Alabama Territorial Legislature

Mississippi Territory The Alabama Legislature, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, dates its origins to the General Assembly of the Mississippi Territory, which controlled the area that now encompasses Alabama from 1798 to 1817. The early sessions of the Alabama body were largely focused on creating counties out of wilderness and land taken from Native American peoples and establishing seats of government, court systems, and electoral procedures. In addition, early lawmakers authorized land sales, the construction of bridges, and the creation of banks. They also worked to ensure that the territory would attract the necessary population to become a state and even granted divorces through passing legislative acts. In these early sessions of the legislature, a political split emerged between wealthy Georgians known as the “Broad River Group” and commoners, informally and occasionally known as the “People’s Party,” that would become important in the early years of the state.

William Wyatt Bibb, 1819 On March 3, 1817, the Alabama Territory was created from the eastern half of the Mississippi Territory by an act of the U.S. Congress at the behest of southern legislators, such as Georgia senator Charles Tait, who wanted to create two new slave states rather than one. (Mississippi had been granted authority to create its own state government on March 1.) In addition, residents of the eastern half, mostly along the Tombigbee River at the time, were pushing for a division. They thought they were too far from the seat of government in Natchez and the protections offered by the Mississippi territorial militia there, especially after the massacre at Fort Mims in present-day Baldwin County. As provided in the enacting legislation, the Alabama Territory was to adhere to the laws of the Mississippi Territory until new ones were adopted by the newly established General Assembly of the Alabama Territory, with William Wyatt Bibb being named first territorial governor by Pres. James Monroe. The assembly met twice in the Douglas Hotel in St. Stephens, present-day Washington County, then the temporary seat of government.

The Territorial Legislative Sessions

At its first session, from January 19 to February 14, 1818, the House of Representatives comprised 13 members representing seven counties: Baldwin, Clarke, Madison, Mobile, Monroe, Montgomery, and Washington. Politician and planter Gabriel Moore served as speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Legislative Council (as the Senate was known at the time) consisted of one lone member, James Titus of Madison County. The council was to have had three members, but Robert Beatty resigned and Joseph Carson died. Titus had been the last president of the Legislative Council of the Mississippi Territory and was the only holdover from that body. He would serve as the president and perform all the duties of the Senate, with the aid of a secretary and a doorkeeper.

The territorial legislature formed a commission to report on a suitable location for a permanent capital (an important economic boon to the chosen location) and on a census to establish the size of the population to determine whether the territory met the threshold for statehood, set at 60,000 free inhabitants by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It established the Northern, Middle, and Southern judicial districts and appointed an attorney general for each. Among other acts, it also added 13 or so new counties to the existing counties, and redrew county boundaries. At St. Stephens, the lawmakers established a bank and an academy and incorporated a steamboat company. The legislature also elected Indian Agent John Crowell as the state representative to the U.S. Congress.

The members also authorized the territory to purchase two-thirds of the Planters and Merchants Bank of Huntsville, run by the Broad River Group, or “Royal Party.” The measure was vetoed by Gov. Bibb (the first in the state’s history and despite the fact that Bibb was allied with the Georgians) because he feared the territory would not have control over the bank. Legislators overrode Bibb’s veto, however. A related act repealed a Mississippi law against usury (charging high interest for loans) and legalized any interest rate agreed to in a contract. It was likewise supported by the Georgians but was later repealed under pressure from the public. These bills are notable because they demonstrate the split between wealthy landowners and the common people.

State Capitol at Cahaba The Territorial Legislature’s second and last session was held from November 2 through November 21, 1818, with 16 or so counties represented by 20 individuals on the first day. Titus remained president of the Senate and the House elected John Williams Walker as the speaker. The assembly apportioned representatives for the existing counties and revised boundaries. It also incorporated several towns and petitioned Congress to apportion representation for the first constitutional convention on the basis of the white population in preparation for statehood. It also directed Bibb to lay out the seat of government at Cahaba (Cahawba), in present-day Dallas County, as the state capital. He would oversee a survey of the town, display maps to the public, and provide for the sale of lands to generate funds with which to build a capitol. The commission had previously recommended locating the capital in the Warrior-Tombigbee River basin at Tuscaloosa because it was convenient to the populous Tennessee Valley. Bibb, however, was able to steer the location close to his new plantation, as well as those of other Cahaba-Alabama river basin land holders from Georgia, by gaining a free land grant from the federal government at Cahaba and then pushing the change through the legislature.

