William Jeffreys Alston (1800-1876) was an attorney from Linden, Marengo County, who represented the First Congressional District of Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849 to 1851. As a Whig congressman, Alston notably supported slavery in a congressional speech and supported its expansion to new United States territories.
Alston was born near Milledgeville, Georgia, on December 31, 1800, to Nathaniel and Mary Grey Jeffreys Alston. He was the eldest of nine children. The family moved to Abbeville, South Carolina, soon after his birth. As a young man, he attended the private academy of renowned classical educator and Presbyterian minister Moses Waddel (sometimes Waddell) in Willington, South Carolina. In 1818, Alston moved with his family to St. Stephens, in the then-Alabama Territory‘s Washington County, where he taught school. He studied law at Litchfield Law School in Hartford, Connecticut. He moved to Marengo County, began a law practice in Linden, and served multiple terms as judge of the county court. In 1824, he married Martha Cade, with whom he had seven children. Martha died on May 28, 1846, and Alston married Harriet Harwell the following year. They had one son. Upon her death, he married the widowed Caroline Cheney. In the late 1860s, Alston married a fourth time to Mary Glover Shields Lowery, also a widow, with whom he had two sons.
Alston’s political career began in 1837, when he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives as a member of the Whig Party. After serving a two-year term, he sat for a three-year term in the Alabama Senate, from 1839 to 1842. He left politics briefly, but returned with his election in 1848 to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he represented Alabama’s First Congressional District as a Whig from 1849 to 1851. His district included Marengo, Wilcox, Butler, Conecuh, Monroe, Clarke, Washington, Baldwin, and Mobile counties.
During his brief tenure in Congress, conflict grew over the extension of slavery to these areas as the United States established new states and territories in the West. On April 18, 1850, Alston made a speech in Congress called “The Slavery Question” in response to Kentucky senator Henry Clay’s proposed Compromise of 1850. Alston defended the South’s right to maintain slavery and expand it to new territories. Like many slavery apologists, Alston used quotes from the Bible and made derogatory statements about African cultures as inferior to support his views that slavery was a morally and legally valid institution. These views remained popular in the South even after the Civil War as a defense of slavery among adherents to the Confederate “Lost Cause.” The heated debate over the expansion of slavery split the Whigs into northern and southern factions and ultimately caused its demise in the 1850s.
Alston left Congress after his first term ended and returned to his law practice in 1851. In 1855, he was again elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, this time as a Democrat. When his term ended in 1857, Alston returned to Marengo County and retired from public life to his plantation at Magnolia. He died there on June 10, 1876, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Marengo County.
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