William Manning Lowe

William Manning Lowe (1842-1882) represented Alabama's Eighth Congressional District in the U.S. Congress as a member of the state's short-lived Greenback Party from 1879 until his death in 1882. He is best known for defeating former Confederate general Joseph Wheeler in a highly contested 1880 election. Lowe also served as a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, in the Alabama House of Representatives, and as a delegate to the 1875 Constitutional Convention.

Lowe was born on June 12, 1842, to Gen. Bartley Martin Lowe Sr. and Sarah Sophia Manning in Huntsville, Madison County; he was one of at least four children. His father was a successful merchant. Like William, brothers John Thomas, a surgeon, and Robert Joseph, a lawyer, also served in the Confederate Army. William attended Florence Wesleyan University (present-day University of Northern Alabama) in nearby Florence, Lauderdale County, the University of Tennessee (from which he graduated in 1860), and, briefly, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

During his Civil War service, Lowe was assigned to the Confederate Army's Fourth Alabama Infantry Regiment with brother Robert. William rose in rank from private to lieutenant colonel even after suffering a serious wound at the July 1861 First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. He was later captured by federal forces at the November 1864 Battle of Franklin in Tennessee and imprisoned until the summer of 1865. Upon returning to Madison County after the war, Lowe began practicing law and held a handful of political offices during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Most notably, he served a term in the Alabama state legislature beginning in 1870. Lowe was also a delegate to Alabama's 1875 Constitutional Convention that lowered taxes and reduced state spending. He participated in deliberations regarding the role of the state Board of Education (it was eliminated) and offered a successful amendment stating that Alabama accepted the proposition that the United States is "indissoluble."

Although a committed Democrat, Lowe was nevertheless passed over by party officials for two positions he sought during the late 1870s. Lowe initially hoped to serve out the remainder of an unfinished term for a Madison County probate judge. When that appointment went to someone else, he set his sights on the Democratic nomination for the Eighth Congressional District, which consisted of much of the Tennessee River Valley in north Alabama. Again spurned by local Democratic leaders in an era of Republican Party decline, Lowe declared himself an independent candidate and campaigned against the Democratic Party's convention system, though not initially against the party.

By the time of the next election, however, Lowe had adopted the "Greenbacker" label on his printed ballots and had positioned himself as the candidate of the "common man" whose financial interests had been neglected by the Democratic Party. Greenbackers in the state consisted largely of farmers and laborers who wanted the federal government to print more paper money to increase the amount of money in circulation. Lowe also drew significant support from the ranks of Alabama independents and Republicans, both white and black. Lowe's opponent in the 1878 election, Democratic incumbent William Willis Garth, unsurprisingly accused Lowe of being a scalawag, or native Alabamian who opposed Democratic power, and he claimed that Lowe's candidacy was a threat to white rule in Alabama. For his part, Lowe accused Garth of illegally intimidating black voters and of shirking his duties to the former Confederacy, although Garth had been a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army. Yet, Lowe accused him of not having fought in the war, perhaps because his own service, which included his wounding and capture, had been more grueling. Lowe ultimately prevailed, and even though he achieved little legislative success during his first term, his mere presence in Congress was an affront to Alabama Democrats, who saw him as a potent threat to their interests in preserving white supremacy. In the 1880 election cycle, therefore, the Democratic Party nominated the popular former Confederate general Joseph Wheeler to challenge the incumbent Lowe.

The 1880 election proved even more contentious than its 1878 predecessor. The Greenbackers in Alabama, having worked to develop a statewide party infrastructure, challenged Democrats in numerous elections across Alabama. They also sought opportunities to "fuse" with Alabama Republicans, which they had done in Madison County when Greenbackers supported two black Republicans. On the campaign trail, Lowe and his fellow Greenbackers accused the Democratic Party of ignoring the interests of average Alabamians in favor of supporting policies benefitting the wealthy.

Wheeler initially defeated Lowe by the slim margin of fewer than 50 votes out of more than 25,000 cast. But state election canvassers had disqualified more than 600 pro-Lowe ballots, allegedly because the ballots contained extraneous text (the names and districts of electors for Greenback presidential candidate James B. Weaver). Wheeler took office in early 1881, but Lowe quickly challenged the election results in federal court. Eventually, the House Committee on Elections ruled in favor of Lowe, finding that the additional text on the ballots would not have unduly affected voters' decisions and canvassers did not have the authority to reject the ballots under Alabama election law. Therefore, the ballots should have been counted. Lowe returned to Washington and replaced a furious Joe Wheeler as the rightful representative. His appeal had taken until May 1882 to reach a resolution, so Lowe could not take office until June. By that time, however, his health was in sharp decline, and he died from tuberculosis on October 12, 1882, in Huntsville. Wheeler won the special election to fill out the remaining weeks of Lowe's term.

After Lowe's death, the Greenback Party in Alabama entered a decline from which it would never recover. Lowe's seat in particular returned to Democratic control immediately. Luke Pryor, a staunch white supremacist, had been tapped to run against Lowe in the 1882 regular election and won handily, given Lowe's death during the campaign. (Pryor did not run in 1884. Wheeler won the open seat, which he held until his own resignation in 1900. Pryor would later be appointed in 1879 to the U.S. Senate seat left open by the death of George S. Houston.) Lowe's untimely death was a major factor precipitating the decline of the Greenbackers in Alabama after 1882, and continued Democratic violence against political opponents would allow the so-called "Redeemers" to cement and maintain their white supremacist rule in northern Alabama in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Horton, Paul. "The Assassination of Rev. James Madison Pickens and the Persistence of Anti-Bourbon Activism in North Alabama." Alabama Review 57 (April 2004): 83-109.
  • Roberts, Frances. "William Manning Lowe and the Greenback Party in Alabama." Alabama Review 5 (April 1952): 100-21.
  • Robinson, Stephen R. "Rethinking Black Urban Politics in the 1880s: The Case of William Gaston in Post-Reconstruction Alabama." Alabama Review 66 (January 2013): 3-29.

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