a prominent candidate for the democratic nomination to the presidency, receiving upon several ballots in the convention at Charleston the next highest vote to that for Mr. Douglas. He took a leading part in the secession movement, and according to the original scheme was to have been president of the new government, Jefferson Davis to be commander-in-chief of the army. He was formally expelled from the United States senate in July, 1861. The confederate plan had been changed, Davis having been made president, and Robert Toombs secretary of state.
Toombs was soon superseded by Hunter, and he in a short time by Judah P. Benjamin. Hunter, having been elected senator from Virginia, was classed in the opposition to the administration of Davis. In February, 1865, Hunter, Stephens, and Campbell were appointed peace commissioners to meet President Lincoln and Mr. Seward upon a vessel in Hampton Roads. The conference was futile, Lincoln refusing to treat upon the basis of recognizing the independence of the confederacy. A war meeting was then held in Richmond, over which Hunter presided, and resolutions were passed to the effect that the confederates would never lay down their arms until they should have achieved their independence.
About this time Gen. Lee urged upon the confederate congress the passage of a law authorizing the employment of negroes as soldiers, those thus employed to be made freemen. A bill to this effect was passed in the house of representatives, but was defeated in the senate by a single vote. Mr. Hunter at first voted against it, but having been instructed by the legislature of Virginia to vote for it, he did so, accompanying his vote with an emphatic protest against the passage of the bill, for which he was compelled to vote. He said: "When we left the old government, we thought we had got rid for ever of the slavery agitation. We insisted that congress had no right to interfere with slavery. We contended that whenever the two races were thrown together, one must be master and the other slave. We insisted that slavery was the best and happiest condition of the negro. Now, if we offer slaves their freedom as a boon, we confess that we were insincere and hypocritical. If the negroes are made soldiers, they must be made freemen. If we can make them soldiers, we can make them officers, perhaps to command white men.
If we are right in this measure, we were wrong in denying to the old government the right to interfere with the institution of slavery and to emancipate slaves." After the close of the civil war he was arrested, but was released upon parole, and was in 1867 pardoned by President Johnson. In 1874 he was an unsuccessful candidate before the legislature of Virginia for the office of United States senator.