A Look Back at Morgan County’s first Alabama governor
Many older Enquirer readers will remember the last governor of Alabama to come from Morgan County. He was Albert Preston Brewer, who succeeded to the governorship when the incumbent governor, Lurleen Burns Wallace, passed away after a heroic struggle against cancer.
Mrs. Wallace and Brewer had headed the ticket as candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in 1966 and had won a big victory. Albert Brewer served as governor from May 1968 to January 1971 when he was succeeded by George Wallace, who had beaten him in a bitter race in the spring 1970 Democratic primary.
Although not in good health, Mrs. Wallace had agreed to run in 1966 after the legislature refused to pass a constitutional amendment allowing George Wallace to succeed himself following the completion of his first term. At that time no statewide executive official could serve two consecutive terms.
An amended Alabama Constitution now allows governors and other executive officers to succeed themselves for one additional term.
The first governor to be elected from Morgan County following Alabama’s admission into the Union in 1819 was a man who most people today have probably never heard of – unless they are in-depth students of Alabama government and politics. He was Reuben Chapman (1799-1882).
Like most early Alabama governors, Chapman was not born in Alabama. In fact, he was born 20 years before Alabama became a state – July 15, 1799, to be exact. Like most of the men who would later become presidents of the new United States, Reuben Chapman was born in Virginia. His father, for whom he was named, had fought for American independence during the Revolutionary War. His mother was Ann Reynolds Chapman.
Reuben Chapman did not come directly from Virginia to Alabama. When he was growing up, his parents lived in Bowling Green, Ky., so this is where he first went to school.
A few years after he had reached his majority, Chapman rode on horseback to Huntsville, where his brother, Samuel, was practicing law.
In those days there were few law schools. The main way one would become an attorney was through forming a relationship with a current practitioner and by reading law in his office and being guided in his readings by the attorney-mentor.
It was not difficult for Reuben to find an attorney to instruct him as he read law. His brother Samuel filled this role very well.
He was a quick study and was granted a law license in 1825. In order to continue to have help available if needed, Reuben practiced law for one year in Huntsville.
One contemporary described Chapman as “bright, humorous and impressive in conversation, with courtly manners.”
Like most Alabama governors, he was a Democrat. The Republican Party would not be formed until after Chapman had served as Alabama’s 13th governor (1847-1849). When Chapman was at the apex of his political career, state chief executives only served two-year terms.
During Chapman’s tenure as governor, the main issue was the fate of the Bank of Alabama. For many years, citizens have looked to private corporations to meet their banking needs; however, while Chapman was governor, Alabama had a public bank. It was thought to be a great experiment at the time it was established; however, the bank made many bad loans, and Chapman and his successors had the unpleasant task of reducing its debt.
Appointing the men who would have the primarily responsibility for doing this on a case-by-case basis was Chapman’s primary achievement.
Following his first year as a full-fledged attorney, Mr. Chapman had moved here to Morgan County. In those early days of statehood, it seems politically ambitious men were able to more quickly develop a good relationship with their new constituencies.
After the governorship, Chapman served as a member of the Alabama legislature. This was unusual. Individuals who have been governors generally don’t return to lower offices.
As Civil War loomed, Chapman argued unsuccessfully for reconciliation and compromise.
He died at the ripe old age of 82, which was beyond the average life expectancy then – and still is now.