The 1819 Constitutional Convention

Constitution Hall in Huntsville By early 1819, Alabama had double the required 60,000 free residents for statehood. Walker and Titus petitioned Congress to grant statehood, and Walker petitioned his friend Charles Tait to steer through Congress Alabama’s admission to the Union. (Tait would later move to Alabama and become its first federal district judge and a large landholder.) Pres. James Monroe signed an act on March 2, 1819, to enable the people of the territory to form a constitution and state government to petition for Alabama’s admission as a state. In May, 44 delegates were elected from 22 counties for a constitutional convention that was held from July 5 through August 2 in Huntsville, Madison County. Walker presided over the convention, which was dominated by the 28 delegates from north Alabama, compared to the 16 representing south Alabama. The convention unanimously adopted the constitution on July 30, but it was not formally signed until August 2nd.

Alabama’s 1819 Constitution There were, however, divisions between the representatives from the two regions. One notable debate concerned the apportionment of representation in the legislature. Delegates from the counties in the south, with a high proportion of enslaved peoples, lobbied to have five slaves equal three white men (the federal three-fifths rule), but they were defeated in favor of representation based on the white population alone. Regarding the apportionment of state senators, south Alabama legislators wanted each county to have a senator, regardless of population. The delegates of more populous north Alabama, however, wanted and won representation based on the white population, as for the House. One temporary concession to the southern delegates was to have future legislative sessions held at Cahawba until 1825, with that town becoming the permanent capitol if the government was still based there. Despite limiting suffrage to white males, Alabama’s 1819 constitution was considered liberal for the time because it did not restrict voting rights and office holding to just property holders, taxpayers, or members of the state militia and for providing some minimal protections to enslaved people. The document was not submitted to the people for ratification but rather was proclaimed to have taken effect on the day the convention adjourned, August 2, 1819. Each delegate received a copy, and 1,000 more were distributed among the counties.

Closing in on Statehood

Thomas Bibb In September 1819, the results of a general election named William Wyatt Bibb governor over Marmaduke Williams of Tuscaloosa and selected 45 members to the state House of Representatives and 22 members to the Senate. Also elected at the time were Alabama’s senators and representatives to the U.S. Congress. Until the Seventeenth Amendment became law in 1913, the legislature elected U.S. senators. The legislature also elected state court clerks and sheriffs. On the verge of statehood, the first annual legislative session ran from October 25 through December 17 in Huntsville, the temporary seat of government. The General Assembly (encompassing both legislative bodies) elected James Dellet, a Whig from Monroe County, as the first speaker of the House and Thomas Bibb (William Wyatt Bibb’s brother), of Limestone County, as the first president of the Senate. In addition, the legislature created five judicial circuit courts and the state’s legal system; the legislature was tasked in the constitution with electing judges. The body continued to perform the important tasks of creating a state, such as again settling county boundaries, providing for the sale of land and town lots, incorporating towns and establishing county seats, creating roads, prescribing duties for public officials, and regulating elections. In addition, the legislature directed four counties encompassing lands belonging to the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws to impose the laws of the state on those populations. Also, the assembly created a state militia to augment existing local militias.

Pres. Monroe signed into law a resolution admitting Alabama into the Union on December 14, 1819, now known in the state as “Alabama Day.” The next annual session of the legislature was held in Cahawba from November 6 through December 21, 1820, with George W. Owen of Monroe County as speaker and Gabriel Moore as president of the Senate. The General Assembly then enacted several pieces of legislation, including setting dates when circuit and county courts and the Supreme Court were to convene and establishing the University of Alabama. Other notable actions included establishing a state bank at Cahawba, formalizing additional county seats, and again altering county boundaries.

Historians note that the work of the 1819 Alabama Legislature would dominate the state government for some time thereafter, wielding more power than the governor. For example, the legislature controlled the appointment of officials, including the secretary of state, state treasurer, members of the Supreme Court, and circuit judges. This structure reflected the tone of American politics in the decades after the American Revolution, with citizens still suspicious of centralized authority. Only later did the governor begin to assume some of the powers held by legislators.

The Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park and Museum complex preserves and interprets the site of the original meeting and features a replica of Constitution Hall. It consists of 16 structures that represent the years 1805 to 1819, showcasing five major structures.

Further Reading

  • Abernethy, Thomas P. The Formative Period in Alabama, 1815-1828. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
  • Brantley, William H. Three Capitals: A Book About the First Three Capitals of Alabama, St. Stephens, Huntsville, & Cahawba, 1818-1826. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1947.
  • 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): 263-285.
  • McMillan, Malcolm Cook. The Land Called Alabama. Austin, Tx.: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1975.

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