Rufus W. Cobb (1829-1913) was Alabama's governor from 1878-82. A lawyer and businessman, Cobb was a staunch ally of mining and railroad interests in Alabama, known popularly as Bourbon Democrats. Of note during Cobb's tenure as governor was the approval of funding that enabled the creation of what is now Tuskegee University. A fiscal conservative, Cobb left the state with increased revenue. His governorship gained some measure of infamy after he left office, however, when it was revealed that his treasurer had embezzled $250,000 in state funds.
Rufus Willis Cobb was born on February 25, 1829, into a plantation family that lived near Ashville in St. Clair County. He graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1850, returned to Ashville to read law, and was admitted to the bar in 1855. Cobb joined the Confederate Army as an officer in 1861 and served throughout the war, first with Forney's Brigade of Alabama regiment in Virginia and then with General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry in Tennessee. After the war he resumed his law practice and in 1867 moved to neighboring Shelby County, where he established the relationships and the interests that marked his public life.
In 1873, Cobb became the president of the Central Iron Works in Helena. A staunch supporter of increasingly powerful mining and manufacturing interests, he also served as an attorney for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. In 1872 and again in 1876, Cobb won election to the state senate and again in 1876. He was an important ally of Governor George S. Houston, most notably in leading the fight in the 1875 Constitutional Convention against repudiation of the debt incurred by the state's corrupt railroads and in structuring the terms of a debt settlement that was favorable to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Cobb established his reputation as a trustworthy guardian of business interests, led most prominently by what were known as the Bourbon Democrats, named after the royal dynasty of France that was overthrown in the French Revolution. He was elected president of the Senate in 1872 and again in 1876, marking his elevation to the leadership ranks of the Democratic Party.
In 1878, the state Democratic convention met in Montgomery to nominate its candidates. Cobb's name was entered for the governorship, and although he initially ran second in a field of three, on the 15th ballot he won the nomination. The convention was notable for two incidents. In the first, convention leaders refused to seat two black members of the Montgomery County delegation; in the second, the delegates passed a resolution that "congratulated both races that white supremacy had been firmly established." Democratic victories in 1874 and 1876 had left the Republican Party in disarray, and Cobb's election was a given. But the election hinted at the rapid growth of the Independents and Greenbackers movement in Alabama. Indeed, in 1880 when Cobb was reelected, the Greenback candidate polled 46,386 votes to the incumbent's 100,591. This opposition to the Bourbons was generated by financial woes brought on by the earlier Panic of 1873 and continued currency issues nationwide.
Cobb was a typical Bourbon in his support for tax reductions and fiscal restraint in government. His greatest fight as governor, and his major defeat, centered on the administration of the state's convict-lease system. Forsaking the penitentiary system, both postwar Alabama Republican and Democratic governors leased convicts to various business and agricultural interests to generate revenue. Cobb expressed no moral opposition to earning revenue from prisoner labor, but he was firmly committed to the state receiving its fair share of that revenue.
The prison warden, J. G. Bass, had been appointed by Governor Houston. Under Bass, the convict-lease system provided the state with a modest revenue stream, and he generally received glowing reports on his treatment of prisoners from the prison inspectors. But Cobb correctly surmised that Bass had signed contracts that greatly undervalued the worth of the labor provided to industries. Cobb removed Bass from the bidding process, and state revenues from convict leases increased greatly. The governor refused to reappoint Bass as warden, and with doubts and many reservations, Cobb bowed to statewide pressure for the appointment of John Hollis Bankhead as warden, a pressure manufactured by Bankhead himself. The governor was quickly out-maneuvered by Bankhead who had state medical officers investigate mines that used convict labor and then supported their reports of unhealthy and hazardous conditions. Posing as a reformer, Bankhead generated public opinion in support of his own convict plan: all convicts would be leased to the Pratt Consolidated Mines and a prison would be built at the mines. Governor Cobb opposed the plan and pointed out that Bankhead had the power to improve conditions at all the facilities if he were truly interested in the welfare of convicts. Bankhead defended the monopoly he was trying to bestow on the Pratt Mines by arguing that it was not the business of the state to inquire as to who benefited from convict leasing, as long as the state received its revenue. The governor lost this fight, and the legislature under Cobb's successor gave Bankhead most, if not all, of what he wanted.
Railroad regulation was the other major issue of Cobb's administration. Although his railroad associations ought to have led him to oppose regulation, there was growing public pressure to curb the abuses of the railroads. Cobb understood political reality, and in his message to the legislature in 1880 he encouraged regulatory action. In 1881, in response, legislators established a railroad commission, but gave it little power. The commission could not initiate new rates on its own even in demonstrated cases of inequity and could only respond to complaints raised by shippers. In addition, the commission was susceptible to influence, pressure, and domination from those it sought to regulate. Nonetheless, it was a small start in the long fight to protect the public interest.
Cobb also oversaw some improvements in education in the state, most notably the appropriation of $2,000 for the establishment of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, in Macon County, which opened in 1881 with 25 students. This appropriation evolved from previous legislative actions that supported vocational training for white and black post-secondary students, and from lobbying by two whilte Macon County state legislators who were rewarding black voters who had supported their election. Under Booker T. Washington's leadership, the reputation of the school rose to national recognition.
Prohibition was a prominent issue in Alabama and throughout the nation during Cobb's tenure, so much so that a minor third-party movement developed around it during the 1880s. During Cobb's administration, prohibition forces tried but failed to push a statewide local option law through the legislature.
Cobb left office in 1882, leaving a state surplus of $150,000 more in funds than he had inherited from Governor Houston. In 1879, the legislature had rescinded the requirement for annual audits of the state treasurer. Cobb inadvertently benefited from this act of fiscal irresponsibility in that his treasurer, Isaac "Honest Ike" Vincent, was not exposed for stealing $250,000 until Cobb had completed his second term.
Cobb returned to Shelby County, where he continued to serve as president of the Central Iron Works, and was involved with
the development of an iron mine in north Alabama. In 1888, Governor Thomas Seay appointed him probate judge of Shelby County, and he remained in that office until 1892. He continued to be active in politics
through the 1890s, although he never ran for public office again. Cobb died in Birmingham on November 26, 1913, and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
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).
DuBose, John Witherspoon. "Forty Years of Alabama, 1861-1901," Chapter 37, Administration of Governor Cobb, manuscript, John Witherspoon DuBose Papers, Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Going, Allen Johnston. Bourbon Democracy in Alabama, 1874-1890. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1951.
Robert David Ward
Georgia Southern University
Published February 4, 2008
Last updated September 30, 2014