The history of the U.S. state of Alabama begins formally in 1819 when the Alabama territory became a state. The economy of the central "black belt" had large rich slave plantations that grew cotton. Elsewhere poor whites were subsistence farmers. Alabama seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, 1861-65. It suffered greatly in the American Civil War; all the slaves were freed by 1865. After a period of Reconstruction it emerged as a poor rural state, still tied to cotton, with high racial tensions between the ruling whites and the recently emancipated African Americans; many of the latter migrated north after 1917. Politically the state was one-party Democratic, and produced a number of national leaders. World War II brought prosperity. Cotton faded in importance as the state developed a manufacturing and service base. After 1980 the state became a Republican stronghold in presidential elections, and leans Republican in statewide elections, while the Democratic Party still dominates local and legislative offices.
Among Native American] tribes living in present Alabama in precontact times were the Alabama, (Alibamu), Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Koasati, and Mobile tribes.
The French in 1702 settled on the Mobile river and there erected Fort Louis, which for the next nine years was the seat of government of Louisiana. In 1711 Fort Louis was abandoned to the floods of the river, and on higher ground was built Fort Conde, the gem of the present city of [[Mobile, Alabama|Mobile, and the first permanent white settlement in Alabama. Later, on account of the intrigues of the English traders with the Indians, the French as a means of defense established the military posts of Fort Toulouse, near the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, and Fort Tombecbe on the Tombigbee River.
The grant of Georgia to Oglethorpe and his associates in 1732 included a portion of what is now northern Alabama, and in 1739 Oglethorpe himself visited the Creek Indians west of the Chattahoochee River and made a treaty with them.
The Treaty of Paris (1763) terminated the French occupation, and Great Britain came into undisputed possession of the region between the Chattahoochee and the Mississippi Rivers. The portion of Alabama below the 31st parallel then became a part of West Florida, and the portion north of this line a part of the Illinois Country," set apart, by royal proclamation, for the use of the Indians. In 1767 the province of West Florida was extended northward to 32 degrees 28' N. lat., and a few years later, during the American Revolutionary War, this region fell into the hands of Spain.
By the Treaty of Versailles (1783), on September 3, 1783, Great Britain ceded West Florida to Spain; but by the Treaty of Paris (1783), signed the same day, she ceded to the United States all of this province north of 31 degrees, and thus laid the foundation for a long controversy.
By the Treaty of Madrid, in 1795, Spain ceded to the United States her claims to the lands east of the Mississippi between 31 degrees and 32 degrees 28'; and three years later (1798) this district was organized by Congress as the Mississippi Territory. A strip of land 12 or 14 m. wide near the present northern boundary of Alabama and Mississippi was claimed by South Carolina; but in 1787 that state ceded this claim to the general government. Georgia likewise claimed all the lands between the 31st and 35th parallels from its present western boundary to the Mississippi river, and did not surrender its claim until 1802; two years later the boundaries of the Mississippi Territory were extended so as to include all of the Georgia cession.
In 1812 Congress annexed to the Mississippi Territory the Mobile District of West Florida, claiming that it was included in the Louisiana Purchase; and in the following year General James Wilkinson occupied this district with a military force, the Spanish commandant offering no resistance. The whole area of the present state of Alabama then for the first time became subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.
In 1817 the Mississippi Territory was divided; the western portion became the state of Mississippi, and the eastern portion became the Alabama Territory, with St. Stephens, on the Tombigbee River, as the temporary seat of government.
The Indian problem was important. With the encroachment of the white settlers upon their hunting-grounds the Creek Indians began to grow restless, and the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who visited them in 1811, fomented their discontent. When the outbreak of the second war with Britain in 1812 gave the Creeks assurance of British aid they rose in arms, massacred several hundred settlers who had taken refuge in Fort Mims, near the junction of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers, and in a short time no white family in the Creek country was safe outside a palisade. The Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians, however, remained the faithful allies of the whites, and volunteers from Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, and later United States troops, marched to the rescue of the threatened settlements. In the campaign that followed the most distinguished services were rendered by General Andrew Jackson, whose vigorous measures broke for ever the power of the Creek Confederacy. By the treaty of Fort Jackson (August 9, 1814) the Creeks ceded their claims to about one-half of the present state; and cessions by the Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws in 1816 left only about one-fourth of Alabama to the Indians.
