Like many others in the early nineteenth century, William Wyatt Bibb (1781-1820) came to the frontier that was Alabama seeking new opportunities for personal advancement. But his successes depended heavily on connections he forged in the more stable environment of Georgia. Bibb served Georgia as a state legislator and represented the state in the U.S. Congress before assuming the duties of governor of the Alabama territory and the newly minted state, promoting a new state capital in Cahawba.
William Wyatt Bibb was born on October 2, 1781, to Captain William Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary army and a member of the Virginia legislature, and Sally Wyatt Bibb. The family migrated to Georgia around 1784 with a large number of Virginians who accompanied General George Mathews, hero of the Battle of Brandywine. Most of the general's followers were veterans like himself, who with their families took advantage of the new nation's offer of land bounties for former soldiers. They established tobacco farms on the rich lands around the confluence of the Broad and Savannah Rivers in northeastern Georgia. The Bibbs are recorded as one of the earliest pioneer families in Elbert County.
Bibb died in 1796, leaving his widow to care for William Wyatt and her other seven children. The family was not left destitute, however, and both William, the oldest, and his younger brother, Thomas, were able to receive educations. William attended William and Mary College for two years and then earned his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1801. He then returned to Petersburg, the bustling commercial center of Elbert County, to practice medicine. That year, he married Mary Freeman, of Wilkes County, Georgia, with whom he would have two children.
Politics, not doctoring, captured William Bibb's attention, however, and his ambition extended beyond Petersburg. In 1802 at the age of 21, he was elected to the Georgia state legislature, where he served four years. The voters of the Broad River region of Georgia rewarded that service by electing him to Congress in 1806, though he barely met the age requirement. After a stint of six years in the House of Representatives, where he proved a consistent supporter of President James Madison, the 32-year-old Bibb joined his Petersburg neighbor, Charles Tait, in the U.S. Senate.
Historians have noted Bibb's "dignified but easy bearing," and suggested that "his uniform courtesy and kindness . . . won the respect of all classes." He was a skillful politician, able to maintain both an aura of statesmanship and a relaxed rapport with the voters. But certainly the alliances he forged with prominent Georgians such as Tait and former Georgia senator William H. Crawford helped Bibb's political career. He was popular enough for a Georgia county to be named for him, but that popularity evaporated in the spring of 1816 when Bibb joined a majority of his fellow congressmen in passing the Salary Act, which effectively doubled congressional pay. This unpopular action caused Bibb to lose his bid for re-election that fall to George M. Troup. He resigned his Senate seat in the fall of 1816.
With his political future in Georgia looking dim, Bibb turned his attention westward. His brother Thomas had already migrated to north Alabama in 1811, and William's Georgia connections allowed him to follow. When the Alabama Territory was divided from the Mississippi Territory in 1817, President James Monroe, upon the advice of Secretary of Treasury William Crawford, appointed William Bibb territorial governor. That April, Bibb and his wife joined thousands of others in the land rush known as "Alabama fever." The Bibbs traveled to Alabama to settle briefly at the territorial capital of St. Stephens on the Tombigbee River.
Bibb's Georgia roots not only linked him to powerful friends in the federal government but also provided an extensive political base in Alabama itself. Former Petersburg neighbors, including his brother Thomas, (known among historians collectively as the Broad River Group) were prospering in the Tennessee Valley through land speculation, planting, commerce, and their creation of the Planters and Merchants Bank of Huntsville. Less well-to-do settlers in north Alabama designated the group the "Royal Party." A second wave of migration from Georgia brought settlers into the Black Belt region of central Alabama. The alliance between those two groups of Georgia settlers, working in concert with William Crawford and other federal officers to guide Alabama to statehood in 1819, gave Bibb tremendous clout in his new home.
