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William Aldrich

Kevin Spann, Jacksonville State University
William Farrington Aldrich Jr. (1853-1925), like his brother Truman Aldrich, was a notable Republican congressman and successful businessman involved in Alabama's mining and manufacturing industry. The brothers played important roles in Shelby County, building up the unincorporated community that today bears their family name. William served three terms in Congress (1896-1901) and owed much of his success in the heavily Democratic state to an uneasy alliance with Alabama Populists.
Aldrich was born in Palmyra, New York, on March 11, 1853, to William Farrington, a lawyer and financier, and Louisa Klapp Aldrich; he was one of four siblings. William later moved to New York City with his father and then attended the Warren Military Academy in Poughkeepsie, where he studied civil engineering and graduated in 1873. The following year, Aldrich joined his brother Truman in Alabama to work in the mining and manufacturing industry. The pair was very successful, with William becoming a wealthy coal mine owner and Truman becoming chief executive officer of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad (TCI) company, Alabama's largest corporation at the time. Truman purchased land near Montevallo, Shelby County, for its coal deposits and transferred management of the property to William. The brothers' investment in the community resulted in the unincorporated community bearing their family name, and William served as its postmaster. He married Josephine Cables on April 16, 1889, and the couple would have two children.
Aldrich was first elected to represent Alabama's Fourth Congressional District in 1894 in a close, contested race against incumbent Democrat Gaston A. Robbins. Aldrich was known as a supporter of big business and was connected to a number of wealthy Birmingham businessmen who supported the Republican Party. From the time he secured the party's nomination, Aldrich owed his electoral success to both his business allies and to the radical agrarian Populist movement still active in north Alabama. To win in the Democrat-dominated state, the two factions had agreed to unite their tickets in many races. Aldrich had gained the nomination in part because he promised the Populists that he would support their efforts to base the national currency on a silver coinage standard, with most Republicans supporting the gold standard. Aldrich quickly broke his promise about supporting silver coinage, but Populists continued to support him, thus maintaining the coalition. He also showed little interest in pursuing other Populist causes, such as public ownership of the nation's railroads. Despite these actions, the unusual alliance between the two factions proved essential to his success. Each of his elections was so close or so plagued by allegations of fraud that he had to contest the results in each. His 1895 election was decided by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. His following election against Thomas S. Plowman also was contested, as well as his final campaign running again against former incumbent Gaston Robbins.
In 1901, Aldrich declined to run and was succeeded by Sydney J. Bowie. Before leaving office, however, he represented Alabama at the Republican National Convention in 1900 that re-nominated Pres. William McKinley. After leaving Congress, Aldrich stayed well connected in national Republican circles and served as a delegate at the 1904 Republican National Convention. William also spent his retirement from politics as editor, owner, and publisher of the Birmingham Times, a newspaper published only briefly and not related to the black newspaper of the same name. Although Aldrich benefited from Populist support, he criticized the 1904 Republican presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt in editorials for being too liberal and not truly representing Republicans.
Aside from his duties with the Birmingham Times, Aldrich spent his remaining years overseeing the development of his mineral lands. He died in Birmingham on October 30, 1925. His remains were cremated and deposited in the family vault in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington D.C. His great-great-grandson William J. Edwards represented Alabama's First Congressional District from 1965-1985.
Additional Resources
Armes, Ethel. The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. Birmingham: Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, 1910.
Webb, Samuel. Two-Party Politics in the One-Party South: Alabama's Hill Country, 1874-1920. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.
Published:  February 13, 2015   |   Last updated:  June 30, 2015