“Alabama Founders: Fourteen Political and Military Leaders Who Shaped the State”
Author: Herbert James Lewis
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $39.95 (Cloth)
As the title suggests, these are short, usually ten-page biographies of men—they were in fact all white men—who helped settle this land when it was part of the Mississippi Territory, which had been established in 1798, then fought to have that territory divided into two states and, after Mississippi was admitted, helped guide Alabama’s bid for statehood through the U. S. Congress. Statehood was bestowed on December 14 of 1819.
Herbert James Lewis is well qualified for this task, having published “Clearing the Thickets: A History of Antebellum Alabama” and “Lost Capitals of Alabama.”
The 14 subjects can be roughly grouped, with 5 of them having migrated from Virginia to Georgia near the Broad River and then to Alabama. Many were experienced politicians/legislators, having held high office in Georgia.
This Broad River Group were among the first here, responding to “Alabama Fever,” the prospect of great wealth in buying the newly available fertile lands. Some 22 million acres became available in 1814, after the defeat of the Creek Indians.
Later, in 1830, 11 million acres became available in Mississippi after the defeat of the Choctaws and the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.
These planters had, along with many of their kind, already depleted the land in Virginia through intensive cultivation of tobacco and were doing the same in Georgia. They also favored the slightly milder climate after the rigors of the Georgia up-country.
In Alabama, however, cotton, not tobacco, would be king.
The Broad River Group would be associated with establishing banks and with creating some unusual usury laws. The rate of interest on a loan could be ANYTHING, as long as the contract was in writing. Otherwise, it was to be held to 8 percent.
This group provided Alabama with its first state and national legislators, judges, lawyers, and governors. The names are familiar: Bibb, Pope, Walker, Moore, Clay, Pickens, King—there are counties and of course buildings on the UA campus named in their honor.
The first man covered, Judge Harry Toulmin, may be one of the most admirable. Toulmin had been president of Transylvania Seminary in Kentucky, the first institution of higher education west of the Alleghenies. He helped arrest Aaron Burr, wrote the first Law Digest for Alabama, and advocated humane rights for slaves and the end of the trade.
Leroy Pope got very rich indeed, becoming the richest man in Huntsville with a brick mansion, a four-wheeled carriage, 1,480 acres of land, 18 town lots worth $2,000 each and 104 slaves. During the panic of 1819, when the bank failed to renew loans, the farmers complained. Pope is said to have told the newspaper, “The Huntsville Democrat”: “The country people were a parcel of ignorant animals and not able to determine whether this Bank acted correctly or incorrectly.”
Several of the early 14 fought in the Creek Wars in some capacity—at the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek or Horseshoe Bend or other battles, the most famous fighter being Samuel Dale, the “Daniel Boone of Alabama.” In November of 1813 Dale and two companions in a dugout attacked 11 Creek warriors in their canoe. With one foot in each craft, Dale clubbed two Creeks to death then jumped into the Indians’ canoe, killed two more, finishing by bayoneting the Creek chief. Dale was the first Alabamian to receive a state pension.
Lewis includes parts of a speech, delivered “with a sneer of hatred and defiance” by Creek Chief Tecumseh, which I had never seen before.
“Let the white race perish. They seize your land…they trample on the ashes of your dead! Back whence they came, upon a trail of blood, they must be driven. Burn their dwellings. Destroy their stock! Slay their wives and children! The Red Man owns the country, and the Pale faces must never enjoy it.”
The Creeks did not go gentle into the Oklahoma night.
Although all these men were born elsewhere, even in the state’s earliest days, there was suspicion of Yankees. Henry Hitchcock, an attorney who would be Alabama’s first attorney general and chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, while campaigning to become a delegate to the Alabama constitutional convention, gave the same speech over and over.
Its purpose was: “to convince the people that I am not a monarchist!! … yes, a monarchist--- and the reason was, because I came from the north where all are monarchists.”
If we fast-forward to the years of the civil rights movement, individuals coming to Alabama from the north will be labelled communists.
Lewis, the author, suggests Gabriel Moore “was perhaps the most interesting” of the founders. Moore endured a nasty divorce and then fought a duel with his ex-wife’s brother, but, a staunch Jeffersonian, he overcame scandal, became governor of Alabama, and was elected to the U.S. House and Senate.
Looking back at early state histories, it is always amazing how quickly settlers became the establishment.
I think the title of “most interesting” should go to William Rufus King. King founded Selma, served in the U.S. House and as secretary to the U.S. legation to Russia. As a U.S. senator he roomed for 15 years with senator, later president, James Buchanan, also a bachelor. Their relationship was considered suspicious. Newspapers of the time “speculated as to their relationship.” The postmaster general is said to have called them “Buchanan and wife.” It was rumored that President Jackson called King “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”
Nevertheless, Buchanan became our 15th president and King, reelected steadily, our 13th vice president.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.