A State in the Union
In 1819 Alabama was regularly admitted as the 22nd state to the Union.
One of the first problems of the new commonwealth was that of finance. Since the amount of money in circulation was not sufficient to meet the demands of the increasing population, a system of state banks was instituted. State bonds were issued and public lands were sold to secure capital, and the notes of the banks, loaned on security, became a medium of exchange. Prospects of an income from the banks led the legislature of 1836 to abolish all taxation for state purposes. This was hardly done, however, before the panic of 1837 wiped out a large portion of the banks' assets; next came revelations of grossly careless and even of corrupt management, and in 1843 the banks were placed in liquidation. After disposing of all their available assets, the state assumed the remaining liabilities, for which it had pledged its faith and credit.
In 1832 the national government provided for the removal of the Creeks; but before the terms of the contract were effected, the state legislature formed the Indian lands into counties, and settlers flocked in.
The state became a prosperous center of slave plantations growing cotton in the Black Belt, with subsistence farmers (with few slaves) eking out a living on the poorer lands. All the whites were committed to a spirit of frontier democracy and egalitarianism, and a fierce defense of their republican values of civic virtue and opposition to corruption. J. Mills Thornton (1978) argues that Whigs argued for positive state action to benefit society as a whole while the Democrats feared any increase of power in government or in such private institutions as state-chartered banks, railroads and corporations. Fierce political battles raged in Alabama on issues ranging from banking to the removal of the Creek Indians, but Thornton suggests that there was actually only one issue in the state's politics: how to protect liberty and white equality, or, to put the matter another way, how to avoid slavery. Fears that Northern agitators threatened their value system angered the voters and made them ready to secede when Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. [Thornton 1978]
Until 1832 there was only one party in the state, the Democratic, but the question of nullification caused a division that year into the (Jackson) Democratic party and the State's Rights (Calhoun Democratic) party; about the same time an opposition party emerged, the Whig party. It drew support from plantation owners and townsmen, while the Democrats were strongest among poor farmers and Catholics in the Mobile area. For some time the Whigs were almost as numerous as the Democrats, but they never secured control of the state government. The State's Rights faction were in a minority; nevertheless under their active and persistent leader, William L. Yancey (1814-1863), they prevailed upon the Democrats in 1848 to adopt their most radical views. During the agitation over the Wilmot Proviso which would bar slavery from territory acquired from Mexico, Yancey induced the Democratic State Convention of 1848 to adopt what is known as the "Alabama Platform." It declared that neither Congress nor the government of a territory had the right to interfere with slavery in a territory, that those who held opposite views were not Democrats, and that the Democrats of Alabama would not support a candidate for the presidency if he did not agree with them on these questions. This platform was endorsed by conventions in Florida and Virginia and by the legislatures of Georgia and Alabama. Old party lines were broken by the Compromise of 1850. The State's Rights faction, joined by many Democrats, founded the Southern Rights party, which demanded the repeal of the Compromise, advocated resistance to future encroachments and prepared for secession, while the Whigs, joined by the remaining Democrats, formed the party known as the "Unionists," which unwillingly accepted the Compromise and denied the "constitutional" right of secession.
The "Unionists" were successful in the elections of 1851 and 1852, but the feeling of uncertainty engendered in the south by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and the course of the slavery agitation after 1852 led the State Democratic convention of 1856 to revive the "Alabama Platform"; when the "Alabama Platform" failed to secure the formal approval of the Democratic National convention at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860, the Alabama delegates, followed by those of the other cotton "states," withdrew. Upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, Governor Andrew B. Moore, according to previous instructions of the legislature, called a state convention. Secession had been opposed by many prominent men, and in North Alabama an attempt was made to organize a neutral state to be called Nickajack; but with President Lincoln's call to arms most opposition to secession ended.
On January 11, 1861 The State of Alabama adopted the ordinances of secession from the Union (by a vote of 61-39). Until February 18, 1861 Alabama was informally called the Alabama Republic. It never changed its formal name which always has been "State of Alabama." (The term "Republic of Alabama" was popularized in the 1990s by neoconfederate groups.)
