Scotty Kirkland, We the People: Alabama’s Defining Documents (Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, AL 2019) ISBN: 978-1-7923-1267-0. Paperback, pp.128. $14.95
By Mike Thomason
“We the People: Alabama’s Defining Documents” is a remarkable book, which began as a companion to an exhibit of the state’s constitutions. The project was undertaken by the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) to celebrate Alabama’s 200th anniversary as a state.
The exhibit was in the Huntsville Museum of Art from June 30 to Aug. 11, as the 1819 Constitution was written in that town. Starting Nov. 3 it will be on display in the Museum of Alabama in the ADAH building, next to the State Capitol in Montgomery, until the end of the year. The book is a beautiful volume, written by Scotty Kirkland, who is ADAH’s coordinator of exhibits, publications and public programs. It is lavishly illustrated and could serve as a history of the state.
There are seven chapters, one for each of the state’s six constitutions, and the last telling the story of the institution itself and the preparation of the original constitutions, which are on vellum and stored rolled up. That story is fascinating and shows that archivists and conservators often have a challenging job preserving the documents that record our history!
The thesis of the volume is that each constitution reflected the character of the state at the time it was written. In 1819, the first reflects the state’s frontier status, but remained in force until secession in 1861. The second was a picture of the state as it left the Union with high hopes, which were dashed by the Civil War and its outcome.
In 1865, a third constitution was dominated by the emancipation of nearly half the state’s population: African Americans whom the war freed. It reflected the defeated state’s reluctant acceptance of the remarkable changes the war had wrought. The grudging acknowledgement of defeat proved to be not enough for the Radical Republicans in Congress, so the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments became law and the former Confederate states were dissolved. They were required to pass the new U.S. Constitutional amendments in order to rejoin the Union. This resulted in the state’s 1868 Constitution, which gave the vote to freedmen and brought a new group of leaders to Montgomery.
This Radical Reconstruction Constitution reflected those tumultuous times. However, the revolution that it caused was short-lived, as in 1875 white supremacy was restored in a clearly bourbon-dominated white election and subsequent government in Montgomery. Violence, fraud and outright terror supplied by the KKK and other similar groups won out and Washington, D.C., let it happen, as it was in a time of a serious national economic depression.
So the results of the war were reversed to the satisfaction of the Alabama’s white Democrats. The final constitution was enacted in 1901 and still is in force with its more than 900 amendments. The 1890s had been difficult for the state, with poor whites and blacks flirting with alliance to take back power from the ”Big Mules” who controlled state government. Once again, race became the all-important issue. To protect their position, the industrialists and railroad bosses, joined by their planter allies, managed to institute a poll tax and to quickly disenfranchise blacks, and by the post-World War I years, most of the poor white voters. In the following decades, Alabama was ruled by elites who were not disposed to share their power. Only the civil rights era would see any changes in voter qualifications and new black faces in Montgomery.
Such a book could be terribly tedious, but not in Kirkland’s hands. He describes the issues well and brings the principal actors into sharp focus. The reader need not be a constitutional scholar to enjoy this book, but will certainly come to better understand the growth and development of our state over the last two centuries. The issues of race, wealth and privilege are threads that bind this story together.
Do we the people control what is done in our name, or does a small group make our decisions for us? One can feel that democracy works only intermittently. Our last two constitutions have concentrated power in the Montgomery legislature, emasculating local city and county governments. Was that what we the people wanted, or did we accept this as the price for controlling poor people, especially black Alabamians? Certainly after the Civil War we responded to the waving of the bloody shirt to remind people of the cost of that war and the danger of radical black power. We also mistrust Montgomery and do not want to fund its government with “excessive” taxes, preferring to live with poor schools, law enforcement, healthcare, roads and bridges.
Kirkland writes carefully, leaving readers to learn for themselves as they read the book. His conclusions are hardly doctrinaire and they are supported by the historic record. The result is an absorbing story that should be read by all of us.
The Bicentennial is not a particularly hot topic in Lower Alabama, and that is a shame as we are part of this state and always will be. We need to know more about how it works and how we can get fairer treatment from Montgomery. Ignorance serves us poorly, as we see today in the issue of the Interstate 10 Mobile River Bridge and Bayway project. While hardly a constitutional issue, its story reflects our political impotence, which is.
Not having seen the ADAH exhibit, I can only hope it is as interesting as this book. At $14.95 (plus tax) it is a steal and can be purchased online at shopalabama200.com or at ADAH’s Museum Store at 624 Washington Ave. in Montgomery.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).