Alabama Governors

William Dorsey Jelks

photo of portrait of Ala. Governor William Dorsey Jelks




William Dorsey Jelks, thirty-second Governor of Alabama, was born November 7, 1855, at Warrior Stand in Macon County, Alabama. He attended Mercer University where he received his A.M. degree and received an LL.D. from the University of Alabama. In 1879 Jelks acquired a substantial interest in the Union Springs Herald; later that year he bought and became the editor of the Eufaula Times. During his residence in Eufaula, Jelks served on the board and as superintendent of education for the city schools.


Elected to the State Senate from Barbour County in 1898, Jelks served as chairman of the Committee on Constitution, Constitutional Revision and Amendment. In 1900 he was elected President of the Senate. There being no office of lieutenant governor under the State Constitution of 1875, Jelks, by virtue of his position as president of the Senate, served as acting-governor during the temporary incapacitation of Governor William J. Samford from December 1-26, 1900, and succeeded to the office on June 11, 1901, when Samford died.


As governor, Jelks played an active role in securing the ratification of the State Constitution of 1901, which, by executive proclamation, he offered into effect on Thanksgiving Day, 1901. The new constitution reinstated the office of lieutenant governor and established the term of office of governor as four years. Elected to his first full term in 1902, Jelks was the first Alabama governor elected to serve a four-year term. (Owen, p. 900)


Significant accomplishments during Jelks' administration include the passage of legislation limiting and regulating child labor; the establishment of the State Textbook Commission; the reforms of the State Railroad Commission and the convict lease system; the renovation and expansion of the State Capitol and the creation of Houston County. (Owen, p. 900)


The legislature prohibited manufacturers from employing children under twelve years of age or working them more than sixty-six hours per week. (Acts of Alabama, 1903. No. 57. p. 68)


The State Textbook Commission was established to provide a uniform series of textbooks for use in the state's public schools. According to Owen, the state realized a savings of several hundred thousand dollars in this way. (Acts of Alabama, 1903. No. 164. pp. 167-181; Owen, p. 900)


Public indignation with the high freight rates charged by the railroads resulted in a reform of the State Railroad Commission, whereby the commissioners began to be directly elected in 1903. Jelks' understanding of the workings of the commission was inadequate and although he viewed the change to direct election of commissioners with apprehension, he signed the bill into law. (Acts of Alabama, 1903. No. 415. pp. 354-356; Owen, p. 901)


A keen scrutiny of the bookkeeping practices and greater accountability in general were applied to the state's convict lease system. A larger percentage of the proceeds from the hire of county convicts was returned to the counties, the state assumed greater responsibility for the care and feeding of convicts contracted to mine operators and lumber camps and the overall health of state convicts improved. Efficient administration of the convict system net the state nearly $400,000 per year between 1901 and 1906. (Stewart, p. 154)


A legislative appropriation in 1903 of $150,000 for expansion and renovation of the State Capitol enabled the state to acquire a block of houses directly south of the Capitol, on which were constructed additional offices for state officials. The recently established State Department of Archives and History was provided offices and storage space in the new wing of the Capitol. (Owen, p. 901)


Houston County was created in the southeastern corner of the state from lands belonging to Henry, Dale, and Geneva counties. It was named in honor of Governor George S. Houston and Dothan was named the county seat. (Stewart, p. 154)


When Jelks left office in 1907 he had served longer than any governor before him. He left a cash balance in the treasury of $1.8 million, which he recommended be spent on education. After leaving office, he organized the Protective Life Insurance Company in Birmingham and served as its first president. He was a delegate to the 1912 Democratic Convention in Baltimore that nominated Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. Jelks died on December 14, 1931. (Owen, p. 901; Stewart, p. 154)


Marks, Henry. Who Was Who in Alabama, 1972.
Owen, Thomas McAdory. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, Vol. III 1921.
Stewart, John Craig. The Governors of Alabama, 1975.