Alabama soon joined the Confederate States of America, whose government was organized at Montgomery on February 4, 1861, but in the summer moved to Richmond, Virginia.
Civil War 1861-1865
Governor Moore energetically supported the Confederate war effort. Even before hostilities began he seized federal facilities, sent agents to buy rifles in the Northeast, and scoured the state for weapons. Despite some resistance in the northern part of the state, Alabama joined the Confederate States of America. Congressman Williamson R. W. Cobb was a Unionist and pleaded for compromise. When he ran for the Confederate congress in 1861, he was defeated, but in 1863, with the war weariness growing in Alabama, he was elected on a wave of antiwar sentiment. The new nation brushed Cobb aside and set up its temporary capital in Montgomery and selected Jefferson Davis as president. In May the Confederate government abandoned Montgomery before the sickly season began, and relocated in Richmond. Virginia.
Some idea of the severe internal logistics problems the Confederacy faced can be seen by tracing Davis's journey from Mississippi, the next state over. From his plantation on the river he took a steamboat down the Mississippi to Vicksburg, boarded a train to Jackson, where he took another train north to Grand Junction, then a third train east to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a fourth train to Atlanta, Georgia. Yet another train took Davis to the Alabama border, where a final train took him to Montgomery. As the war proceeded the Federals seized the Mississippi River, burned trestles and railroad bridges, and tore up track; the frail Confederate railroad system faltered and virtually collapsed for want of repairs and replacement parts.
In the early part of the Civil War Alabama was not the scene of military operations, yet the state contributed about 120,000 men to the Confederate service, practically all her white population capable of bearing arms. Most were recruited locally and served with men they knew, which built esprit and strengthened ties to home. Medical conditions were severe; about 15% died of disease, and 10% from battle. Alabama had few well-equipped hospitals but it had many women who volunteered to nurse the sick and wounded. Soldiers were poorly equipped, especially after 1863, and often resorted to pillaging the dead for boots, belts, canteens, blankets, hats, shirts and pants. Uncounted thousands of slaves worked with Confederate troops; they took care of horses and equipment, cooked and did laundry, hauled supplies, and helped in field hospitals. Other slaves built defensive installations, especially those around Mobile. They graded roads, repaired railroads, drove supply wagons, and labored in iron mines, iron foundries and even in the munitions factories. The service of slaves was involuntary, their unpaid labor was impressed from their unpaid masters. About 10,000 slaves escaped and joined the Union army, along with 2,700 white men.
Thirty-nine Alabamians attained the rank of general, most notably Lieutenant General James Longstreet and Admiral Raphael Semmes. Josiah Gorgas who came to Alabama from Pennsylvania, was the chief of ordnance for the Confederacy. He located new munitions plants in Selma, which employed 10,000 workers until the Union raiders in 1865 burned the factories down. Selma Arsenal made most of the Confederacy's ammunition. The Selma Naval Ordnance Works made artillery, turning out a cannon every five days. The Confederate Naval Yard built ships and was noted for launching the CSS Tennessee in 1863 to defend Mobile Bay. Selma's Confederate Nitre Works procured niter, for gunpowder, from limestone caves. When supplies were low, it advertised for housewives to save the contents of their chamber pots--urine, a rich source of nitrogen.
Alabama soldiers fought in hundreds of battles; the state's losses at Gettysburg were 1,750 dead plus even more captured or wounded; the famed "Alabama Brigade" took 781 casualties. In 1863 the Federal forces secured a foothold in northern Alabama in spite of the opposition of General Nathan B. Forrest. From 1861 the federal blockade shut Mobile, and in 1864 the outer defenses of Mobile were taken by a Federal fleet; the city itself held out until April 1865. 
