Willis Brewer (1844-1912) was a Democratic politician, newspaper editor, and author. He served as state auditor in the administration of Gov. Rufus W. Cobb and was elected to both the state legislature and U.S. Congress, representing Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District. He gained notoriety as editor of the Hayneville Examiner during Reconstruction, and authored several books, including a history of the state of Alabama.
Thaddeus Constantine Willis Brewer was born on March 14, 1844, on a farm in Sumter County to Robert Willis and Jane Hadden Brewer; he may have had an older brother. His father was a farmer and merchant who served in a Confederate artillery unit during the Civil War. The Brewer family was of Welsh origin, arriving in Alabama in the early nineteenth century by way of Georgia and South Carolina. Willis Brewer was raised on the family farm and attended the local schools. As a young man, he displayed a talent for writing and editing. He began working in a printing office at 14, and three years later, he and a classmate edited a newspaper in Milton, Florida. Brewer returned home in advance of the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He attempted to volunteer in the Confederate Army several times, but was denied active service for health reasons. Instead, he performed administrative tasks, including that of enrolling officer and deputy provost marshal. Towards the end of the war, he served on the staff of Gen. Wirt Adams in Mississippi and, after the war, as an aide to Alabama governor Robert M. Patton. He was granted an honorary colonelship for his service to the state.
During Reconstruction, Brewer became an important newspaperman and Democratic political figure. In 1865, he completed his studies in law, but chose to enter the newspaper business instead. That year, he became editor of the Wilcox Times, a semi-weekly paper in Camden, Wilcox County. In 1868, he moved to Hayneville, Lowndes County, and established the Hayneville Examiner, which he edited until 1880. Also around 1868, he married Mary Baine, daughter of deceased Gen. David W. Baine of the Fourteenth Alabama Infantry; the couple would have three children.
Under Brewer, the Hayneville Examiner stood firmly opposed to the Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party, particularly the civil rights and political power given to emancipated African Americans. He advocated a return to a political system run by and for white men based on the concept of white supremacy. Throughout Reconstruction, Brewer used the pages of his newspaper to praise conservatives who pushed to deny voting rights to African Americans and white Republicans. The elections of 1874 and 1876, marked by violence and intimidation on the part of militant Democrats, severely damaged Republican prospects in Alabama and led to the resurgence of Democratic Party and their conservative supporters, known variously as Bourbons and Redeemers.
Brewer’s status as a well-known editor led to many political opportunities. Gov. Robert B. Lindsay appointed him treasurer of Lowndes County in 1871. In 1876, he was elected state auditor on the Democratic ticket and was reelected again in 1878. That same election gave the governor’s office to Bourbon Democrat Cobb. Cobb’s tenure was characterized by reductions in taxes and government spending, which granted the state of Alabama a considerable surplus in revenue upon his exit in 1882. When his term as auditor ended in 1880, Brewer was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, where he chaired the Ways and Means Committee.
In 1882, Brewer was elected to the Alabama Senate for the district encompassing Lowndes and Autauga Counties. One year later, he headed the committee that investigated the corrupt activities of former state treasurer Isaac “Honest Ike” Vincent. Between 1878 and 1883, under governors Cobb and Edward O’Neal, Vincent secretly funded his speculation in the cotton industry with public money. On the eve of an impending audit, Vincent fled to Mexico. The committee chaired by Brewer discovered Vincent had embezzled more than $200,000 during his unprecedented three terms as state treasurer. After another term as senator, from 1886-1890, during which he was chairman of the Committee on Finance and Taxation, Brewer served two terms in lower house of the legislature. In 1892, he supported Grover Cleveland’s successful bid for president as an Electoral College delegate. In 1897, he won the first of two terms to the U.S. House of Representatives, initially defeating Albert Taylor Goodwyn, and serving Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District, encompassing the counties of Autauga, Chambers, Clay, Coosa, Elmore, Lowndes, Macon, Randolph, and Tallapoosa, until 1901.
In addition to his political and editorial roles, Brewer authored several books of history and fiction. His 1872 two-volume history of the state, Alabama: Her History, Resources, War Record, and Public Men, from 1540 to 1872, garnered positive reviews and was considered a popular work. To this day, it is still useful as a source on important figures contemporary with Brewer, in addition to being representative of the views held by Alabama’s ruling class. In 1884, he turned to historical fiction, penning The Children of Issachar, a novel that condemned the failed period of Reconstruction. Brewer’s later writings touched on subjects ranging from science and philosophy (The Secret of Mankind with Some Singular Hints Gathered in the Elsewhere of After-Life, 1895), to ancient history (Egypt and Israel: An Inquiry into the Influence of More Ancient People upon Hebrew History, 1910). He remained active in leadership positions among the state’s editors and writers, serving as president of the Alabama State Press Association in 1876. By the end of his career, he was esteemed as one of the state’s foremost literary figures.
In 1901, Brewer was defeated by Charles Winston Thompson in his campaign for a third term in Congress. He retired to The Cedars, his plantation seven miles outside of Montgomery that he purchased in 1902. He derived an income by renting portions of his land to tenant farmers. Brewer died on October 30, 1912, and was interred in the family mausoleum on the plantation grounds.
Taylor, Hannis, et. al. Memorial Record of Alabama: A Concise History of the State’s Political, Military, Professional and Industrial Progress, Together with the Personal Memoirs of Many of Its People. 2 vols. Madison, Wis.: Brant & Fuller, 1893.