Constitution Hall in Huntsville The Alabama Constitution of 1819 was the first of six state constitutions that defined the political, social, and economic landscape of Alabama. Composed by a convention of delegates in Huntsville, Madison County, from July 5 until August 2, 1819, it became the transitional constitution as Alabama moved from a territory to a state. It created a system of government similar to the federal government with three branches including the executive, judicial, and legislative branches, provided for a Bill of Rights similar to those in the U.S. Constitution, promoted education, protected the institution of slavery, and also provided for the right to a trial by jury for enslaved African Americans.
The document was progressive for its time as it removed the educational and property-holding requirements for white male voters as in many other states. Furthermore, it did not restrict the holding of political offices to property owners, taxpayers, or members of the state militia and allowed voters to directly vote on members of the state House and Senate as well as the governor and amendments. It would be replaced by the 1861 Alabama Constitution, which took the state out of the Union before the American Civil War.
Overall, the constitution established a governmental system consisting of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The first two articles consisted of a declaration of rights and distribution of powers, respectively. In Article III, it established a bicameral legislature of popularly elected members of the House of Representatives and Senate and protected universal suffrage for all white males 21 years and older who had been in the state for more than one year. It established an executive branch led by a popularly elected governor in Article IV and an independent judiciary system in Article V. In Article VI, General Provisions, it protected the institution of slavery and prevented the legislative emancipation of slaves, endorsed education, and created a framework for creating one state bank and branches.
On March 3, 1817, after years of pressure from white southerners who sought to create another slave state and further empower the South, the U.S. Congress carved the Alabama Territory out of the larger Mississippi Territory. This new territory was made up mainly of Native Americans and white pioneer settlers from North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. Pres. James Monroe appointed former U.S. senator from Georgia William Wyatt Bibb as the territory’s first governor, and a new provisional government was soon formed. By the fall of 1818, the influx of settlers and their slaves to the new territory met the numerical threshold for statehood. Soon thereafter, John Williams Walker, Speaker of Alabama Territory’s House of Representatives, drew up a petition for statehood that was sent to the U.S. Senate for approval. On March 2, 1819, Pres. James Monroe signed the act authorizing the people of the Alabama territory to begin to form a state constitution and corresponding system of government.
On July 5, 1819, 44 delegates from the Alabama Territory, including lawyers, physicians, ministers, planters, farmers, a surveyor, and a merchant, formed a convention to draw up and vote on a new constitution in Walker Allen’s cabinet shop in Huntsville. John Williams Walker was unanimously elected as the president of the convention and future U.S. Treasurer John Campbell served as its secretary. A duly appointed Committee of Fifteen chaired by Clement Comer Clay was tasked with drawing up the new constitution and was modeled largely after the constitution of Mississippi which was modeled after the U.S. Constitution. The convention’s draft was written on 26 individual sheets of parchment that were attached to each other by grosgrain silk ribbon and sealing wax for a length of almost 31 feet. It was unanimously adopted on July 30 and officially went into effect by the close of the convention on August 2, 1819.
The 1819 Constitution created a system of government like the federal government by distributing power across three branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Like the federal system, the state legislature was more powerful than the other branches of government. The legislative branch included a bicameral legislature consisting of a state Senate and House of Representatives, collectively known as the General Assembly. State senators were divided into three classes, with the first class vacating their seats after one year, the second after two years, and the third class at the end of the third year. Representatives were elected for one-year terms and both senators and representatives were elected by popular vote. Under the 1819 Constitution, the governor could be overridden by a majority vote of the General Assembly, which also held the power to vote in members of the executive and judicial branches. This process would change years later when the Jacksonian movement transferred the right to select state officials from the legislature to the voters. The governor served a two-year term and was limited to only two full terms in office.
The 1819 Constitution guaranteed protection for the institution of slavery and blocked the power of the General Assembly to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners. Unlike some other slave states, slaves were granted a trial by jury in cases more serious than petty larceny. If a slave was personally injured, the offending party would be punished as if the offended party was a white male. The constitution also provided for the creation of educational institutions, rejected imprisonment for debt, and provided for the protection of freedom of religion, the rights of conscience, separation between church and state, the right to bear arms, the right to a speedy public trial, and the abolishment of a standing army without consent from the General Assembly. The document also allowed citizens to vote on amendments, making it one of the first states in the country to give the people direct participation in constitutional lawmaking.
In September 1819, the first general election of Alabama was held in preparation for its upcoming admission to the Union and William Wyatt Bibb was elected as the first state governor. The newly elected Alabama General Assembly met in Huntsville on October 25, 1819, electing William Rufus King and John Williams Walker as the state’s first U.S. senators. On December 14, 1819, Pres. James Monroe signed a congressional resolution admitting Alabama as the 22nd state in the Union.
In 1820, after Governor Bibb died in office following a riding accident, his brother Thomas Bibb took over until the general election of 1821. On June 4, 1821, the first called session of the General Assembly of the state of Alabama convened. The document was later amended three times. In 1830, the legislature removed lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices in favor of six-year terms. In 1846, an amendment approved by the people and the legislature authorized two-year terms for Representatives instead of one year and moved the State Capitol from Cahaba, Dallas County, to Montgomery. In 1850, an amendment revised the timeline for state censuses, provided Senators four-year terms, and authorized popular elections for circuit and county judges.
The 1819 Constitution remained in place until 1861 when a new constitution was written which took Alabama out of the Union just before the outbreak of the American Civil War. The 1819 Constitution would serve as the first of six constitutions written for the State of Alabama over its two centuries of existence. The convention is commemorated at Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park and Museum, a living-history complex in downtown Huntsville.
Abernethy, Thomas P. The Formative Period in Alabama, 1815-1828. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
Bridges, Edwin C. Alabama: The Making of an American State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016.
Lewis, Herbert James. Clearing the Thickets: A History of Antebellum Alabama. New Orleans, La.: Quid Pro Books, 2013.
McMillan, Malcolm Cook. “The Alabama Constitution of 1819: A Study of Constitution Making on the Frontier.” Alabama Review 3 (October 1950): 263-85.
Rogers, William W., et al. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State Bicentennial Edition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018.