The Broad River Group is a term coined by historian J. Mills Thornton in his 1978 book Politics and Power in a Slave Society. It refers to an alliance of relatives and friends who dominated Alabama politics in the territorial and early statehood periods. Members of the group, several of whom hailed from an area around the Broad River in north Georgia, helped establish Huntsville and Montgomery as financial and business centers in the state. And the reaction against their use of factional power politics set the tone for Alabama’s future direction in state governance.
John McKinley In 1784, Gen. George Mathews led a large group composed primarily of Revolutionary War veterans to Georgia from the area around Charlottesville, Virginia, to accept an offer of homesteads on state-owned land for persons who would agree to settle there. Mathews and his associates established tobacco plantations on the banks of the Broad River, above the town of Petersburg, just above its confluence with the Savannah River. They married into the families of planters already there and quickly rose to prominence. Mathews was twice governor of Georgia (1787-88 and 1793-96). Other Broad River leaders included U.S. secretary of the treasury William H. Crawford, U.S. senators William Wyatt Bibb and Charles Tait and Georgia governor George R. Gilmer, whose memoir (1855) gives us much of our knowledge about the settlement.
LeRoy Pope With the opening of Alabama to settlement, Broad River residents began migrating to the new lands. The first wave of migration occurred with the federal government’s sale of lands in the area around the future city of Huntsville in 1809. Broad River investors, led by LeRoy Pope, future U.S. senator John W. Walker (Pope’s son-in-law), and future governor Thomas Bibb, bought extensive holdings. Pope laid out the town of Huntsville, which he called Twickenham, established the Planters and Merchants Bank (usually called simply the Huntsville Bank), and became its president. A large majority of the settlers in the area, however, were former Tennesseans, men of modest means, often previously squatters, and they deeply resented the wealthy Georgians. Under the leadership of future governor and senator Gabriel Moore, they organized an effort to seize political control of the new community, initially expressing their hostility by changing the town’s name to Huntsville in honor of John Hunt, the squatter who first built his cabin there. The conflict between the Broad River investors and the Tennessee small farmers defined the politics of the area throughout the Mississippi Territorial Period.
The second wave of Broad River settlement in Alabama came with the opening of the Black Belt region for purchase in 1816, when Broad River investors bought large holdings around the future towns of Montgomery and Cahaba. In the meantime, Sen. William Wyatt Bibb of Georgia, a Broad River resident, had been defeated for re-election, and Pres. James Monroe appointed him governor of the newly created Alabama Territory. Governor Bibb at once threw his considerable political influence behind the effort to attain statehood for Alabama, and that action placed Broad River settlers on the popular side of a significant question for the first time. Candidates allied with them swept to victory in the election of the first Territorial Legislature. And their victory led Sen. Charles Tait of Georgia, Governor Bibb’s former colleague and a fellow Broad River resident, to introduce the bill to make Alabama a state.
Abner Lipscomb Unfortunately for the Broad River alliance, many of its adherents were not as far-sighted as its leader, Governor Bibb. In an effort to distance his faction from the interests of the Huntsville Bank, Bibb vetoed legislation promoted by John W. Walker that would have authorized the bank to establish branches throughout the territory and would have committed Alabama to accepting Huntsville Bank notes for taxes for the foreseeable future. In order to attract capital to the credit-starved territory, however, future Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Abner S. Lipscomb sponsored, and Bibb signed into law, an act legalizing any interest rate agreed upon in a contract. This law would eventually play an important role in destroying the Broad River Group’s fragile new popularity. But for the present, the faction went from strength to strength as it pushed the territory towards admission. Broad River adherents won control of the constitutional convention authorized by Senator Tait’s statehood act. John W. Walker served as the convention’s president, and Broad River allies dominated the Committee of Fifteen that drafted the constitution. The document approved by the convention was the most democratic constitution of any state at the time. But in one of the convention’s principal battles, Broad River delegates insisted upon, and obtained, life terms for judges. In the initial election under the constitution, Bibb handily defeated Tuscaloosa attorney Marmaduke Williams to become Alabama’s first state governor. The new state legislature sent John W. Walker to the U.S. Senate. And Senator Tait resigned his seat, moved to Alabama, and accepted an appointment from President Monroe as Alabama’s first U.S. district judge.
