- Alabama Founders: Fourteen Political and Military Leaders Who Shaped the State by Herbert James Lewis
Rarely does a title undersell a monograph, yet that is the case with Jim Lewis’s recent work. The content of Alabama Founders is much broader than indicated by “Fourteen Political and Military Leaders Who Shaped the State.” Indeed, the narrative of these fourteen men collectively provides a concise overview of certain aspects of the history of the developmental period of Alabama. Taken together, the reader comes away with a sense of the main political and economic issues, at both territorial/state and national levels, of interest to early [End Page 72] citizens of Alabama—public lands, banks, the militia, apportionment, protective tariffs, and slavery.
The author approaches this period via biographies of men who were instrumental in either military or, primarily, political matters from about 1810 to 1840, with a few years on either side of that division. As Lewis notes, he chose the men because he believed that they were “key figures” in shaping Alabama’s history. He makes no claim that the list is all-inclusive. Three, Harry Toulmin, Henry Hitchcock, and Reuben Saffold, participated actively in the territorial stage. Charles Tait, William Wyatt Bibb, Thomas Bibb, LeRoy Pope, and John Williams Walker engaged in the movement for statehood. Leaders in the state constitutional convention of 1819 included John Williams Walker, Clement Comer Clay, Gabriel Moore, Israel Pickens, and William Rufus King. Finally, John Coffee and Samuel Dale represent military figures of importance.
One of the themes of this work is the ubiquitous political influence of men from the Broad River region of Georgia. Known variously as the “Royal Party,” the “Broad River Group,” or the “Georgia Machine,” these men wielded substantial influence on Alabama, particularly during the territorial stage and the earliest years of statehood. Lewis demonstrates the tight circle of politicians who directed the course of early Alabama by tracing the ties among these men. Whether by longstanding acquaintance, friendship, political interests, or marriage, the connections are evident from Virginia to Georgia’s Broad River valley and thence to Alabama, and provided the basis for “membership” in the Broad River faction.
Eight of the key figures were born in Virginia; of the remaining six, three were born in North Carolina, one in Georgia, one in Vermont, and one in England. The majority of these men moved to Alabama to take advantage of the newly opened, rich agricultural lands in what became Alabama. Another commonality shared by these men is that almost all were men of significant wealth at some point in their lives—wealth either derived from or enhanced by their political connections. (The exception was the frontiersman and military figure Samuel Dale.) [End Page 73]
Although unavoidable given the nature of the work, repetition of events and relationships at times gives the reader pause in order to place the new information in context with previous material. The timeline is generally chronological, but again, the interrelationships, as well as the relatively short overall time span, mean that each chapter begins again at some point of Alabama’s territorial period or early statehood. The positive aspect of this organization, however, is that one may use and read the chapters independently. Of course, taking the monograph in its entirety is preferable in order to glean the most complete view possible from the information offered in Alabama Founders.
This work is the latest indication of author Jim Lewis’s interest in early Alabama. Lewis, retired from the U.S. Department of Justice, currently serves on the board of directors of the Alabama Historical Association. His previous monographs include Clearing the Thickets: A History of Antebellum Alabama (New Orleans, 2013) and Lost Capitals of Alabama (Charleston, S.C., 2014).
Alabama Founders is suitable for the general reader, with its emphasis on description rather than analysis. For primary sources, especially family letters and papers, the author mined collections from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Duke University...