Alabama Governors

William Calvin Oates

photo of portrait of Ala. Governor William Calvin Oates




William Calvin Oates was born on November 30,1835, to William and Sarah Sellers Oates of Pike County. He grew up on the family farm and attended local schools. Oates taught school for four years in Henry County and also worked as a carpenter and house painter. In 1858 he began studying law in the office of Pugh, Bullock, and Buford of Eufaula. The young attorney established his own practice in Abbeville in 1859 after he was admitted to the bar. In addition to his law practice, Oates edited a weekly Democratic newspaper.


Oates joined the Confederate Army in 1861 as captain of the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He served as commander of the regiment from the Battle of Sharpsburg until he was transferred in July 1864 to the 48th Alabama Infantry Regiment. In August 1864 Colonel Oates was wounded and lost his right arm near Petersburg, Virginia. He returned to Abbeville after the war and resumed his legal career.


Oates became involved in politics in 1868 by serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in New York. In 1870 he was elected to one term in the state legislature where he was chairman of the ways and means committee. The Confederate veteran chaired the judiciary committee of the state's constitutional convention in 1875. After an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1878, Oates was elected in 1880 to the U.S. House of Representatives. He remained in the House for seven consecutive terms until November 1894 when he was elected governor.


Oates "was a firm advocate of states rights and laissez-faire,...." "In Congress he voted against the Interstate Commerce Commission Act, against the bill to raise the Agricultural Bureau to the status of a department, and for the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act." (Hackney, p. 57)


The 1894 gubernatorial contest between the conservative Oates and Populist Reuben Kolb represented the last serious attempt by Kolb to attain this office. Oates' inauguration on December 1, 1894 was challenged unsuccessfully by the Populist candidate, who took the oath of office before a Montgomery justice of the peace simultaneously with Oates. Kolb's anti-climactic attempt to forcefully gain control of the governorship revealed the decline in support for both the candidate and his platform.


During Oates' administration the state continued its struggle with the effects of the national depression. There were a few bright spots, however. The state's iron industry began exporting its product overseas. In 1896 hydroelectric power was generated on the Tallapoosa River.


After serving as governor, Oates was defeated in 1897 by Edmund W. Pettus in the race for a U.S. Senate seat. President William McKinley appointed Oates brigadier-general during the Spanish-American War, but the conflict ended before he got there. In 1901 Oates played a major role in the state constitutional convention, serving as chairman of the committee on the legislative department and as a member of the committee on suffrage and elections.


Oates continued his law practice in his later years. He was married to Sarah (Sallie) Toney of Eufaula on March 28, 1882. They had one son, William Calvin, Jr. Oates died in Montgomery on September 9, 1910.


Alabama Department of Archives and History, Public Information Subject Files - Governors.
Hackney, Sheldon. Populism to Progressivism in Alabama, 1969.
National Cyclopedia of American Biography, sv.
Owen, Thomas M. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography, 1921.
Stewart, John Craig. The Governors of Alabama, 1975.
Summersell, Charles G. Alabama: A State History, 1955.

Encyclopedia of Alabama