According to the presidential plan of reorganization, a provisional governor for Alabama was appointed in June 1865; a state convention met in September of the same year, and declared the ordinance of secession null and void and slavery abolished; a legislature and a governor were elected in November, the legislature was at once recognized by President Andrew Johnson, but not by Congress, which refused to seat the delegation. Johnson ordered the Army to allow the inauguration of the governor after the legislature ratified the thirteenth amendment in December, 1865. But the passage, by the legislature, of Black Codes or vagrancy and apprenticeship laws designed to control the Freedmen who were flocking from the plantations to the towns, and its rejection of the fourteenth amendment, intensified the congressional hostility to the presidential plan. In 1867 Radical Reconstruction placed the state under military government. The Freedmen were now enrolled as voters and large numbers of white citizens were disfranchised. The new Republican party, comprised of Freedmen, Scalawags and Carpetbaggers now took control, two years after the war ended. A constitutional convention, controlled by this element, met in November 1867, and framed a constitution which conferred universal manhood suffrage. Whites who had fought for the Confederacy were disfranchised. The Reconstruction Acts of Congress required every new constitution to be ratified by a majority of the legal voters of the state. The whites of Alabama largely stayed away from the polls, and, after five days of voting, the constitution wanted 13,550 to secure a majority. Congress then enacted that a majority of the votes cast should be sufficient, and thus the constitution went into effect, the state was readmitted to the Union in June 1868, and a new governor and legislature were elected.
The next two years are notable for legislative extravagance and corruption, according to white Alabamians. The state endorsed railway bonds at the rate of $12,000 and $16,000 a mile until the state debt had increased from eight millions to seventeen millions of dollars, and similar corruption characterized local government. The native white people united, formed a Conservative party and elected a governor and a majority of the lower house of the legislature in 1870; but, as the new administration was largely a failure, in 1872 there was a reaction in favor of the Radicals, a local term applied to the Republican party. In 1874, however, the power of the Radicals was finally broken, the Conservative Democrats electing all state officials. A commission appointed to examine the state debt found it to be $25,503,000; by compromise it was reduced to $15,000,000. A new constitution was adopted in 1875, which omitted the guarantee of the previous constitution that no one should be denied suffrage on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude, and forbade the state to engage in internal improvements or to give its credit to any private enterprise.
After 1874 the Democratic party had constant control of the state administration. The Republicans were by now largely a Black party which held no local or state offices, but did have some federal patronage. It failed to make nominations for office in 1878 and 1880 and endorsed the ticket of the Greenback party in 1882]. The development of mining and manufacturing was accompanied by economic distress among the farming classes, which found expression in the Jeffersonian Democratic party, organized in 1892. The regular Democratic ticket was elected and the new party was then merged into the Populist party. In 1894 the Republicans united with the Populists, elected three congressional representatives, secured control of many of the counties, but failed to carry the state, and continued their opposition with less success in the next campaigns. Partisanship became intense, and Democratic charges of corruption of the ignorant Black electorate were matched by Republican and Populist accusations of fraud and violence by Democrats. Consequently, after division on the subject among the Democrats themselves, as well as opposition of Republicans and Populists, a new constitution with restrictions on suffrage was adopted in 1901.
Origins of New South 1876-1914
New South Alabama, 1914-1945
Feldman (1999) has shown that the KKK was not a mere hate group; it showed a genuine desire for political and social reform. Alabama Klansmen were among the foremost advocates of better public schools, effective prohibition enforcement, expanded road construction, and other "progressive" measures. By 1925 the Klan was powerful political force in the state, as powerful figures like J. Thomas Heflin, David Bibb Graves, and Hugo Black manipulated the KKK membership against the power of the "Big Mule" industrialists and Black Belt planters who had long dominated the state.
In 1926 Bibb Graves, a former chapter head, won the governor's office with KKK members' support. He led one of the most progressive administrations in the state's history, pushing for increased education funding, better public health, new highway construction, and pro-labor legislation. At the same time KKK vigilantes---thinking they enjoyed governmental protection--launched a wave of physical terror across Alabama in 1927, targeting both blacks and whites. The conservative elite counterattacked. The major newspapers kept up a steady, loud attack on the Klan as violent and unAmerican. Sheriffs cracked down on Klan violence. The counterattack worked; the state voted for Al Smith in 1928, and the Klan's official membership plunged to under six thousand by 1930.
Postwar: Decline of Cotton 1945-1970
- Some content on this page may previously have appeared on Wikipedia.
- It is possible that a member of Pánfilo de Narváez's expedition of 1528 entered what is now southern Alabama, but the first fully authenticated visit was that of Hernando de Soto, who made an arduous but fruitless journey along the Coosa, Alabama and Tombigbee rivers in 1539.
- Rogers, ch 12
- Hackney (1969)