Alabama's Literary Maverick: The Life and Legacy of William Russell Smith

Alabama's Literary Maverick: The Life and Legacy of William Russell Smith delves into the multifaceted life of a prominent 19th-century figure in Alabama's literary and political spheres.

Born in 1815, Smith's enduring impact as a poet, playwright, publisher, and political figure is a testament to his commitment to literature and principled opposition to secession.

This article offers a comprehensive exploration of Smith's early life, literary and political career, and lasting influence, shedding light on his significant contributions to Alabama's cultural and political landscape.

Through a meticulous examination of his works and political stance, this piece provides an insightful portrayal of the remarkable legacy of William Russell Smith, offering a compelling narrative for those seeking to understand the depth of his influence.

Key Takeaways

  • William Russell Smith was a prominent figure in Alabama's literary and political scene during the 19th century.
  • He attended the University of Alabama and became the first Alabamian to publish a book of poetry, titled 'College Musings; or Twigs from Parnassus'.
  • Smith established the first literary periodical in Alabama called 'The Bachelors Button' and wrote a play called 'Aaron Burr, or the Emperor of Mexico'.
  • Despite his opposition to secession, Smith served in the Confederate Congress during the Civil War and later published his autobiography, 'Reminiscences of a Long Life'.

Early Life and Education

Born on March 27, 1815, in Russellville, Kentucky, William Russell Smith's early life was marked by a series of relocations following his father's death, culminating in his enrollment at the University of Alabama in 1831.

Smith's influence on Alabama's literary scene began during his time at the university, where he not only pursued his education but also initiated his literary endeavors. His impact on the University of Alabama was profound as he became the first Alabamian to publish a book of poetry in the state, titled 'College Musings; or Twigs from Parnassus.'

This publication laid the foundation for his future literary and political career, establishing him as a significant figure in Alabama's cultural and educational landscape. Smith's early experiences and literary contributions at the University of Alabama set the stage for his remarkable legacy in the state's literary and political spheres.

Literary and Political Career

During his literary and political career, William Russell Smith established the first literary periodical in Alabama and wrote a notable play, 'Aaron Burr, or the Emperor of Mexico,' showcasing his multifaceted talents and contributions to the cultural and artistic landscape of the state.

  1. Literary Achievements: Smith's literary contributions included the establishment of 'The Bachelors Button,' the first literary periodical in Alabama, and the creation of the play 'Aaron Burr, or the Emperor of Mexico,' which demonstrated his prowess as a playwright.
  2. Political Career: Smith's political journey saw him serve as the mayor of Tuscaloosa, get elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, and later to the U.S. House of Representatives. He also ran as a Know-Nothing candidate and won a third term in Congress in 1854, showcasing his versatility in political affairs.
  3. Impact: Smith's literary and political endeavors left a lasting impact on Alabama's cultural and political spheres, solidifying his legacy in the state's history.

Opposition to Secession and Civil War

Despite his opposition to secession, William Russell Smith played an active role in the Confederate Congress throughout the Civil War. His stance against Alabama's secession ordinance at the Alabama Secession Convention underscored his commitment to preserving the Union. This decision had a significant impact on Alabama politics and garnered mixed reactions from his constituents. Smith's writings during this period provide an insightful analysis of the political climate and his moral reservations about the secession. His relationship with other politicians during the Civil War was marked by his unwavering dedication to finding peaceful solutions. Additionally, Smith's views on post-war reconstruction emphasized the need for reconciliation and unity. The following table provides a brief overview of William Russell Smith's stance on secession and his role in the Confederate Congress:

Stance on Secession Role in Confederate Congress
Opposition Active participant

Later Life and Publications

After his active involvement in the Confederate Congress during the Civil War, William Russell Smith transitioned to a new phase in his life, marked by significant contributions to literature and a move to Washington, D.C.

Smith's Later Life and Publications:

  1. Move to Washington, D.C.: In 1879, Smith relocated to Washington, D.C., where he spent the remainder of his life, engaging with the vibrant literary and political circles of the capital.
  2. Smith's Autobiography, 'Reminiscences of a Long Life': In 1889, Smith published his autobiography, providing valuable insights into his experiences, perspective, and the historical context of his time. This work stands as a testament to his literary prowess and intellectual depth.
  3. Selected Works: In addition to his autobiography, Smith's literary legacy includes works such as 'College Musings; or, Twigs From Parnassus,' 'As It Is,' and 'The History and Debates of the Convention of the People of Alabama,' showcasing his multifaceted talents and enduring impact on Alabama's literary landscape.

Literary Contributions

Following his move to Washington, D.C. and the publication of his autobiography, William Russell Smith's literary contributions continued to shape Alabama's cultural landscape. His influence on Alabama literature was profound, particularly through his establishment of the first literary periodical in Alabama, 'The Bachelors Button,' and the publication of the first book of poetry in Alabama by an Alabamian, 'College Musings; or Twigs from Parnassus.' Smith's impact on the local poetry scene was remarkable, as he initiated a new era of literary expression in the state. His works not only enriched Alabama's literary heritage but also inspired future generations of writers.

Literary Contributions Influence on Alabama literature Impact on local poetry scene
Establishment of 'The Bachelors Button' Pioneering literary periodical in Alabama Provided a platform for local writers
Publication of 'College Musings; or Twigs from Parnassus' First book of poetry in Alabama by an Alabamian Catalyzed the growth of poetry in Alabama

Political Legacy

While known for his literary contributions, William Russell Smith's political legacy also left a lasting impact on Alabama's history. His political accomplishments and influence on Alabama politics are noteworthy:

  1. Party Allegiance and Congressional Service: Smith's transition from the Whig Party to the Democratic Party and subsequent election to the U.S. House of Representatives demonstrated his adaptability and effectiveness in the political arena.
  2. Opposition to Secession: Smith's principled stance against Alabama's secession ordinance, his refusal to sign the Ordinance of Secession, and his subsequent efforts to document the proceedings of the Alabama Secession Convention showcased his commitment to unity and constitutional principles.
  3. Military and Post-War Pursuits: Despite his opposition to secession, Smith's organization and command of the Twenty-sixth Alabama Infantry regiment during the Civil War, as well as his gubernatorial candidacy following the war, underscored his enduring impact on Alabama's political landscape.

Further Reading and Resources

To delve deeper into William Russell Smith's life and works, readers can explore additional resources that offer comprehensive insights into his literary and political contributions.

Anne Easby-Smith's 'William Russell Smith of Alabama: His Life and Works' provides a thorough analysis and critique of Smith's life, shedding light on his influence on Southern literature.

Additionally, Benjamin Buford Williams' 'A Literary History of Alabama: The Nineteenth Century' offers further exploration of Smith's literary impact.

For those interested in his political career, the Alabama State Legislature website and the Congressional Bioguide both provide valuable information on Smith's political legacy.

Furthermore, Documenting the American South is a valuable resource for accessing primary sources related to Smith's life and works, allowing for a deeper understanding of his multifaceted contributions to literature and politics.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Was William Russell Smith's Relationship With His Siblings and Other Family Members During His Early Life in Kentucky and Alabama?

During his early life in Kentucky and Alabama, William Russell Smith maintained close relationships with his mother and siblings following his father's death. These family dynamics and literary influences shaped his early poetry and paved the way for his political aspirations and military leadership.

How Did William Russell Smith's Experiences at the University of Alabama Shape His Literary and Political Ambitions?

William Russell Smith's University experiences molded his literary and political ambitions. His family dynamics, party allegiance, and leadership challenges ultimately influenced his literary pursuits and political aspirations, marking an ironic twist in his journey.

What Were the Specific Reasons Behind Smith's Decision to Switch Party Allegiance From the Whig Party to the Democratic Party?

Smith's decision to switch party allegiance from the Whig Party to the Democratic Party was influenced by evolving political ideologies, regional dynamics, and personal convictions. His family relationships and experiences in the University of Alabama likely shaped his political decision.

What Were Some of the Challenges Smith Faced in Organizing and Commanding the Twenty-Sixth Alabama Infantry Regiment Despite His Initial Opposition to Secession?

Despite initial opposition to secession, William Russell Smith faced significant challenges in organizing and commanding the Twenty-sixth Alabama Infantry Regiment, navigating complex family dynamics, political influences, and fulfilling his literary ambitions while demonstrating leadership during wartime.

How Did Smith's Experiences as the President of the University of Alabama in 1870 Influence His Later Literary and Political Pursuits?

William Russell Smith's presidency at the University of Alabama in 1870 influenced his later literary and political pursuits. His experiences provided insight into leadership, education, and administration, shaping his ambitions and impacting his future endeavors.


In the tapestry of Alabama's history, William Russell Smith stands as a towering oak, his literary and political legacy intertwined like the roots of a mighty tree. His unwavering commitment to his principles and his enduring influence are akin to the ever-flowing rivers that shape the landscape of the state.

As readers and scholars navigate through the pages of his life, they discover the rich and fertile soil from which his legacy continues to grow, inspiring new generations to embrace the power of words and the pursuit of justice.

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