William H. Smith

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William H. Smith

William Hugh Smith (born April 26, 1826 in Fayette County, Georgia; died January 1, 1899 in Birmingham) was the 21st Governor of Alabama, serving a two-year term during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.

Smith was one of nine children of Jeptha Vinnen and Nancy Dickson Smith. The family moved to Wedowee in Randolph County in 1839. After completing public school, William read law under John T. Heflin and was admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1850. He practiced in partnership with James Aiken, and was elected to represent the county in the Alabama House of Representatives in 1855 for a four-year term. He married the former Lucy Wortham in 1856 and started his own family with the first of eight children.

In 1860 Smith, a slave owner who had long opposed secession on practical grounds, ran as an elector for Stephen Douglas rather than the Southern Democrats' choice of John Breckinridge. Local reactions to Smith's anti-secessionist beliefs forced him to flee behind Union lines in December 1862. He spent the rest of the war recruiting Alabamians for the Union's First Alabama Cavalry regiment, commanded by Colonel George Spencer on New York, in which two of his brothers served. He himself accompanied the unit as it escorted General Sherman in his "March to the Sea" through Atlanta, Georgia.

After the Confederate surrender, Smith was considered a candidate for provisional governor of Alabama, but lost out to Lewis Parsons. Parsons appointed him to the Circuit Court bench, but Smith objected to the political conditions of Reconstruction and soon resigned. He lobbied the U.S. Congress to give the vote to former slaves while pursuing business ventures in mining and railroad development. He was one of the founders of the East Alabama & Cincinnati Railroad. He remained a prominent figure, aiding General Wager Swayne to register new voters and chairing the 1867 Alabama Republican Convention. He was the Republican nominee for the 1868 general election, sharing the ballot with a measure to ratify a new state constitution.

The constitution issue led to a boycott of the election. The Republican Party sought to certify the election results despite the measure's apparent defeat. In opposing the ploy, Smith effectively opposed his own electoral victory, but the U.S. Congress intervened to appoint him Governor in July 1868.

As Governor, Smith led a successful effort to remove the constitutional disenfranchisement of former Confederate officials and military officers. He vetoed a measure passed by the Republican legislature to appoint its own 1868 presidential electors without a statewide elections. On the day he took office, the legislature proceeded to ratify the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, thus officially ending military rule. Smith oversaw an overhaul of public education, establishing the first public schools for African American children. He arranged, also, to have most municipal officials across the state dismissed, subject to his own appointments. Considered a "scalawag" himself, Smith used his office to criticize "carpetbagger" officials in his own party such as his former ally and now Senator George Spencer. Both actions earned praise from Democrat-leaning newspapers.

Also praised by conservatives was Smith's hands-off approach to addressing terrorist violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. He refused calls to organize a state militia, fearing that any such force, which would have to have been made up primarily of African Americans, could only produce an explosion of violence. He went so far as to publicly oppose federal measures to combat the Klan and even denied its existence in the state. He did finally use his powers to put some members on trial and to publicize their violent acts.

Meanwhile, Smith concentrated his efforts on economic development, compromising fiscal responsibility and ethics in the process. He expanded state subsidies to railroads constructing lines in Alabama, exposing the treasury to financial risk in hopes of realizing big revenues from ancillary development. The financiers of the newly-created Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad, which helped open the Birmingham District to industrial development, bribed state legislators to pass an additional $2 million direct subsidy in an "omnibus railroad bill" . Smith approved the sale of state-backed bonds for the line's construction that exceeded the limits of even the newly-passed laws and went unpaid when the railroad failed. His irresponsibility resulted in budget shortages that hampered efforts to expand public schools and imperiled the state's solvency for several years.

Smith ran for re-election in 1870. Though Republican voters found his efforts to protect their newly-won voting rights and to expand educational opportunities lacking, and George Spencer's supporters bristled at his criticisms, he won the party's nomination. As the scope of his financial mismanagement came increasingly to light, his support among Democratic voters withered. Democrat Robert Lindsay won a close race in the 1870 general election with 77,721 votes to Smith's 76,292. Smith contested the results, citing reports of Klan-sponsored fraud and intimidation at the polls. He refused to surrender his office for several weeks, his office surrounded by Federal soldiers, until he was ordered by Judge James Q. Smith to vacate the office.

With his political career in shambles, Smith returned to Randolph County as an attorney. He was appointed again to the circuit court by Governor David Lewis in 1873. President James Garfield appointed him as a federal district attorney. He moved to Birmingham to join the law practice established by two of his sons J. A. and William, Jr. He died at his home in Birmingham in January 1899 and is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Preceded by:
Wager Swayne
Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by:
Robert Lindsay


  • Dubose, John Witherspoon (1940) Alabama's Tragic Decade: Ten Years in Alabama, 1865-1874. Birmingham: Webb Book Company
  • Parnell, Ralph Erskine (1958) "The Administration of William Hugh Smith: Governor of Alabama, 1868-1870" Master's thesis. Auburn University
  • Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk (1977) The Scalawag in Alabama Politics: 1865-1881. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press
  • Webb, Samuel L. & Margaret Armbrester, eds. (2001) Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press ISBN 9780817310820
  • Fitzgerald, Michael W. (October 3, 2011) "William Hugh Smith (1868-1870)" Encyclopedia of Alabama - accessed October 28, 2013

External links