Although Bibb created a political base that briefly transcended sectional divisions, a critical reality confronted the new governor. A mountain barrier isolated the Tennessee Valley, the wealthiest and most populated region at that time, from the southern portion of the state, which benefited from the river systems that flowed south into Mobile Bay. Bibb addressed this problem in his annual message to the Alabama Territorial Assembly in February 1818 when he called for investments in transportation improvements that would not only facilitate the flow of goods and people, but also bind together divided regions. He recognized that economic prosperity and political stability required such an effort.
But Bibb's own high-handed actions in selecting a capital for the new state of Alabama exacerbated the very sectional tensions he sought to ease and eroded his political popularity. A commission, appointed in early 1818 by the territorial legislature to determine the capital's location, chose Tuscaloosa, a site far enough north on the Black Warrior River to make it accessible to the residents of the Tennessee Valley. Bibb overrode that decision in favor of a location to the south, where the Cahaba flowed into the Alabama River. Flexing his political muscle in Washington, Bibb arranged a federal land grant in that area and promised, in his message to the stunned assembly in November 1818, that the new town of Cahawba would "vie with the largest inland towns in the Country" in population and prosperity.
Bibb's decision to buck the legislative commission generated intense resentment, especially in the Tennessee Valley. Marmaduke Williams of Tuscaloosa challenged Bibb's claim to the governor's office of the new state of Alabama, campaigning through the summer of 1819 almost solely on the Cahawba issue. Thomas Bibb's popularity in northern Alabama helped to deflect the challenger's complaints against his brother, and friends elsewhere reminded voters of Bibb's useful political connections in the federal government and the role played by the Georgia faction in Alabama's statehood. In the September elections, Bibb narrowly defeated Williams by a vote of 8,342 to 7,140.
The office claimed by Bibb late in 1819 afforded him less power than he had enjoyed as territorial governor. Alabama's constitution limited the state's governors to two consecutive, two-year terms and allowed the legislative branch to override gubernatorial vetoes with a simple majority vote. The assembly also elected state judges and the heads of executive departments. The constitutional convention delegates who voted for those general restrictions also inserted in the document a more pointed rejoinder to Bibb's autocratic decision on the capital. While they accepted Cahawba, they granted the assembly the power to select a permanent seat of government in 1825 without the involvement of the governor.
In his message to the first meeting of Alabama's state legislature, Bibb called for support for education and improved transportation. The legislature enacted penalties for dueling and for helping slaves to escape, and reestablished a limit on usury rates in the state. Weakened by tuberculosis even before the election, Bibb devoted much of his limited energies to solidifying Cahawba's claim to the government by creating a flourishing capital city on the banks of the Alabama River. When the legislature appropriated a mere $10,000 for the construction of a capitol building, enough for only a temporary structure, Bibb persevered, collecting money from the public auctioning of lots in Cahawba into a substantial building fund. Construction began in 1820, but Bibb did not live to see the completion of the capitol for which he had fought so ardently. While riding near his plantation in Autauga County, he was thrown from his horse, bruising his head and kidney. He spent much of early 1820 bedridden and in "as much pain . . . as ever fell to the lot of any man." The 1819 Constitution provided that a governor who was no longer able to serve was to be replaced by the president of the state senate, which meant that Bibb's brother, Thomas, became governor of Alabama in 1820. William Bibb died in July 1820 at the age of 39, leaving behind his wife and two children. Legislators who convened in the unfinished State House honored the man by changing the name of Cahawba County to Bibb County.
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).
Abernethy, Thomas Perkins. The Formative Period in Alabama, 1815-1828. Tuscaloosa: 1965.
Brantley, William H. Three Capitals: A Book About the First Three Capitals of Alabama: St. Stephens, Huntsville & Cahawba. Boston: The Merrymount Press, 1947.
Brewer, Willis. Alabama: Her History, Resources, War Record and Public Men: From 1540 to 1872. Montgomery: 1872.
McIntosh, John. The Official History of Elbert County, 1790-1935. Elberton, Ga: 1940.
Daniel S. Dupre
University of North Carolina Charlotte
Published January 7, 2008
Last updated December 11, 2013