Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State
by Samuel L. Webb and Margaret E. Armbrester
Publisher – University of Alabama Press
Copyright – 2001
Rating – 7/10
Summary – How did Alabama get where it is today? In Alabama Governors, a group of historians and political scientists attempts to explain how Alabama has developed – and failed to develop – by examining the record of each governor from territorial days through 2001. The book is good, but it will appeal only to political junkies with an interest in the Deep South.
Review – They’re all crooks. That’s the common refrain that we hear about U.S. politicians from Americans who have tuned out politics. The book Alabama Governors does not entirely dispel this notion. However, it does suggest that there are significant consequences each time we vote.
This relatively-short book contains a brief (generally 4-5 page) chapter on each Alabama governor. The chapters are authored by different scholars and – at times – this creates redundancies in the book’s presentation and jarring changes in style. At the same time, the book’s editors do achieve their stated goal of presenting a political history of Alabama.
Having suffered through (mandatory) Alabama History classes in high school, I was familiar with much of the book’s material, especially that from the post-World War II era. But I still learned a lot. For instance, as the U.S. approached the Civil War, large segments of north Alabama opposed secession because there were relatively few slaveholders or plantations in the region. Moreover, in the election of 1863, Alabama’s voters were so weary of the war that they elected a governor they thought might establish a separate peace with the Union.
Some other issues about which I learned a lot were the debates over a) the government’s role in the banking system in the early-1800s and b) the degree to which the states should support railroads during the late-1800s. In both cases, the debate centered on whether state support would amount to what we call “corporate welfare” today. In both cases – as with most contentious issues – neither side got everything that it wanted.
While the political history is OK, for many readers the best parts of the book will come from the anecdotes about the often-colorful people who have served as governor. Here are a few tidbits –
- Governor Samuel Moore (1829-1831) was broke at the time of his death. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
- Governor Reuben Chapman (1847-1849) married a 16-year old when he was 39.
- Governor John Winston (1853-1857) shot his wife’s lover. The killing was ruled a “justifiable homicide.”
- Governor William Oates (1894-1896) supported himself as a traveling gambler when he was young.
- Governor Emmet O’Neal (1911-1915) proposed that Alabama regulate not only alcoholic drinks, but also those containing caffeine and cocaine.
- Governor John Patterson (1959-1963) was so strongly against the civil rights movement that he did not even advocate police protection for “freedom riders” in Alabama.
- Governor Guy Hunt (1987-1993) was removed from office after a felony conviction for misuse of campaign funds. Hunt’s policies get a surprisingly-positive review in his chapter.
- Governor Forrest “Fob” James (1979-1983 & 1995-1999) served terms as first a Democrat, then as a Republican. (I saw James get booed at an Auburn football game when I was kid).
Though Alabama Governors is decent, there are flaws. Perhaps the biggest drawback is that all of the writers are academics and – with few exceptions – the stories are told in the scholar’s dull, plodding prose. At its most interesting, politics is about the conflicting passions, hopes, and dreams of the public and of our elected officials. However, all too often the authors in Alabama Governors suck all of the vitality out of the story.
Some readers will not like the authors’ slant, which will surprise no one who has sat through a college history course. Editors Webb and Armbrester set the tone early by citing Governor Benjamin M. Miller as a governor who acted “decisively, forcefully, and shrewdly” (p. 2) by establishing Alabama’s income tax. Unsurprisingly, George Wallace, who advocated segregation during the civil rights era, gets an especially-scathing review for his four terms in office.
While the presentation of Alabama Governors is lacking, the state’s violent, conflict-filled history injects life into the book. Alabama Governors will appeal to just a few readers, but those readers will enjoy it while learning a lot of history.