John Gayle (1792-1859) was Alabama's seventh governor and also served as a U.S. congressman, state legislator, and jurist. Gayle was a fervent champion of states' rights, and his advocacy laid the foundation for that movement in Alabama in the 1850s and for the realignment of state political parties. As a judge he was known for his strict impartiality.
John Gayle was born on September 11, 1792, in Sumter District, South Carolina, the son of Mary Rees and Matthew Gayle. During the American Revolution, Matthew Gayle served in the South Carolina army under famed Revolutionary War hero General Francis Marion. The family moved to Mount Vernon, Alabama, in 1812, and subsequently to nearby Monroe County, where Matthew became a planter. John Gayle attended Mt. Bethel Academy in Newberry District, South Carolina, and later South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he was elected president of the Clariosophic Society, a literary and debating organization. After graduation in 1813 he traveled through Creek Indian territory to his parents' home near Fort Stoddert, north of Mobile.
During this period, tensions grew between militant Creeks and the ever-increasing numbers of settlers. Several days after Gayle arrived home, travelers were attacked and killed by a Creek war party along the same route. Soon after, a number of settlers were massacred by a group of Creek warriors of the Red Stick faction at Fort Mims, sparking what would become the Creek War of 1813-14. Gayle intended to return to South Carolina to resume his legal studies but concern for the safety of his family led him to remain in Alabama and organize local militia to defend non-Indian settlements. Clashes between the local militia and federal troops and the Red Sticks continued until the war ended in 1814 with the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. After the war Gayle completed his legal studies in the office of Judge Abner Smith Lipscomb in St. Stephens, was licensed to practice in 1818, and opened a law office at Claiborne in Monroe County. In 1819 he married Sarah Ann Haynsworth of Claiborne, formerly a resident of South Carolina. They had six children. By 1830 Gayle owned 10 slaves.
When the federal government created the Alabama Territory in 1817, Gayle was appointed to the senate of the new territory. That body elected Gayle to be solicitor of the First Judicial Circuit in Alabama in 1818. Two years later his growing legal practice led him to resign that position. In 1822 he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from Monroe County. He was reelected in 1823 and chaired the house Ways and Means Committee. Later in 1823 he became judge of the Third Judicial Circuit and ex-officio judge of the Alabama Supreme Court, positions that he held until 1828. Having moved to Greene County, he was elected to represent that county in the Alabama House of Representatives in 1829 and was chosen speaker. He was reelected to the legislature in 1830 but was not a candidate for speaker.
In 1831 Gayle was elected governor of Alabama as a strong anti-nullification candidate. He ran unopposed in 1833 and was reelected, continuing in office until 1835. He eloquently denounced nullification in his first speech to the legislature and supported President Andrew Jackson's stand on the issue. He championed improvements in Alabama's transportation routes and pressed unsuccessfully for construction of a canal to link the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers as well as for a railroad from Lawrence County south to Clarke County. The first railroad built in Alabama was constructed during his administration extending across north Alabama from Tuscumbia to Decatur, bypassing the Tennessee River rapids at Muscle Shoals.
Gayle's primary crisis as governor developed in 1832-33 over the issue of lands previously ceded to the United States by the Creek Indians. Gayle clashed with his old friend, President Jackson, who had been very popular in Alabama after his victory over the Red Stick faction of Creeks in the battle of Horseshoe Bend. The former Creek lands in Alabama had been divided into counties before full surveys were completed, and squatters rushed into the newly opened lands as well as land guaranteed to the Creeks. Conflicts arose between settlers and Indians, and Jackson ordered federal troops to remove all white settlers from the Creek lands.
When federal troops attempted to remove settlers from Creek lands in Russell County, a confrontation occurred. After a white resident was killed, a county grand jury indicted the responsible soldier for murder, and Gayle insisted that he surrender to state officials. The governor championed the rights of the settlers, protested that federal protection of the Creeks insulted Alabama's sovereignty, and organized a militia in the new counties. Realizing the possibility of violence, the president dispatched Francis Scott Key to resolve the quarrel. Key hurriedly completed the survey of Creek lands, demanded that the Indians choose lands immediately, and met with Gayle in an effort to resolve his quarrel with Jackson. The soldier accused of murder disappeared, no trial occurred, and the army withdrew. Key negotiated terms to solve conflicting claims so that only those settlers on lands expressly reserved for the Creeks had to vacate their lands. Titles to lands already occupied by whites could be purchased from the Indians. Key's diplomacy succeeded, and a collision between state and federal authority was averted.
By 1835 Gayle's support for President Andrew Jackson had waned, and he joined the newly established Whig Party. The party gained followers in Alabama after the conflicts over Creek land, which Alabamians interpreted as a states' rights issue. Gayle served as a Whig presidential elector for Judge Hugh White in 1836 and for William Henry Harrison in 1840. In 1841 he was defeated in a race for the U.S. Senate from Alabama. After his term as governor, Gayle returned to his law practice, which he relocated to Mobile. His wife Sarah had died in 1835, and in 1837 he married Clarissa Stedman Peck at Gaston, Alabama. They had four children. Gayle was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Whig in 1847 and focused largely on local matters. On national questions he was most interested in the expansion of slavery. Gayle did not seek reelection when his term ended. He returned to Mobile and in 1849 was appointed judge of the U.S. District Court in Alabama. He continued as federal district judge until his death on July 21, 1859. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State, edited by Samuel L. Webb and Margaret Armbrester (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).
Gorgas, Amelia Gayle. "Sketch of John Gayle." Gorgas Family Papers, Hoole Special Collections Library, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk, and Ruth Smith Truss, eds. The Journal of Sarah Haynsworth Gayle, 1827-1835. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.
Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins
University of Alabama
Published May 10, 2007
Last updated September 30, 2014