George Smith Houston
George Smith Houston was born on January 17, 1811, in Williamson County,
Tennessee, the son of David and Hannah Pugh (Reagan) Houston. Natives of South
Carolina, the family moved to Tennessee and in ca. 1821 moved to Lauderdale
County, Alabama, where they became farmers. George was the grandson of John and
Mary (Ross) Houston, who emigrated from County Tyrone, Ireland, in 1760.
Houston was educated in the Lauderdale County Academy, read law in the office
of Judge George Coalter in Florence, and completed his studies in Judge Boyle's
law school in Harrodsburg, KY. He was admitted to the bar in 1831, was elected
to the state legislature from Lauderdale County in 1832, and was appointed
district solicitor by Governor Gayle in 1834. In 1837 he was elected as a
solicitor and held the office until 1841. In 1841 he was elected to the US
House of Representatives, a position to which he was reelected eight times,
retiring for only two years in 1849. He retired again in 1861, resigning when
Houston was consistently opposed to secession and ran as a Unionist candidate
for Congress in 1850. He advocated and became a member of the committee of
thirty-three to devise a means to save the union, but when Alabama seceded, he
drafted and presented to the speaker the formal withdrawal of the Alabama
delegation from the US Congress. Houston sympathized with the Confederacy and
contributed to its support.
Houston was elected to the US Senate in 1865, but Alabama was denied
representation. Houston resumed his law practice in Athens, Alabama. In 1874,
Houston defeated the radical incumbent David Lewis and became governor of the
state. Houston was an immensely popular man who became known as the "Bald
Eagle of the Mountains." The conservative Democrats won by a large majority
during the 1874 gubernatorial election, bringing about the victory of the
"White Supremacy" in Alabama. This election was known for its intimidation at
the polls to discourage the Republican vote. Houston, known as the Redeemer
governor of Alabama, won his office with the slogans of "White Supremacy" and
Aside from being a lawyer, Houston also had industrial interests. Before
Houston became governor, he was a close associate of James W. Sloss, one of the
leaders in the industrialization of north Alabama. Houston served as director
of one of the affiliated lines of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Loss,
who associated with the Alabama Democratic-Conservative Party, and William D.
(Pig-Iron) Kelley (Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad), who associated with the
Republican Party, both vied for the mineral resources in north Alabama.
Alabama was eager to fund the railroads, which brought the state to the brink
of bankruptcy. Financing of the railroad systems accounted for $17,000,000 of
the total estimated $25,000,000 debt incurred by the state after the Civil War.
As governor, Houston advocated a policy which converted the penitentiary into a
source of state revenue and urged economy in every department of state. The
most important measure before the legislature during his administration was the
state debt. The greatest challenge, according to Stewart, was deciding which
debts were valid and which were fraudulent. A committee was appointed to
investigate and adjust the debt. The debt commission consisted of Governor
Houston, who served as ex-officio chairman, Tristram B. Bethea and Levi W.
Lawler. The commission recommended that the state turn over to the creditors
first mortgages on the railroads which gad defaulted on interest payments. New
bonds were issued at a lower rate of interest to substitute for the old
carpetbag bonds. The commission's report was adopted and $8,596,000 in bonds
were issued by the state. (Stewart, p. 126) "Since the debt was always a
potential debt and would have become an actual debt only by the state's
becoming the owner of the railroads endorsed, the debt settlement' took the
form of relieving the state of its potential debt and the railroads of the
threat of foreclosure on mortgages held by the state." (Woodward, p. 10)
Residual obligations were therefore reduced to $12,000,000. Alabama staggered
under the interest payments on the old Reconstruction debt for another twenty
years, resulting in the poor and slow development of such public services as
Also during Houston's two-term administration, the Alabama Constitutional
Convention of 1875 was held. The new constitution was marked by the outlawing
of loans by state, county, or municipal governments to private business and by
prohibiting the building of railroads by the state government. The
constitution became effective in December 1875. "The four main points of the
new constitution, followed assiduously by Governor Houston's administration,
were economy, education, payment or abrogation of old Reconstruction debts, and
a complete reversal of the practices of Reconstruction." (Stewart, p. 126)
Houston was reelected governor in 1876. At the expiration of that term in
1878, he was elected to the US Senate. He served in the extra session of 1879,
but did not return to Washington, DC due to ill health. He died in 1879 at his
home in Athens.
It was the Redeemers who laid the lasting foundations in matters of race,
politics, economics, and law for the modern South. Houston's administrations
reorganized the public school system and established the Alabama State Board of
Health, the first public health department in the South. Cullman County was
also created. Stewart states that by the end of Houston's second term, he
managed to reduce taxes and bring state expenditures under control.
Owen, Thomas M. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, 1921.
Stewart, John Craig. The Governors of Alabama, 1975.
Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, 1971.
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