Henry W. Collier (1801-1855) was a jurist who served as the first chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. As governor, he pushed for educational reforms and oversaw the creation of the state's first facility for the mentally ill. He advocated a guarded and reasoned approach to the growing secession crisis in the United States. Collier's moderate and conservative leadership provided a period of calm before slavery issues and sectional politics fully captured the state in the storms that led to secession.
Henry Watkins Collier, the son of James Collier and Elizabeth Bouldin Collier, was born on the family plantation in Lunenburg County, Virginia, on January 17, 1801. His father moved the family to the Abbeville district of South Carolina when Collier was a baby, and as a boy he was regularly taken to the Methodist Church and educated in the classical tradition at the log-cabin academy of Dr. Moses Waddel. In 1818, Collier settled in the Alabama Territory in Huntsville. He later read law with Judge John Haywood of the Tennessee Supreme Court in Nashville and then returned to Huntsville and opened a law practice. Collier soon moved to Tuscaloosa, however, where he established a law practice with Simon (Sion) Perry.
In 1826, Collier married Mary Ann Battle, a descendant of wealthy and influential North Carolina families. The couple had four children who lived to adulthood. For several years, Mary Ann Collier's niece, Virginia Tunstall, lived with the family following her mother's death in North Carolina. On February 1, 1843, at the Collier home, 18-year-old Virginia married young legislator Clement Claiborne Clay, son of former governor Clement Comer Clay. The alliance of these two families strengthened the political careers of both Collier and the younger Clay.
In 1827, Collier ran successfully for the legislature, now relocated to Tuscaloosa, and advocated for the construction of a new capitol. He served one term in the state house of representatives, where he built a reputation for fairness, hard work, an astute understanding of the law, and a judicious disposition. The legislature elected him a judge of the Third Circuit Court, which also made Collier a member of the ad hoc Alabama Supreme Court. When the legislature constituted a separate and distinct supreme court in 1836, Collier was elevated to that court and made its chief justice, a position he held for 12 years. During his tenure on the courts, he wrote more than 1,000 important opinions.
In June 1849 the Democratic Party, with the states' rights group in control, met in Montgomery. Although many delegates expected they would nominate Reuben Chapman for a second term, the party ultimately decided to support Collier as a compromise candidate to ensure victory in the August elections. Two diverse factions supported Collier: those who followed Clement Comer Clay, leader of the north Alabama states' rights group, and those who followed south Alabama Unionist William Rufus King, whose nephew and adopted son would later marry Collier's daughter. The Whigs, satisfied that Collier agreed with their attitude that government should be used to stimulate economic growth, did not nominate a candidate. Although there were scattered votes for other candidates, Collier easily won the governorship. Three years earlier in 1846, the legislature had moved the seat of government to Montgomery, where a new capitol was constructed on Goat Hill. There the legislature certified Collier's election on November 16, 1849. On December 14, three days before his inauguration, the capitol burned, and Collier took his oath of office at the Montgomery Methodist Church.
During his tenure as governor, Collier attacked Alabama's inadequate funding of schools and promoted educational reform. He supported a state public education system and advocated more equitable funding for county schools. In 1850, he proposed the creation of a state superintendent's office to provide leadership and oversight, but the legislature rejected this idea. The governor was equally progressive on other issues as well. During the 1849-50 legislative session, he supported judicial reforms, especially a constitutional amendment giving the people the right to elect circuit and probate judges. In 1850, Collier entertained social activist Dorothea L. Dix when she visited Montgomery. Her advocacy for reform in the treatment of mentally ill and prison populations and Collier's support of her ideas led to the founding of a state hospital for the insane in 1851 (although it did not open until 1860). Collier also promoted prison reform, visited the state penitentiary regularly, and kept an eye on its supervision. Furthermore, Collier championed economic diversification and encouraged investment in textile mills. He recognized the importance of agriculture to the state's economy but petitioned the legislature unsuccessfully to establish a professorship of agriculture at the University of Alabama.
Despite the support for southern rights that he articulated in his inaugural address, given on December 17, 1849, Collier had a reputation for being a moderate. Divisive sectional issues that began under Reuben Chapman had an impact on Collier's tenure, and his gubernatorial years were played out under a cloud of bitter debates over slavery and its expansion. The Compromise of 1850, which was aimed at solving conflicts over the issue of slavery in newly acquired U.S. territories, was intensely debated in Alabama, and although Collier supported it, he encouraged Alabama to send delegates to the June 1850 Nashville Convention to discuss southern rights and the South's loss of political power within the Union. Following that meeting, he differed with the more radical states' righters when he refused their demand to call a separate convention to discuss the states' status in the Union, correctly understanding that the majority of Alabama's citizens did not yet favor secession.
Collier was renominated in 1851 and ran on the record of his first term. He so effectively occupied the middle ground that his token opposition came only from both the extremes—dissatisfied, fire-eating states' righters and staunch Unionists. His campaign was helped when the state's most outspoken secessionist, William L. Yancey, refused to run, forcing the southern-rights faction to accept Collier as a compromise. The Unionist candidate polled only 5,747 votes, and Collier won handily. Although Collier's moderation held the Democratic Party together, within a few years it would fracture as states' rights advocates moved toward the Southern Rights Party.
Collier supervised the rebuilding of the capitol, which was completed and occupied before he left office in 1853. The capitol
remains the central antebellum architectural structure in Montgomery. When his term of office ended, Collier retired from
public life. His health was poor, and he refused the legislature's offer of a seat in the U.S. Senate. By June 1855, he was
virtually bedridden but followed his doctor's orders to seek treatment at medicinal springs. He journeyed first to Blount
Springs and then to Lauderdale County's Bailey Springs, where he died on August 28, 1855, of "cholera morbus," an early term for gastroenteritis.
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).
Collier, Henry Watkins. Papers. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery.
Dorman, Lewy. Party Politics in Alabama from 1850 through 1860. Montgomery: Alabama State Department of Archives and History, Historic and Patriotic Series, No. 13, 1935.
Stewart, John Craig. The Governors of Alabama. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing, 1975.
Leah Rawls Atkins
Published February 14, 2008
Last updated September 30, 2014