George Washington Taylor (1849-1932) was a veteran of the American Civil War, attorney, and politician from Demopolis, Marengo County, who represented the First Congressional District of Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1897 to 1915. While in Congress, he was a strong proponent of improving Alabama’s waterways. He was a member of the Episcopal Church as well as multiple fraternal orders, including the Masons, the Elks, and the Knights of Pythias.
George Washington Taylor Taylor was born at Roselawn, his family’s Montgomery County plantation, on January 16, 1849, to Edward Fisher and Anne Sewell (Trezevant) Taylor, both of Columbia, South Carolina. He was the fourth of the Taylors’ seven children; he had four brothers and two sisters. He was educated in private schools in Montgomery County and then left Alabama to attend an academy in Columbia. In 1864, at the age of 15, he enlisted in the Confederate Army with South Carolina state troops. He later joined Company D of the First Regiment of the South Carolina Cavalry as a private and served as a courier for Brig. Gen. George P. Harrison Jr. until the end of the Civil War. Harrison later moved to Alabama, became an attorney, and represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1894 to 1897.
After the war, Taylor enrolled at the University of South Carolina and studied Latin, Greek, history, and chemistry, graduating in 1867. He then moved to Mobile, where he taught school and studied law under Harry T. Toulmin, a practicing attorney in the city and grandson of Harry Toulmin, a noted judge during the Alabama and Mississippi territorial periods. Taylor passed the bar exam in November 1871 and opened a private law practice in Butler, the seat of Choctaw County, the following year. He married Margaretta Metcalf of Montgomery on January 13, 1881, and together they would have seven children. In 1883, Taylor and his family moved to Demopolis.
Taylor would come to hold considerable political power among the group of elite Democrats from the Black Belt known as “Bourbons,” who gained control of Alabama politics after the end of Reconstruction in 1874. He served Choctaw County in the Alabama House of Representatives in 1878-79 and also wrote the first regulations for primary elections in Choctaw County. In 1880, Taylor was elected solicitor for Alabama’s First Judicial Circuit and was reelected in 1886; he declined to run for a third term in 1892. Afterward, he chaired the Choctaw County Democratic Executive Committee for several years.
In 1896, Taylor was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the First Congressional District after Richard Henry Clarke left office to run for governor. The district consisted of Choctaw, Clarke, Marengo, Monroe, and Washington Counties. Taylor remained in the House for nine terms, during which time he also chaired the State Democratic Convention that convened Alabama’s 1901 Constitutional Convention. During this time, Taylor corresponded with African American educator Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University), regarding data on the percentage of African Americans with multiracial heritage on Tuskegee’s faculty and in the United States. Like many people of his time, Taylor believed in white supremacy and held the view that African Americans who had some white ancestry were more intelligent and industrious than those who did not. In his response, Washington politely rebutted Taylor’s ideas with examples of intellectually gifted African Americans with no white ancestry.
During his tenure in Congress, Taylor served at various times on the Railways and Canals, Appropriations, Rivers and Harbors, and Banking and Currency committees. Though not as prolific in Congress as some of his fellow Alabamians, Taylor devoted himself to securing funding for projects that improved Alabama’s waterways through his appointment to the Rivers and Harbors Committee. He introduced bills to establish fisheries in Alabama and allow railroads to bridge Alabama rivers and offered legislation to improve Mobile’s harbors, canals, and docks. He frequently advocated improving other waterways in his district, such as the Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers, for navigation and trade. Taylor also supported the funding of a hydroelectric plant on the Tennessee River at Muscle Shoals in Colbert County.
Wilson Dam Taylor declined to run in 1914, and Choctaw County attorney and judge Oscar Lee Gray won his seat. But Taylor continued to actively promote improvements to Alabama’s waterways and became a lobbyist for the Muscle Shoals Power Company. Along with Alabama Senators Oscar W. Underwood and John H. Bankhead Sr., he unsuccessfully lobbied in support of the Shields Water Power Bill, which aimed to grant the federal government 50-year permits to develop hydroelectric power on navigable streams. Despite the bill’s failure, the project would ultimately receive funding and become the Wilson Dam and Reservoir. In 1920, Taylor represented Alabama’s First Congressional District at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California. He died on December 21, 1932, while visiting Rome, Georgia. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Montgomery.
Going, Allen J. Bourbon Democracy in Alabama, 1874-1890. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1951.
Taylor, B. F. “John Taylor and His Taylor Descendants.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 8 (April 1907): 95-119.
West, William Benjamin. America’s Greatest Dam, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. New York: Frank E. Cooper, 1925