William Kelly (1786-1834) served as a U.S. senator from Alabama from 1822 to 1825. A staunch Jacksonian Democrat, he eventually managed to alienate his constituency as a result of several controversial stands and finally left Alabama to die in obscurity in New Orleans.
Kelly was born on September 22, 1786, in northeastern South Carolina to Gersham and Bridget Tatum Kelly; he was one of nine children. While still a young man, he settled in Tennessee and became a circuit court judge; thereafter he was known as Judge Kelly. He moved to Huntsville, Madison County, sometime around 1818, just before Alabama became a state.
Kelly quickly established a reputation as a trial lawyer. Though often regarded as a champion of the people, he was reportedly cynical in nature and rarely continued social contact with his clients once a case was completed. He spent much of his time away from the courtroom reading classical literature; Roman satirist Horace was a particular favorite.
Kelly aligned himself with the Democratic Republicans, followers of Andrew Jackson later known as Jacksonian Democrats. This political faction opposed the Broad River Group, a group of business men and wealthy planters with extensive power in Huntsville and Montgomery and whose leaders included Alabama’s first governor, William Wyatt Bibb, and U.S. senator John Williams Walker.
When the Broad River Group suffered political setbacks related to the Panic of 1819 and its connection with the troubled Planters and Merchants Bank of Huntsville, Kelly and his colleagues seized the political opportunity. Led by William B. Long, publisher of the Huntsville Democrat, they branded the Broad River Group and its supporters as “Royalists” and stigmatized them as enemies of the people.
During this period of political change, failing health forced John Williams Walker to retire from the U.S. Senate in 1822. Riding the political momentum, William Kelly ran and was elected to the vacant seat by one vote in the Alabama Legislature over favorite John McKinley. Two years later, however, he was defeated in his bid for a full six-year term by Henry H. Chambers.
Undeterred by his defeat, Kelly was elected in 1825 to the state House of Representatives on a platform calling for reorganization of the state judiciary. Although selected as speaker, his opposition to relocating the state capital to Tuscaloosa alienated many of his northern Alabama constituents, who favored the site. Even more damaging were Kelly’s actions surrounding his introduction of a petition from some of his clients seeking repeal of the statute of limitations to enable them to recoup the excessive interest paid under a controversial usury law passed in 1818 when Alabama was still part of the Mississippi Territory. When it became known that Kelly would receive 50 percent of the amount refunded if the cases were won, his constituents deserted him. Another setback came in January 1827, when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled four to one that the usury law was legal and interest paid under it could not be refunded.
The final blow to Kelly’s political career came in 1828, when he petitioned the Alabama Senate to remove three Alabama supreme court judges—Anderson Crenshaw, John White, and Reuben Saffold—accusing them of incompetence and neglect of duty and charging they had reversed decisions while presiding over circuit courts. Kelly himself served as prosecutor in this bizarre “Trial of Judges,” which was held before the Alabama Senate. The judges were vindicated by an overwhelming vote, and Kelly went down in his final defeat.
Friendless, financially ruined, and denied a federal appointment by Pres. Andrew Jackson, Kelly moved to New Orleans, where he died in obscurity on August 24, 1834. His burial site is unknown.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama United States Senators by Elbert L. Watson (Huntsville, Ala: Strode Publishers, 1982).