Clement Comer Clay, 1835 Despite these and other early successes, the Panic of 1819 (which coincided with Alabama’s admission to the Union), and the subsequent deep economic depression, doomed Broad River political power. The repeal of usury limitations had sent interest rates soaring. And in June 1820, Pope’s Huntsville Bank, whose notes provided essentially the entire currency in the northern half of the state, was compelled to suspend redemption of its paper notes in specie (the gold and silver coin that the paper notes were meant to represent). Together, the so-called Big Interest contracts and the Huntsville Bank’s suspension of specie payment formed the raw material from which anti-Broad River politicians could build a popular crusade. Governor Bibb died in July 1820, from injuries sustained when he was thrown from a horse. His brother Thomas, the president of the state Senate, succeeded him in the governor’s office but was by no means his equal as a political leader.
By this time, politicians who had allied themselves with the Broad River Group, such as Israel Pickens, John McKinley and Clement Comer Clay, were scrambling to dissociate themselves from it. Pickens entered the gubernatorial election in 1821 against the Broad River candidate, Dr. Henry Chambers of Huntsville. Pickens vigorously associated himself with the opponents of the Huntsville Bank, led by Gabriel Moore and William Kelly, and he won with 57 percent of the vote. Friends of the bank managed to drive through the legislature a bill that would have given the bank control of a new state-backed institution. Gabriel Moore Pickens vetoed the bill, and his veto was sustained by a single vote in the state House of Representatives. Pickens thereupon appointed Kelly as a special state counsel to bring suit for the forfeiture of the Huntsville Bank’s charter. The attack on the bank proved enormously popular. Pickens’s allies captured control of the legislature in 1822; Kelly was elected to the U.S. Senate to succeed Walker; and Pickens was elected to a second term as governor by an even larger margin, again over Chambers, in 1823. Pickens and the legislature then sought to replace privately owned banks altogether with a single, entirely state-owned organization, the Bank of Alabama. Banks, the governor proclaimed, “must at this day be viewed as public state institutions, rather than associations for private enterprize.” When the state supreme court ruled that the statute of limitations precluded the recovery of interest illegally collected under the Big Interest contracts, Kelly, now a state legislator, induced the state House of Representatives to impeach several of the justices. And though the state Senate refused to convict them, Kelly’s followers did succeed in amending the state constitution to limit the terms of judges to six years.
These events forced the members of the Broad River Group to retreat from politics and focus their energies on building up their economic power. Broad River capital continued to play an important role in the development of the state throughout the antebellum period. Charles T. Pollard, who had married into the Broad River Group, was largely responsible for the construction of Alabama’s antebellum railroad network. Broad River investors created the extensive textile manufacturing complex at Tallassee. And they were among the earliest promoters of the development of the mineral resources around the future city of Birmingham. But it was their brief initial foray into politics that most shaped the state’s history. The Broad River Group’s enemies achieved political dominance by portraying themselves as champions of democracy and depicting the Broad River settlers as the embodiment of aristocratic despotism. Out of these elections emerged an antebellum political culture that focused yeoman farmer hostility upon planters and capitalists. This populist political style would prove an enduring legacy that would far outlast the antebellum years.
- Abernethy, Thomas Perkins. The Formative Period in Alabama, 1815-1828. 1922. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1965.
- Bailey, Hugh C. John Williams Walker: A Study in the Political, Social and Cultural Life of the Old Southwest. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1964.
- Coulter, E. Merton. Old Petersburg and the Broad River Valley of Georgia: Their Rise and Decline. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1965.
- Thornton, J. Mills, III. Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.