Alabama Governors

George Smith Houston

Portrait of Ala. Governor 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 Alabama seceded.


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 "home rule."


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. Sloss, 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 had 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 education.


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.