There is a lot of moving parts floating around in this two-module case study of the formation of the first “non-womb” Cotton Belt state: Alabama.

First, and most obvious, this module is the final episode in our Cotton Belt mini-series. After this case study, we proceed directly into a second mini-series on the Deep South developmental “connect-the-dots MED infrastructure”. Our final Cotton Belt case study introduces the dynamics, relationships and key issues that featured in the formation of the state Cotton Belt antebellum policy systems. This Alabama case study explores, somewhat selectively, the formation of the Cotton Belt’s first non-womb state policy system over three decades or so (1818 to 1850).

We try to provide a basic understanding of Cotton Belt state-building that led to a distinctive Deep South region and political culture, while sensitizing the reader that each state in the Deep South is “different in its own way”. Simply put, the various groups/classes that are typically included in the Deep South political culture encounter different historical legacies, geographies, time lines that mix up the state’s political evolution that followed Cotton Belt emigration–and render its policy-making in its own way distinctive, not only from policy-making in the North, but from other Deep South states. It is from these differences, less so than from their shared features, that we better understand ED policy-making.

The Alabama case study focuses on the formation of the state’s policy system and the development and strength of its dominant political culture, the Scots-Irish, and how the two combined to produce very distinctive Mainstream ED (MED) banking and transportation (roads, canals, and railroads) policy outputs that contrasted with those of other Deep South states. From the “get-go”, Deep South state policy systems handled economic development in their own personalistic ways–as did those states in the North. ED policy-wise, states have always been different from each other in how they handle economic development. Module A (this module) deals with the development of the Alabama state policy systems from 1817 to 1860, and Module B concentrates on the MED banking and transportation strategies and policies as produced by these policy systems–each dominated by their respective political culture.

State-Building in the Antebellum Deep South

In the last module we learned that states matter. Whatever the formal or legal role states play in our federal republic, they are also the vehicle, the container within which a distinctive set of policy systems flourish within a larger region that shares time lines, economic bases and population flows. Each state is unique in some way interesting and critical to the evolution of its sub-state policy systems. Each state produces ED policy outputs that. like fingerprints, are different from outputs produced by neighboring states within the same (sub)region.

As the Alabama case study attempts that larger task, it necessarily touches upon a goodly number of dynamics, relationships, and key issues involved in the initial formation of a Deep South state-level policy system. Because of slavery and a shared cotton/export dominant economic base, Deep South antebellum policy systems developed an apartheid-like racial policy system, based on an agricultural-export-plantation-cotton nexus resting primarily on two classes: plantation-owners and yeoman farmers. Wedged between those two are a weaker commercial-finance and a small industrial business elite. A hollowed-out artisan and upper-middle-class is typical of this policy system.

The predominant agricultural economic base tilts political development toward a dominant state-level policy system because an agricultural economic base limits the scale and intensity of urbanization, i.e. inhibits the formation of truly larger municipal “Big Cities”. The rural character of agricultural systems inherently centralizes major policy-making to higher levels better able to accumulate the mass of resources and actors sufficient to make and implement such policy. While Big City Northern Industrial Hegemony also developed state-dominate systems (Massachusetts), decentralized Big Cities dominant are more common in the 19th Century. States that are industrializing  produce Big Cities with meaningful policy autonomy from the state policy system, even in those states where the state is dominant. Deep South states in the antebellum Early Republic, however, are the dominant players within the state.

The somewhat unique aspect of Alabama–and first generation (until 1835 or so) Cotton Belt states-is the context and time period in which early state policy system formation occurs. Relatively large population flows, a frenzied land rush, and a “carving up” of the state’s geography into isolated fragments more suitable for cotton plantation or yeoman household-hardscrabble farming make the newly-created/weakly institutionalized antebellum state the only place where clashing cultures and economic bases, not to ignore competing partisanship, can effectively (or not) be mediated. Local diversity and disparities had to be resolved at the state-level.

The structure of the state policy system therefore either potentially “opened” or “closed” the state system to input and access from these disparate and usually competing cultures and geographies. Alabama was a very open system (relative to the time period)–comparable to Pennsylvania–and state politics and policy-making was “captured” by agricultural yeoman farmers with a very distinct political culture. That culture I shall argue produced a distinct set of Mainstream ED (MED) policy outputs quite different from some of its Deep South neighbors.

