Francis Strother Lyon

Francis Strother Lyon Francis Strother Lyon (1800-1882) was a two-term congressman who represented Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District from 1835 to 1839. In addition, Lyon held numerous other posts in Alabama politics, notably serving in the Confederate Congress for much of the Civil War. Lyon also drafted the version of the state constitution adopted by the Constitutional Convention of 1875.

Lyon was born on a large tobacco plantation near Danbury, North Carolina, on February 25, 1800, to James Lyon and Betheland (sometimes spelled Behetheland) Gaines; he had four siblings. He was a nephew of brothers Maj. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines and Col. George Strother Gaines, both of whom played important roles in significant events in the Southeast during the first half of the nineteenth century. And he was the uncle of Congressman James Taylor Jones. Lyon attended local schools before moving in 1817 with his brother James to St. Stephens (located in what is now Washington County, Alabama) in the Mississippi Territory to live with George Strother Gaines, who was then the Indian agent in the territory, dealing with the Choctaws and Chickasaws.

Bluff Hall Lyon first found work in St. Stephens as a bank clerk, in part owing to his exceptional handwriting. Lyon soon after accepted an opening at the office of the clerk of the county court, through which he developed an interest in studying law. He studied under Judge Abner Smith Lipscomb and lawyer Henry Hitchcock, was admitted to the bar in 1821, and began a practice in Demopolis, Marengo County. Lyon went on to become one of the state’s most successful attorneys and was well known for his cross-examination skills. In 1824, he married Sarah Serena, with whom he would have seven children. Sarah’s father built them a large home, which they named Bluff Hall, in Demopolis, and they also maintained a plantation house, Bermuda Hill, near the town of Prairieville in Hale County.

Lyon began to take an interest in politics after opening his law practice. He served as secretary for the Alabama State Senate from 1822 to 1830 and was elected to that body in 1833. He was reelected in 1834 and served as president. He next set his sights on Alabama’s recently added Fifth Congressional District. Running as a candidate for the National Republican Party (also known as the Anti-Jacksonian Party), Lyon won the seat handily, succeeding former Alabama governor John Murphy, who did not run for a second term. For his reelection campaign, Lyon changed his affiliation to the Whig Party and won again, serving from March 4, 1835, to March 3, 1839. He declined to seek a third term, resumed practicing law and significantly increased his wealth by raising cotton. Lyon played a leading role in Alabama’s 1845 bank crisis, during which time the struggling state bank was liquidated and most of its debts paid back. Lyon was one of three commissioners charged with adjusting claims and in 1847 served as the sole commissioner until the final settlement was made in 1853.

William Rufus King In the years during the sectional crises that led to the Civil War, Lyon again changed his party affiliation, to Democrat, and served as an elector for the Franklin Pierce-William Rufus King ticket in 1852. Lyon was a strong advocate of states’ rights and southern rights, with respect to supporting slavery. He was elected chairman of Alabama’s Democratic Party during the party’s state convention in January 1860 and advocated for maintaining slavery in his acceptance speech. The convention delegates then instructed delegates to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Charleston to walk out if the consensus rejected “Fire-Eater” William Lowndes Yancey‘s Alabama Platform protecting slavery in the territories. The majority of delegates did indeed reject Yancey’s platform, and Lyon and the rest of the southern delegates quit the convention. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Lyon called for Alabama’s immediate secession from the Union.

Lyon returned to state office in 1861, winning a seat in the Alabama State Senate and was later that year elected to the Provisional Confederate Congress but declined the position. He was then elected to the First and Second Confederate Congresses and served from 1862 until the end of the war. Lyon served as chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means. His many proposals included doubling taxes, refusing to accept all old treasury notes, raising export duties on cotton, and taking control of all necessary rail equipment. After the war, he was forced to resume practicing law, having lost much of his fortune in a failed investment in Confederate bonds.

Lyon’s last major contribution to Alabama politics was during his service as a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention in 1875, at which he authored the draft of the constitution that was adopted. The final version, which signified the Democrats’ return to power after Reconstruction, lowered taxes and reduced spending for public education and other state-funded enterprises and instituted secret ballots that prevented family members and election officials from reading ballots to illiterate voters. In 1876, Lyon began a final term in the State Senate and retired afterward. He died on December 31, 1882, in Demopolis and was buried there in the Old Glover Vault in Riverside Cemetery. Bluff Hall still stands and is now a historic house museum owned by the Marengo County Historical Commission; it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1970. The home is notable for its Greek Revival style architecture and is popularly said to be host to occasional ghost sightings. Bermuda Hill, owned privately, also still stands and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

Further Reading

  • Dorman, Lewy. Party Politics in Alabama from 1850 through 1860. Wetumpka, Ala.: Wetumpka Printing Company, 1935.
  • Warner, Ezra. Register of the Confederate Congress. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975.

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