William Willis Garth

William Willis Garth (1826-1912) served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Alabama’s Eighth Congressional District for one term, 1877-79, in the Forty-fifth Congress. Garth came from an affluent and prominent Alabama family with ties to Virginia and elite political and social circles there. Prior to his election, Garth served in the United States Army during the Mexican-American War and in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. He studied law at the University of Virginia and worked as an attorney in Huntsville, Madison County.

Garth was born in Morgan County on October 28, 1826, to Jesse Winston and Unity Spottswood Dandridge Garth. Garth was the third of five children. Both parents’ families came from politically and socially prominent families in Virginia. Garth's father was a cousin of Patrick Henry, and his mother was the great granddaughter of Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood and a relative of both Martha Dandridge Washington and Dolly Madison, the wives of George Washington and James Madison, respectively. His father graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in Charlottesville, where he became acquainted with Thomas Jefferson. He also served as a major in the Virginia militia during the War of 1812 and later was elected to the Virginia legislature, where he befriended future U.S. president John Tyler. In 1817, Jesse Garth left Virginia and moved to the “Old Southwest,” as the region was then known, eventually settling in Alabama Territory, where he became a prominent politician. Jesse also became immensely wealthy as the owner of a cotton plantation, as evidenced by his enslavement of 181 individuals by 1860. His personal estate was valued at $150,000 and real estate holdings valued at $75,000 for some 2,700 acres. Garth's mother died when he was very young, and a significant portion of his boyhood was spent in Virginia at school.

Garth graduated from Emory and Henry College in Emory, Virginia, in 1843 and a few years later volunteered to fight in the Mexican-American War. After the war, he enrolled in the University of Virginia Law School, graduating with distinction. Garth returned to Alabama and practiced law in Decatur, Morgan County, until 1855, when he moved to Huntsville. Around that same time, Garth met and married Maria Fearn on June 21, 1855. Her father was Thomas Fearn, known for building the Indian Creek Canal and using quinine to treat malaria. A year later, Maria gave birth to their only child, a son. As of the 1860 Census, Garth possessed a personal estate in Courtland, Lawrence County, valued at $52,000 and real estate worth $35,000. He continued practicing law until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He served as a lieutenant colonel on Gen. James Longstreet's staff until he contracted typhoid fever and was discharged. After the war, Garth returned to Huntsville and resumed his practice.

In 1876, the Democratic Party nominated Garth as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for Alabama’s Eighth Congressional District. The district at that time consisted of Colbert, Franklin, Jackson, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, Madison, and Morgan Counties. Garth defeated John B. McClellan, an independent Democrat. He served in the 45th Congress, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate. The 1876 presidential election was uniquely controversial because neither Republican Rutherford B. Hayes nor Democrat Samuel J. Tilden managed to win a majority of the Electoral College votes. To break the deadlock, Democrats in Congress agreed to let Hayes become president in exchange for him signing the Posse Comitatus Act. This legislation limited the federal government's powers to use military personnel to enforce domestic policy, essentially removing federal troops from the South, signaling the end of Reconstruction. Garth, along with the other Democrats, voted in favor of the bill. At the end of the session, Democrats tried to further limit the power of Hayes and the use of federal troops by passing an appropriations bill that also sought to prohibit the use of federal forces to protect polling stations in former Confederate states during elections. Garth and his fellow Democrats again voted to approve the bill, but it was vetoed by Hayes.

Garth's reelection bid seemed destined for success when he once again obtained the Democrat Party nomination and, this time, faced third-party Greenback candidate William Manning Lowe. But Lowe managed to garner the support of Republicans in the district and won the seat in 1878. After his defeat, Garth returned to his law practice in Huntsville and spent some time as the director of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad and the First National Bank of Huntsville. Garth and his wife were devoted Episcopalians, with Garth serving as a vestryman and senior warden. He died on February 25, 1912, and is buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville.

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