Contrary to the Big City Northern state policy systems (and economic bases) which are literally almost two-hundred years old at this period, Deep South state policy systems developed from newly-created, institutionally weak Territorial policy systems. In 1800 most of what will be the Deep South Cotton Belt is not even a part of the United States–it is governed by foreign nations, and settled by Native Americans and “expats” from the mother country. When acquired by the Federal Government, a period of some flux occurred, followed by establishment of formal, but meaningless political authority by somebody or somebodies. There was no Northwest Ordinance or Articles of Confederation as experienced by the Midwest. In Alabama’s case, the Alabama Territory was created in 1817, and statehood (and state constitution) achieved in 1819. The Cotton Belt land rush started in 1815. Its largest/oldest urban center, Mobile, had 300 residents.

Such fragile political infrastructure was simply overwhelmed by a relatively large cotton/land hungry emigration that settled these isolated, truly wilderness geographies and created communities, plantations, and homesteads before legal and financial institutions were established. The legacy of a grossly imperfect and geographically varied land rush settlement greatly affected the development of a state political culture–and its future politics and policy-making.

The Subtle Moving Parts to be Discovered

According to our Chapter One Model, the building blocks of an ED policy system are formation of jurisdictions (or not), development of the economic base with its distinctive industries/sectors, and the arrival or formation of political culture(s) relevant to its resident population. These larger dynamic forces underlie nearly all our moving parts found in this case study, and which are listed in the below points.

  • Geography, topography in particular, exerted a major league impact on Alabama’s emerging policy system. Topography profoundly affected the nature of the economic base that developed in Alabama’s sub-state regions. The fact that the predominant economic base was agricultural, dependent on cotton especially, made topography a prime determinant of a sub-state region’s economic base. Cotton did not grow well in highlands, and not at all in more mountainous areas. Alabama sorted itself out as to where the cotton nexus went, or didn’t. Where it was not suitable, yeoman farmers, Scots-Irish usually in Alabama’s case, migrated, and dominated. Geography affected the placement of economic bases, and the predominance of one migratory/cultural grouping throughout Alabama. Distinctive politics and policy-making was sure to follow.
  • While not evident in the time period under review–or in this case study–the initial economic base set up in this period resulted in distinctive policy systems being developed at the sub-state level, and most critically through the prism of two hundred years of history, set each community on its distinctive path thru history. This separate path will become evident in Part II of Theme 3. I might gratuitously observe, that separate path is still evident today as I write this history. Again, these separate and distinctive sub-state paths can, and often do, produce distinctive ED policy outputs.
  • On the other hand, this mini-series obviously explores the formation of the aggregate state-level Deep South political culture. The culture did not sufficiently mature until about the 1850’s but how it evolved in the period before explains much as to how it evolved after. It is a chaotic period, which is the point–Alabama was a state in the “making”, despite its 1819 statehood which was approved previous to the formation of its economic base configuration or political cultures, and which underwent continual stress from the various legacies created by its land rush excesses. As we observe the incremental development of political culture, we can see for ourselves how well the South Carolina “deference culture” transferred over the border. Hint–for the most part, it didn’t. Alabama’s Deep South culture will not be a pure clone of its parent.
  • Finally, this case study will expend considerable time in developing the particular affect of Scots-Irish political culture as it applied MED (mainstream ED). They hated banks–a core institution of industrial capitalism–and wen’t especially fond of internal improvements or railroads. Yet, I must confess to the reader, the story changes dramatically in Theme 3 Part 2. Still the Whig-Democratic Party struggle in these years constantly centered on capitalism, economic development, and the role of the national government in state and local matters. In this struggle we glean some primordial factors that influenced what some call “populism”.
  • Scots-Irish, while certainly associated with populism through the years, are not identical to populism. Scots-Irish pursued many occupations and participated in several different political cultures, but they revealed in actual politics how their attitudes, beliefs, and values–which can be held by any number of people and ethnic groups–and their particular perspective on policy as a struggle between elites and masses suggests we are dealing with political class, a working class response to capitalism and economic growth–or the lack of it. In any case, Scots-Irish, populists or not, had, as would be described on Facebook, a “complicated relationship” with capitalist growth–and economic development in all its forms.

Alabama, the First Notch in the Cotton Belt

The principal focus of the remainder of this module concentrates on antebellum Alabama and its pioneering venture in the Rise of the Cotton Belt.  My goal is to integrate the key elements in the cotton boom migration and explain how they impacted the political and economic institutionalization of the State Policy System. Of necessity, the cultural impacts of planters and yeoman Scots-Irish farmers are important element in that description. The end goal, as always, is to lay the foundation for the making of ED-related policy by private and public actors. That end goal is the exclusive subject of the next and last module (Module 4) in the Mini-Series A.

