William Benjamin Craig
William Benjamin Craig (1877-1925) was an attorney and Democratic congressman who represented Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District for two terms. Prior to that, he served one term in the Alabama State Senate.
Craig was born on November 2, 1877, in Selma, Dallas County, to George Henry and Sarah Alvena White Craig; he had two brothers and two sisters. Craig came from a political family. His father, a Confederate veteran and a lawyer, was elected to Congress for one term as a Republican in 1882, representing Alabama’s Fourth Congressional District. Some sources say he was born in Cahaba, Dallas County, whereas U.S. Census records list his place of birth as Tennessee. Craig’s great-grandfather, John White, was a member of the Alabama Supreme Court from 1825 to 1832. Craig was educated in Selma public schools. After completing high school, he worked as an apprentice machinist in the Southern Railway shops in Selma from 1893 to 1897. With his apprenticeship completed, Craig entered law school at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, and received his law degree in 1898. He was accepted to the Alabama State Bar on June 29 of that year and began practicing in Selma as a partner of law firm Craig & Craig, where his father was the senior partner. Craig worked on bankruptcies from August 1898 to December 1901, and he was a U.S. Commissioner for the Middle District of Alabama from 1900 to 1903. On December 2, 1903, he married Irene Kunst of Weston, West Virginia, with whom he would have two sons.
Craig joined the Alabama National Guard, enlisting as a private and non-commissioned officer in Troop C in the First Cavalry in 1896. He served in that position until 1897. In April 1903, he rejoined the National Guard when he was commissioned captain of Company C of the Abbott Rifles of the Second Infantry. However, he resigned his commission six months later.
Craig’s political career began with his election to the Alabama Senate, where he served one term from 1903 to 1907. He represented the 30th District, encompassing Dallas County, and served on the Committee on Privileges and Elections and the Committee on Rules. In 1906, Craig was elected to the Fourth Congressional District of Alabama seat left vacant by attorney Sydney Johnston Bowie of Talladega, Talladega County. The district included Dallas, Shelby, Talladega, Chilton, Cleburne, and Calhoun Counties. In his first term, Craig served on the Committee on Alcoholic and Liquor Traffic and the Committee on Public Lands. Running for a second term, Craig was opposed by J. Osmund Middleton, the Republican and Populist candidate. Craig defeated him handily, receiving almost twice as many votes as Middleton. During his second term, Craig served on the Committee on Expenditures in the State Department and the Committee on Public Lands.
While in Congress, Craig sought to enact a number of Progressive measures. He particularly supported Prohibition, which had become a national movement by the 1900s. During his first year, he planned to introduce a bill to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol in Washington, D.C. Craig thought his fellow congressmen would be receptive to his proposal, given the popularity of prohibition. In addition, he proposed a bill to prohibit liquor licensing in dry cities, counties, and states. Craig also introduced legislation to fight corruption and protect consumers, both major aims of Progressivism. He introduced a bill to punish federal employees for issuing false agricultural statistics. He also voiced his opposition to the practice of predicting cotton futures, or prices. In his view, futures were like gambling contracts that hurt cotton farmers, many of whom were his constituents.
Craig, unlike fellow Alabamian representative Oscar Underwood, was a vocal opponent of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909. It was supported by Republicans who at the time were considered protectionist, meaning that they wanted to protect domestic industries against foreign competition. (Tariffs raise the price of imported goods and typically lead to higher prices for comparable domestically produced goods but also raise revenue for the government.) The Act raised the tariff on some products entering the United States, lowering it for others as favored by Progressives, and was a major political fight over products such as cotton, wool, leather, lumber, and sugar, early in the administration of Republican president William Howard Taft. Craig believed that the Act would “enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor.” The Payne-Aldrich Act was reported to have raised $75 million in government revenue in the first year after enactment. The tariff rates imposed by Payne-Aldrich would be largely undone in 1913 by a tariff bill promoted by Underwood that also reinstituted a graduated income tax.
During both terms, Craig supported development of Alabama waterways. He introduced bills to facilitate the improvement of the Alabama, Coosa, and Tallapoosa Rivers. He also sponsored legislation to survey the Cahaba for navigation and possible water power development. As a former National Guardsman, Craig also advocated for better training of the National Guard during his tenure in Congress. He frequently argued for increasing appropriations in order to fund more effective training for National Guardsmen alongside Army regulars. He contended that members of the National Guard needed training comparable to that of the Army in the case of war on U.S. soil.
In 1910, Craig declined to run for a third term. His open seat was won by Democrat Fred L. Blackmon, a native of Georgia who had settled in Anniston, Calhoun County. When Craig returned to Alabama from Congress, he returned to his law practice in Selma. He died in a Selma hospital on November 27, 1925, and was buried in Live Oak Cemetery. Craig was a Presbyterian and a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity.