Perhaps nothing more clearly signaled Alabama’s arrival on the national scene during Pickens’s time as chief executive, however, than the visit of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. Gen. George Washington’s friend and colleague found his way to Alabama during a triumphant grand tour of the United States at the federal government’s invitation ahead of the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. From August 1824 through September 1825, he and a small escort traveled over six thousand miles and visited every state. Being included in this patriotic extravaganza meant a great deal to Alabama’s leaders and citizenry, as this affirmed its equality with peer states and an unquestioned part of a rich shared national heritage. It also offered an opportunity to shine in what most deemed the biggest event in the state’s short history. Alabama accordingly rolled out the figurative red carpet, providing ostentatious dinners and celebrations that cost nearly 20 percent of the 1825 state budget.
The Alabama through which Lafayette journeyed was a different place than what he might have encountered just a decade earlier, and everywhere were signs of continuing change. The welcoming party that greeted him at the Georgia border on March 31 consisted of a cross-section of the young state’s society, including polished political dignitaries, rugged frontiersman, veteran soldiers, educators, clergy, and a large number of Native Americans. After being entertained with one of the last large exhibitions of stickball, the traditional Native American game and ancestor of modern lacrosse, Lafayette’s party traveled westward through the remnant of the once-vast Creek domain, stopping at taverns and inns along the old Federal Road before arriving at the bustling city of Montgomery. He then made his way in distinctly modern style—via steamboat to another booming new riverside trading town, Selma, before docking at Cahawba, the state capital. After enjoying two elaborate dinners in the new capitol dome’s shadow, he continued downriver to Claiborne, a thriving port city that had held merely an isolated military post a few years prior. He at last reached the colonial-era city of Mobile, which was undergoing a rebirth as a regional cotton-trading emporium, before leaving for New Orleans from Mobile Point on April 8.
Shortly after his departure debate began anew on one of the biggest and perpetually vexing issues in early Alabama politics: the location of a permanent capital.
Tuscaloosa served as the state’s political center during a period of relatively steady growth and ascendance that had roots in the territorial era and lasted approximately as long. When it finally yielded its position as seat of government in the 1840s, the move had everything to do with the peculiar path of development the state had pursued since its founding. The interplay of land, cotton, and slavery loomed particularly large in Alabama’s rise and the capital’s relocation. As Alabama’s primary cotton production district, featuring some of the richest cotton-growing soil on the continent, came into its own, power, money, and people naturally gravitated to it, and the seat of government accordingly moved south to Montgomery.
Not everyone in antebellum Alabama was directly involved in cotton production, but its large-scale cultivation by a significant portion of the population dated to the territorial years and grew increasingly important in the state’s economic, political, and cultural landscape over time. Cotton production barely ranked as a major regional agricultural endeavor in the late 1700s when the Mississippi Territory was formed, but in Alabama it exceeded a staggering 500,000 bales per year by the 1850s, placing it squarely at the epicenter of a burgeoning regional agricultural economy fueled by the fiber’s trade. The parallel growth in the population of enslaved people who harvested most of the crop inherently shaped societal dynamics as it provided vital manpower. In 1810 about 2,500 enslaved people resided in the section of the Mississippi Territory that eventually became
Alabama. By 1820 Alabama’s enslaved population stood at over 40,000, and by the time of the Civil War would approach 500,000—nearly half the state’s population.
The availability of abundant, rich, land—the same magnet that drew Alabama’s first settlers—made the cotton economy possible. Much of this land originally had been acquired from native inhabitants in the territorial era, and by the time Alabama entered its second decade of statehood the long, sordid saga of this dispossession neared its conclusion with the final cessions of ancestral lands long claimed by the Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws. Counties were immediately carved from this acreage, by the 1830s yielding a state map that would be instantly recognizable to us today.
Alabama’s antebellum story is often built around the state’s relationship with agriculture, slavery, and land acquisition, but it must also be understood that the state hardly took shape in a vacuum devoid of outside influence. Rather, it came of age as an integral part of a regional society unique to its time and place. In recognizing and seeking to realize the land’s potential, those living during Alabama’s earliest statehood years set in motion events that would influence the area in years to come. Their actions—both ill and good, self-serving and magnanimous, shortsighted and visionary—laid the groundwork for all that came after those initial turbulent years.