Alabama Cotton Migration Micro Study 

The Alabama case study does not comprehensively describe antebellum Alabama state history; instead it selects elements and factors that shed character and insight on the antebellum Rise of Cotton Belt-style economic development. We necessarily start with the initial migration into what was a non-settled (by Europeans, of course) wilderness region at the turn of the 19th Century.

The numbers by today’s standards are not high, of course, and Alabama Fever era numbers were not shockingly high. The 1848 California gold rush brought in around 300,000 prospectors, but the entire state of Alabama totaled around 1,250 residents in 1800, about 9,000 in 1810–but nearly 128,000 in 1820–a whopping 309,000 by 1830, and 590,800 in 1840. Slaves in 1820 were approximately one-third (40,000) of the state’s population. Population growth of this duration and intensity created a sustained land rush. Called the “Alabama Fever”, it spread into Panhandle Florida,  Mississippi, Louisiana and even Spanish Texas.

There were two separate and distinct population flows, both employed slaves (at least potentially), but they intended to set up  very different agricultural economic bases: cotton plantation or yeoman farming. Topography predisposed the land they settled on. Cotton plantation were platted in the central Alabama Fall Line (as in Georgia, North/South Carolina); yeoman moved into the highlands or the Alabama Upcountry equivalent. The two groups did not arrive at the same time. The Scots-Irish yeoman, arriving later, came in huge numbers that dwarfed plantation owners and slaves–there in lies the tale to be told.

A second boom commenced after the 1828 federal Indian Removal Act  not only in Alabama but in neighboring Mississippi. In 1834 Rothman describing Mississippi, but applying to Alabama as well as a place “where every man had a scheme for realizing a fast fortune  and a collateral conviction that a person of humble origins might soon be a giant among his fellows” creating a “mania” that would not end “until every acre is purchased and cultivated” and the state became “one vast cotton field[1]. This second land boom frenzy attracted an entirely new wave of migrants that quickly toppled the previous Alabama state policy system, leaving scars and decades of future conflict.

In theory, the Federal Government was in charge. Textbooks imply Territorial government was running the territory, but I’m sure that was news to Alabama residents. The real action in 1814 was the Indian war,  and in 1815, peace, and the start of Indian Removal. If anyone was in charge at this time, it was General Andrew Jackson. Land taken from Indians was to transferred to the federal government, and sold, very cheaply to mostly private individuals in land auctions –auctions that fueled the land rush/cotton boom. Sale was to begin after completion of federal land survey.

In 1814, General Jackson upgraded a rather crude road into Alabama, and to feed his army extended it deep into central Alabama. Incredibly rough by even early 19th Century standards the road fueled emigration into Alabama. After effects of Jackson’s first Seminole War (1819) triggered more turbulence, undoing a great deal of his earlier treaties with the Creeks, and wound up fueling yet another unconscionable land grab of Alabama Indian lands. By this time the land rush was ongoing.

Those with capital, typically South Carolina or Georgian plantation owners or their siblings were able to purchase plantation sized acreage.  A few yeoman farmers, with limited capital also laid claim and bought a homestead from the feds. A consider number of impoverished homesteaders simply squatted without any interference from government, and hoped for the best–a sort of Scots-Irish business plan for yeoman farm homesteading. With no state banks then in existence eventually they would need capital and become seriously debt-ridden.

Settlements formed, along rivers, the Alabama Fall Line, and on key points on the Federal roads. Most of Alabama’s currently largest cities were incorporated in this period: Huntsville, the first 1811, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery 1819, Decatur 1821–with Mobile incorporated by the French in 1702, and home to a whooping 300 in 1813.

Alabama Fever Struck Before Alabama was a State: Roots of the First Policy System

The Alabama “deck of cards” was stacked long before the Scots-Irish land boom began. The initial Alabama emigration started several years before the Indian wars. They were transplanted (pun) Tidewater plantation Virginians who resettled around Georgia’s Broad River around 1784. In 1809 three of these fine folk crossed over the Alabama state boundary into the county adjacent to Georgia (Madison County, Huntsville). Establishing a controlling presence over much of the Tennessee River valley areas where plantation economics were suitable, they set up a bank, built mansions on their plantations, imported slaves, and cultivated a well-deserved reputation for ill-treating the yeoman farmers who followed. Outsiders likened the Broad River grouping to an aristocracy, and their Alabama offspring were informally called “the Royal Party” or the Georgia Faction.

Having set them up as an ill-tempered,, if not cruel aristocracy, the Broad River Faction were descendants of Washington’s Tidewater political wing which–aristocratic though it may be–strongly embraced democracy. The Georgia Faction were Federalists, determined and willing to live under, and lead, a democratic republic elected by “the people”. Unlike Deep South plantation owners, they were comfortable with a strong federal government, and disposed to use government to further personal and public ends. They were agricultural capitalists of the first order.  Quite successful politically and economically, they elected several of their ilk to Congress and the Georgia governorship.

Relying on Georgia Broad River Senators and Congressmen, they enjoyed substantial access to Congress which possessed power to grant statehood. Dominating the Territorial Government that formed in 1817, the Georgia Faction were able to dictate the terms and conditions for statehood approval in 1819. William Bibb, a member of the Georgia Faction, governor of Territory, unsurprisingly became governor of the new State.

While the initial Georgia Faction settled along the Georgia border south to the Tennessee River, a second grouping–far more numerous than the first–participated in the first frenzy, establishing a second  Georgia Faction stronghold (1818) along the Fall Line centered around today’s Montgomery. They were joined by the sons of Carolina’s and other Georgia plantation owners. , they were able to dominate politically the area that was to be the heartland of Alabama’s Cotton Belt.

This was fortunate for them in that a second wave of Tennessee yeoman farmers were moving in great numbers into the hills and highlands in Alabama’s Upcountry counties. Newly-arrived, not particularly politically active, they squatted in great numbers, and lacking access to capital were able at best to set up subsistence, hardscrabble farms. Since the federal surveys, the first step in being able to file a claim, were completed only in late 1817, these folk were squatters by definition.

Jeffersonian anti-Federalists, well on their way to becoming states-rights populists (Jackson himself a Unionist), they were the prototypical “common man”. To provide the reader a peek into the future, in 1823 these Scots-Irish migrants joined with a former North Carolina politician, Israel Pickens (whose Pennsylvania descendants immigrated from Ulster Ireland), and toppled the Georgia Faction in a realignment election that set up a second policy system.

Constructing the Alabama State Policy System

Early (1816) Alabama population was estimated to be about 13,000. By the end of that year, it had nearly doubled (25,000).  By late spring 1817, 33,000 were bidding for land as the land auctions began. By 1819, population exceeded 70,000–and by 1820 the Census found 127,000. This is the first frenzy, and while it was going on Alabama became a state, elected its first legislature, and wrote and approved its first constitution–which was NOT ratified by popular referendum. Guess who dominated that governmental process?

Future Governor Bibb literally wrote first Alabama state constitution and set in place its first policy system which lasted until 1823–sufficient time to set up the key political structures that granted Alabama voters some of the most “liberal”, non-authoritarian rights and powers of that day. In fact, opponents of the Georgia Faction tried to delay the statehood application that would follow from formulation/approval of a state constitution by refusing to participate in the committee. What emerged–and was later approved without popular referendum–was a product of the Georgia Faction.

Alabama and Deep South cotton belt states incorporated slavery into state constitutions by default [2]. Still, the Georgia Faction was a Tidewater-Virginia refugee, not a South Carolinian Barbadian offshoot, and the Georgia Faction produced a constitution that was arguably the most liberal adopted in any southern state (Kentucky was a close rival).

The state constitution did not copy Georgian or South Carolina legislative dominance and its election of a governor. Instead, it created a strong governor with a limited veto–atypical of the Early Republic. Local government was infused with a long ballot, but four out five county commissioners were locally elected. Adopting New England-like strictures, local government was required to set aside land for educational purposes Reapportionment was required every six years.

Slaves could be emancipated, importation of slaves from Africa forbidden, slaves must be provided  with “necessary food and clothing“, slave owners were required “to abstain from all injuries … extending to life and limb“, and slaves accused of a crime  were guaranteed jury trials. Suffrage was, of course, restricted to whites (and men) but without property restrictions/poll tax. Electoral districts were NOT based on population that included slaves. There would be no need for an 1808 South Carolina-style compromise. Alabama from the start enjoyed one man, one vote.

The document rejected the restrictive nature of other emerging southern legal systems, such as those of Mississippi and Louisiana, … [which limited] suffrage and imprisonment for debts [and compulsory draft for state militia] [3].

