Alabama Constitution of 1875
The Alabama Constitution of 1875 was framed by a coalition of southern Democrats who sought to shrink the size of government, decrease taxes, cut funding for state programs, including education, abolish the position of lieutenant governor, bring labor under state control, centralize power, and decrease the political power of African Americans. It also sought to roll back some of the more racially progressive elements of the 1868 “Reconstruction” Constitution and restore pre-war white political and social supremacy. Its passage marked the transition from Republican oversight to Democratic ascendency and the virtual end of Congressional Reconstruction in Alabama. The fifth of six state constitutions written for the state of Alabama, the 1875 Constitution was eventually replaced by the Alabama Constitution of 1901, which further eroded the political power and voting rights of African Americans and poor whites.
After almost a decade of Republican rule, Democrats, in an election marked by fraud, intimidation, and violence, swept the 1874 contest to regain control of the state’s two legislative houses and the governorship. Newly elected governor George Smith Houston and his fellow Democrats were part of a political coalition of “Bourbon-Redeemers” who sought to end Congressional Reconstruction, restore pre-war white supremacy, and limit the size of government, increase centralized power, decrease the political power of African Americans, and create a “New South” in which business and industry would flourish. Democrats resorted to race baiting by urging white Alabamians to put aside their class differences to “redeem” the state from the racially integrated Republican Party as well as the Alabama Constitution of 1868. That document embodied Republican ideals of racial integration, broad political power for poor whites and African Americans including voting rights, government-funded education, and government investments in internal improvements. After the election, Democratic leaders made the creation of a “home rule” constitution a major priority, and they quickly called for a new constitutional convention.
On September 6, 1875, a new constitutional convention convened that was presided over by former Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker. More than half of delegates to the new convention were lawyers, 80 were white Democrats, 12 were Republicans—including three African Americans—and seven were independents. Others, like Walker, were veterans of the Confederacy, including John W. Inzer, Rufus W. Cobb, Thomas H. Herndon, William C. Oates, James Pugh, Edward O’Neal, and William J. Samford. Francis Strother Lyon, who served two terms in the Confederate Congress, drafted much of the document. Not a single member of the 1867 Constitutional Convention was present at the 1875 convention, such was the extensive defeat of Republicanism in Alabama.
The 1875 Constitution, defined in 17 articles, lowered taxes to appeal to agricultural and industrial interests later known as the Black Belt-Big Mule coalition. It abolished the state Board of Education, cut state funds for education, segregated schools, and placed present-day Auburn University and the University of Alabama under a board of trustees appointed by the governor with the consent of the senate. Delegates instituted and limited a property tax and a reduction after five years and reduced the salary of public officers. It also constrained the political power of African Americans and poor whites through the appointed power to levy a poll tax that was implemented in 1868 to support local education. They also decreased the amount of time that the legislature would meet by shifting to biennial sessions that would last no more than 60 days. The convention sought to centralize power by limiting the powers of taxation by local governments, thus reducing funds for schools and other state services. The convention did not attempt to overtly disenfranchise African Americans or write white supremacy into law. Alabama Democrats feared that doing so would provoke Congressional Republicans to send federal troops to the state or limit Congressional representation. The new constitution did remove the declaration from the 1868 Constitution that mirrored the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” replacing it with the declaration that “all men are equally free and independent.”
Like the previous Constitutions, the 1875 document included a declaration of rights that mirrored U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a trial by jury, the right to legal counsel, the right of assembly, and the right to bear arms. The Constitution also prohibited the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, outlawed slavery, protected suffrage for African Americans and poor whites, removed educational and property qualifications for suffrage, and prohibited secession from the Union.
Like its predecessors, the new constitution provided for three branches of government—Legislative, Judicial, and Executive—but abolished the position of lieutenant governor. It was later resurrected in the 1901 Constitution. The Legislative Branch consisted of a Senate and House of Representatives with a cap of 33 Senators and not more than 100 members in the House of Representatives. Senators would serve either two- or four-year terms and members of the House of Representatives served two-year terms. The Executive Branch consisted of a governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, and attorney general who served two-year terms as well as a superintendent of education and a sheriff for each county—all of whom were elected by the citizens of Alabama. The Judicial Branch consisted of a Supreme Court, circuit courts, chancery courts, and courts of probate, as well as inferior courts.
Unlike the constitutions of 1819 and 1861, the Alabama Constitution of 1875 was submitted to voters, and they overwhelmingly ratified the new constitution by a wide margin, some 85,000 to 29,000, on November 16, 1875. The passage of the new constitution signaled the return to power of white Democrats and the beginning of the end of Congressional Reconstruction in the state. Over the following decades, restoring white supremacy, defeating Populism, and promoting large-scale agricultural and industrial interests would become the focus of Alabama’s Democrats, eventually culminating in the passage of the sixth state constitution, the Alabama Constitution of 1901.
Bridges, Edwin C. Alabama: The Making of an American State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 2016.
Going, Allen. Bourbon Democracy in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1951.
Rogers, William W., et al. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State Bicentennial Edition. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018.