William Bacon Oliver

William Bacon Oliver William Bacon “Buck” Oliver (1867-1948) served 11 terms in the U.S. Congress as a Democrat representing Alabama’s Sixth Congressional District, from 1915 until 1937. He was important in gaining initial federal funding for the construction of the William Bacon Oliver Lock and Dam and William Bacon Oliver Lake, named in his honor, on the Black Warrior River at Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County. On national social issues, he was largely in the mainstream of Alabama politicians in supporting immigration restrictions, a stronger military during World War I, Prohibition, and federal efforts in response to the Great Depression. Unlike most others, he voted for women’s suffrage in 1919.

Oliver was born in Eutaw, Greene County, on May 23, 1867, to William C. Oliver and Elizabeth Whitehead Oliver; he had a sister from this marriage. His father was a probate judge whose first marriage ended with the death of his wife Elizabeth Phillips. That couple had three children, two of whom died in childhood. From his father’s side of the family, Oliver was cousin to another member of Congress, Sydney Parham Epes of Nottoway County, Virginia, where his father was also born. Oliver attended the common, or public, schools in Eutaw for his early education. He changed schools and graduated from the now-defunct Verner College Preparatory School in Tuscaloosa in 1883 at age 16. Oliver then attended the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa, graduating from its academic department in 1887 and earned a law degree from UA in 1889. After taking a special course in law at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville that same year, Oliver was admitted to the Alabama State Bar and began practicing in his adopted hometown of Tuscaloosa.

Oliver put his degree to work as solicitor for the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Alabama in 1898, an office he held until his resignation in 1909. He soon became dean of the law school at UA and served for four years before resigning in 1913. Oliver then became chairman of the Democratic Central Committee of Tuscaloosa County and began to involve himself directly in politics.

Oliver was elected to the 64th Congress to represent the Sixth District, which consisted of Bibb, Chilton, and Shelby Counties and portions of Coosa, St. Clair, Jefferson, and Tuscaloosa Counties. He won the seat previously held by Spanish-American War hero, staunch prohibitionist, and women’s suffrage advocate Richmond Pearson Hobson. Oliver largely followed Pearson’s example on those two issues and began his term on March 4, 1915. Oliver was reelected 10 times, serving until January 3, 1937, after deciding not to seek reelection in 1936. The open seat was won by former Alabama Secretary of State Peterson “Pete” Jarman.

Naval Affairs Committee Oliver’s career in Congress began as the United States was preparing for possible involvement in World War I. He served on the Naval Affairs Committee for the first six years of his term and supported efforts to increase defense readiness. He joined the Alabama delegation in voting for the National Defense Act of 1916, which expanded the standing army, increased training for the National Guard, and appropriated funds for the construction of nitrate plants in Muscle Shoals, Colbert County, among other provisions. He supported the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. And like all the delegation except John Lawson Burnett, he voted for the Naval Act of 1916 to greatly increase the size of the U.S. Navy. In April 1917, Oliver voted for the Declaration of War against Germany and in favor of the Selective Service Act that May requiring men ages 18 through 30 to register for the draft. He sailed to Europe on at least three occasions as part of his official congressional duties, likely beginning with a July 1918 a trip aboard the battleship USS Arkansas (BB-33) to visit England, France, and Italy as a member of Naval Affairs Committee. The Arkansas in turn, was joining the British Grand Fleet and several other U.S. battleships as part of U.S. Battleship Division Nine. He also went to China in 1926.

Rooster Auction On social issues, Oliver joined with all but Henry Dent to vote for the Immigration Act of 1917 that was spearheaded by fellow Alabamian John Lawson Burnett. It introduced a literacy test to disqualify possible entrants but also barred individuals, including homosexuals, the mentally disabled, and alcoholics, who were viewed as “undesirable.” It was originally a response to counter the increasing entry of unskilled workers, individuals coming from eastern and southern Europe, and migrants from much of Asia and the Pacific. He supported similar measures in later Congresses. He voted for a bill mandating an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, approved of a prohibition bill for the Territory of Alaska, opposed a similar measure for the District of Columbia where he resided, but supported national Prohibition legislation in 1919. He opposed its repeal in 1933. On women’s suffrage, Oliver was the only member of the Alabama delegation to support passage of the eventual Nineteenth Amendment, in 1919.

In 1921, Oliver was appointed to the House Appropriations Committee and was considered important as the country implemented a new federal budgetary and accounting system beginning that year. It required the president to submit a yearly budget for the government and created the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the General Accounting Office (present-day Government Accountability Office, or GAO). For Alabama, he was instrumental in obtaining the initial federal appropriation to begin construction of a new lock and dam on the Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway between Tuscaloosa and Northport, Tuscaloosa County. Oliver was a delegate to the 1924 Democratic National Convention in which Alabama senator Oscar Underwood nearly won the presidential nomination after 103 ballots. He lost to Ambassador John W. Davis of West Virginia, the compromise candidate in what was the longest-ever convention at 10 days.

William Bacon Oliver Lock and Dam During the Great Depression and aftermath, Oliver supported many of the recovery efforts under Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. During Hoover’s last full year in office, 1932, Oliver voted for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation Act and a later amendment, the Emergency Relief and Construction Act, to provide financing to agriculture, commerce, and industry, and then financing for public works, respectively. Under Roosevelt, beginning in 1933, he supported the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which aimed to boost prices by reducing surplus, and the National Industrial Recovery Act, which regulated wages and established the Public Works Administration and was later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1934, he voted for the Gold Reserve Act ending the use of gold as U.S. currency, imposing other regulations on its use (but allowing for its continued applications in dentistry, industry, and jewelry), transferring ownership of all gold to the U.S. Treasury, and increasing the monetary value of gold. These actions led to a large accumulation of gold in the country and devalued the dollar. The act, along with other banking and currency reforms designed to raise the price of commodities, increase exports, and decrease imports, helped accelerate the country’s recovery, according to several leading economic historians.

Just after leaving Congress in January 1937, Oliver married the much younger Beryl Dana McCann of Newbern, Hale County, in Washington, D.C. on February 20, 1937. When they became acquainted is hard to verify. Oliver was used as a reference on passport applications submitted by one of her brothers, one in 1919, and she and several members of her family were living in Washington, D.C. by the 1920s. Beryl also traveled to Europe on several occasions prior to their marriage and at different times and on two occasions in the 1930s for the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce that promoted U.S. trade and published statistical information.

Following his tenure in Congress, Oliver resumed his legal career by serving as special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in Washington, D.C., from July 22, 1939, to May 1, 1944, when he retired. Oliver died while on a visit to New Orleans on May 27, 1948. He was interred at the Eutaw Cemetery, also known as Mesopotamia Cemetery, in Eutaw. In 1957, Rep. Armistead Selden introduced legislation designating the lock and dam be named the William Bacon Oliver Lock and Dam. The resulting Oliver Lake is a popular spot for boating and fishing.

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