The Broad River group, though it may with a degree of justice be called a branch of the ‘southern aristocracy’ was not at all aristocratic in the political theories it accepted … They had gained position and power in Georgia under a professedly democratic system, and they expected to achieve success in Alabama on the same terms…. [and] if their political dreams failed to materialize they would not be excessively disappointed…. accumulation of wealth was one of the groups primary goals [4]

Accordingly, the constitution was surprisingly liberal and “reflected a frontier confidence in the common man, and an even stronger belief in equality[5]. To be sure, the constitution permitted considerable local autonomy in local and county government, through which the planter class would be able to assert local dominance in Cotton Belt counties where it prospered.

This liberalism explains much of why the Broad River Georgia Faction was so quickly turned out of office in the 1822 election. The state constitution opened the door for the predominately Scots-Irish horde that was fast descending on the state.

Initially, Scots-Irish lacked a charismatic leader to mobilize them to oppose the Georgia Faction. They quickly found one, however, Israel Pickens, a Scots-Irish former North Carolina Congressman, a planter and banker by trade. Originally allied with the Georgia Faction, in late 1820 Pickens broke from their ranks and ran for Governor. Mobilizing the previously unmobilized Scots-Irish settler, he opportunistically embraced their desperation arising from the Panic of 1819, and their hopes for the cotton boom American Dream. He seized upon their economic insecurity as squatters, fearful of the new economic and legal order set up by the the Bibb, Georgia Faction, administration The coalition Pickens put together soon came to be known as the North Carolina Faction.

Scots-Irish hopes and dreams had been badly frustrated by the Panic of 1819. Many former squatters had assumed considerable debt to purchase their land in auction sales, others were in need of loans to acquire their homestead. The Panic, ill-timed as always, created a crisis for the former as the economy tanked, taking commodity prices with it. With so many swimming in debt, Alabama’s chief bank, the Georgia Faction’s Huntsville-based Planters and Merchants Bank, “suspended specie payments” (i.e. Alabama local currency which debtors used to pay their mortgages) creating an instant crisis. To compound matters, bank’s management was charged with mixing its own money with bank funds [6].  If that were not sufficient, the state legislature, led by the Georgia Faction, had in 1818 suspended the state’s usury law, was blamed for the rapidly escalating interest rates. The Georgia Faction had not only shot itself in the foot, but also the ankle and knee.

With Governor William Bibbs near death, the Georgia Faction’s nominee for governor, Henry Chambers, a director of the (Huntsville) Planters and Merchants Bank, was “crushed” 9616 to 7129 in the 1822 election. Pickens had campaigned as a “champion of the people” a common man rhetoric that appealed to north Alabamians. His chief plank in that populist campaign was the creation of a state-run public bank that he asserted would reverse economic decline by taking the state’s economy out of private sector control. Specifically blaming state-chartered corporation that founded Alabama’s banks, he proposed a public or sovereign lending institution as its substitute.

So Alabama’s first policy system collapsed, and the Georgia Faction formally withdrew from politics to pursued their economic agendas.  When forced to choose, Georgia Faction adherents were always planters first and politicians second. Affluent, they respected profit-making and with access to capital, they were risk-takers as well. From them will be drawn many a future Alabama (cotton) Whig.

After three tumultuous terms that ended in 1825, Pickens died in of all places, Cuba in 1827. In the ensuing one party (Democrat-Republican) “Era of Good Feelings” aftermath, Alabama’s political elites crunched themselves into a morass of wings and factions, including  Jacksonian, Clay-Adams-Whig, and a variety local populist options. The result was a political party without coherence, platform, or consensual leadership. It was unable to provide leadership over this second policy system, and with each election priorities changed and new legislative enactments reversed previous ones. As the saying goes, policy-making resembled a cattle stampede. Only after the Panic of 1837 did meaningful partisan distinctions emerge. With the crystallization of a (Cotton} Whig party with a well-defined organization, the Democratic Party finally found internal coherence.

A third policy system had begun.



[1] Joshua Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: a Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press, 2012), p. 4-5. Rothman asserts a special role for Jackson in all this: “Andrew Jackson himself best demonstrated [the potential prospect of the humble man because of his] “storied rise from frontier wastrel to wealthy squire to the most forceful president the country had ever known having made himself the paragon of the self-made man and among the most popular individuals of his age” (p. 3).

[2] J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 1978), pp. 10-12.

[3] Thomas Chase Hagood, Territorial Period and Early Statehood, Alabama Encyclopedia

[4] J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society, p. 13.

[5] William Rogers, et al, Alabama: the History of a Deep South State (University of Alabama Press, 1994), p. 68.

[6] William Rogers, et al, Alabama: the History of a Deep South State, p. 73.