William Hugh Smith The state’s first Republican governor elected under the terms of Congressional, or Military, Reconstruction, William Hugh Smith (1826-1899) remains a controversial figure. Before the war, Smith had owned enslaved people, and he opposed secession on the grounds it would imperil his “property.” Practical considerations, rather than enthusiasm for emancipation and civil rights, motivated his political course, and once elected governor he quickly sought accommodation with the ex-Confederate white majority. He left office under suspicions of corruption because of his handling of state aid to railroads.
Smith was born in Fayette County, Georgia, on April 26, 1826, the son of Jeptha Vinnen and Nancy Dickson Smith. He had two sisters and six brothers, several of whom became his political allies. In his teens, Smith moved with his family to Wedowee, in Randolph County. After receiving a traditional early education, Smith read law and was admitted to the Alabama State Barin 1850. In 1856, he married Lucy Wortham, with whom he would have three sons and five daughters.
After some years as a lawyer, Smith moved into a political career. From 1855 through 1859, he served in the Alabama House of Representatives as a states’ rights Democrat, but he gradually evolved into a strong Unionist. In 1860, he ran as an elector on the presidential ticket of Stephen A. Douglas, and, in the ensuing crisis, opposed immediate secession. After the war began, criticism of Smith’s Unionist position became so intense that he heard reports of his imminent arrest as a traitor. In December 1862, he fled over Confederate lines with his father and three brothers. Smith spent the remainder of the war recruiting soldiers for the First Alabama Cavalry, a U.S. Army regiment, and he accompanied that regiment during Gen. William T. Sherman’s “march to the sea.”
After the Confederate surrender, Smith was a leading candidate of the “Unconditional Unionists” for appointment as provisional governor under Presidential Reconstruction. The more conciliatory Lewis Parsons received the post instead. Parsons appointed Smith to the Alabama circuit court. Smith soon resigned the position on the grounds that no Union man could, in good conscience, serve under the post-war circumstances that existed in Alabama. In concert with other disaffected Unionists, he lobbied Congress to overturn Presidential Reconstruction and enact black suffrage. He also devoted himself to his entrepreneurial interests in mining and railroad promotion.
William Hugh Smith Portrait With the passage of Congressional Reconstruction, Smith emerged as a leading political figure in Alabama, chairing the first statewide Republican convention in June 1867. Smith’s service as head of Gen. Wager Swayne’s voter registration bureau, established to implement the Military Reconstruction Acts, helped him win the Republican nomination for governor in the February 1868 election, which also was called to ratify the second Reconstruction Constitution.
When a conservative boycott appeared to have defeated the ratification of the Constitution, Smith opposed Republican efforts to declare the document in effect without the stipulated majority. He thus opposed his own inauguration as governor, but Congress placed him in office in July 1868. Among his first actions in office was to secure the removal of the Constitution’s provisions that disfranchised Confederate public officials and military officers. Despite Republican arguments that terrorism made a fair election impossible, Smith vetoed the proposal of the Republican legislature to cast the state’s presidential electoral vote in 1868 without holding an election. Smith also publicly denounced outsiders, known as carpetbaggers, within the party, specifically Alabama senator George E. Spencer, and this stand won him considerable praise in the Democratic press.
The most striking demonstration of Smith’s conservative proclivities was his refusal to take drastic action against the terrorist Ku Klux Klan organization. His term coincided with that group’s worst violence, but Smith did not invoke the Constitution’s provisions for a state militia because such a force would be overwhelmingly composed of newly freed black men, and this might have led to a racial bloodbath. He argued that local law enforcement could deal effectively with the situation, and he publicly opposed federal legislation against the Klan, even feigning ignorance of its existence in Alabama in a published interview. Only in 1870, in the face of spectacular public violence, did Smith exert his power to place terrorists on trial and to publicize their atrocities. Smith’s cautious position endeared him to conservatives in the state but antagonized the freedmen and white Republicans to whom he owed his office.
Smith also cooperated with conservative Democrats on less emotional issues. His major goal was the economic development of the state, and railroad promotion was a particularly popular position with bi-partisan appeal. During Presidential Reconstruction, the conservative Democratic legislature had already passed a general subsidy act for railroads built within the state. With Smith’s support, the Republican legislature expanded the government endorsement of company railroad bonds from $12,000 to $16,000 per mile. The state subsidy legislation encouraged local grants to railroads as well, resulting in a dramatic increase in railroad mileage and the government’s potential liability. Smith participated personally in this activity, serving on one railroad’s board of directors along with several legislative allies.
As the railroad bond endorsements swelled the potential state debt, Smith finally suggested scaling back the public’s liability. His actions were fiscally dubious, especially with respect to the strategic Alabama & Chattanooga line, whose directors hoped to penetrate the mineral district around modern Birmingham. These directors contributed substantial sums to the governor and reportedly financed Smith’s own separate railroad corporation. The Alabama & Chattanooga clearly benefited from the governor’s special attention. Smith signed a $2 million direct-aid bill—primarily for the benefit of the Alabama & Chattanooga—despite his awareness that legislators had been bribed by agents of that company. More strikingly, the governor endorsed hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonds to the Alabama & Chattanooga above the amount authorized by law, leaving his successors with nightmarish fiscal difficulties that culminated in the state’s insolvency. Smith later admitted his negligence in this matter, and a recent study of southern railroads singles Smith out among southern governors as one of several “fools” of the era who engaged in “slovenly” record keeping.
As Smith’s reelection campaign approached, he faced numerous challenges. The newly freed blacks and many white Republicans resented his inaction on the Klan and his lack of enthusiasm for civil rights. Furthermore, the state’s increasing fiscal woes undermined the Republicans’ ambitious desire for more free public schools. Smith was re-nominated by a divided party, and although the freedmen had little choice but to back him, other white elements around Senator Spencer reportedly colluded in his defeat. Smith’s support among white Democrats evaporated as the election neared and the scope of railroad bond abuse became evident. By a narrow margin of 77,721 to 76,292, Smith was defeated by Democratic candidate Robert Burns Lindsay. In November 1870, Smith, surprised by the outcome, contested the election on the grounds of fraud and intimidation, citing Klan outbreaks of violence in several counties. After barricading himself in his office for some weeks and surrounded by still-present units of the U.S. Army, Smith eventually conceded defeat and withdrew.
After leaving the governorship, disclosures of Smith’s official misconduct effectively ended his political career. He returned to Randolph County and resumed the practice of law, was appointed circuit judge by Republican governor David P. Lewis in 1873, and later served as federal district attorney under Pres. James Garfield. He remained active in Republican patronage matters, maintaining his opposition to carpetbag influence in the party for decades. Smith eventually relocated to Birmingham, where he died on January 1, 1899.
In recent decades, scholars have applauded Republican efforts during Reconstruction to implement equal justice under the law. As governor, William Hugh Smith supported ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, securing equal suffrage, and his government oversaw creation of a free school system that for the first time included Alabama’s black children. Beyond this, his accomplishments in the field of civil rights were limited, while the other complaints of his various critics—white and black—appear all too valid.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State, edited by Samuel L. Webb and Margaret Armbrester (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).
- Parnell, Ralph Erskine. “The Administration of William Hugh Smith: Governor of Alabama, 1868–1870.” Master’s thesis, Auburn University, 1958.
- Summers, Mark W. Railroads, Reconstruction, and the Gospel of Prosperity: Aid Under the Radical Republicans, 1865-1877. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
- Trelease, Allen. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
- Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977.