James Dellet (1788-1848) was an influential lawyer, politician, and planter in early Alabama. He had the distinction of serving as the state's first Speaker of the House of Representatives when he was elected to represent Monroe County in the inaugural session of the state's legislature in 1819. Dellet served four terms in the state legislature between 1819 and 1832 and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1838 until 1845.
Born in Camden, New Jersey, on February 18, 1788, Dellet moved with his family to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1800. He graduated from the South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) with honors in 1810. Among his classmates were future Alabama governors John Murphy and John Gayle; Dellet and Murphy would later vie against each other for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Upon graduation from college, Dellet studied law and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1813. Thereafter, he practiced law and served in the South Carolina judicial system.
In 1818, Dellet moved to Claiborne in Monroe County, Alabama, where he resumed his law practice and served briefly as a circuit judge. He was elected to represent Monroe County in the state's first legislature when Alabama became a state in 1819 and was selected by his colleagues to become Alabama's first Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1821, Dellet was reelected and again chosen as Speaker of the House. He served two additional terms in the state legislature from 1825 to 1826 and from 1830 to 1832. During his tenure, Dellet served on the House Judiciary Committee and was one of the leaders of the so-called Alabama-Cahaba River Basins Group, a group of representatives from counties within the Alabama or Cahaba River basins who favored keeping the capital in Cahaba or somewhere else in the central part of the state. Despite this group's efforts, the legislature voted to move the capital from Cahaba to Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, in 1826.
During, and in between, his various terms in the legislature, Dellet maintained his practice of law in Claiborne. As a prominent citizen of Claiborne, Dellet was chosen as one of the commissioners to approve the bonds of the town's first municipal officers when the town was first incorporated. He was also in charge of the town's welcoming festivities when Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette stopped briefly in Claiborne en route to Mobile during his celebrated visit to Alabama in 1825.
Dellet's elevated status in the community drew several young men to seek apprenticeships with him. William Barret Travis, also a transplant from South Carolina, apprenticed with Dellet in 1828 and then practiced law and published the weekly Claiborne Herald. Mounting personal problems and debts led Travis to abandon his family for Texas, where he practiced law and then served as a lieutenant colonel in the army of the Republic of Texas, dying in 1836 alongside legendary figures Jim Bowie and David Crockett at the Alamo. More successful was Benjamin Faneuil Porter, also a South Carolinian, who apprenticed with Dellet and went on to become a county judge and state legislator and reform advocate in Alabama.
Fiercely opposed to candidate Andrew Jackson, Dellet supported John Quincy Adams for the presidency in 1828. He ran as a Whig for Congress in 1833 but was defeated by his former South Carolina College classmate and former Alabama governor, John Murphy. Dellet built a large plantation home, known as Dellet Park, in Claiborne between 1835 and 1845. (The home, numerous outbuildings, and 4,000 acres of surrounding lands are on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.) In 1839, Dellet ousted Murphy from his congressional seat, serving from March 4 of that year to March 3, 1841. He skipped a term before seeking election again in 1842, this time defeating Henry Goldthwaite, who had been persuaded to resign his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court to oppose him. Dellet's second term ran from March 4, 1843, to March 3, 1845. As a Whig, Dellet generally supported progressive economic principles, including a tariff designed to protect and promote American industry, a national bank to facilitate commerce, and financial support for roads, canals, and other internal improvements. Admired for his intellect, Dellet gave many eloquent speeches during his service in Congress in support of Whig causes, including an impassioned declaration of support for William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate for president in 1840 who defeated Martin Van Buren in his bid for reelection. Dellet grew increasingly wealthy during his years in Congress: The 1830 Federal Census records his ownership of 53 slaves, but by 1840 that number had increased to 132.
After retiring from Congress in 1845 due to declining health, Dellet returned to his plantation in Claiborne. There, he resumed
his law practice, engaged in agricultural pursuits, and speculated in land. Dellet was married twice first to Harriet Willison of South Carolina and then to Mary Wormley
of Tennessee, with whom he had one child, Emma, who married Lyman Gibbon, an associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court,
in 1853. Dellet died on December 21, 1848, in Claiborne and is interred in a family cemetery located within Dellet Park.
Paul M. Pruitt, Jr. Taming Alabama: Lawyers and Reformers, 1804-1929. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.
William Garrett. Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama. 1872. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: The Reprint Company Publishers, 1975, pp. 325-26.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published January 31, 2012
Last updated March 12, 2012