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American National Biography Online
Lewis, David Peter (1820?-3 July 1884), governor of Alabama,
was born in Charlotte County, Virginia, the son of Mary Smith
Buster and Peter C. Lewis. In the 1820s the family moved to Madison
County, Alabama, where Lewis's father became a county commissioner
but died soon thereafter. His mother remarried. After attending
the University of Virginia and reading law in Huntsville, Alabama,
Lewis moved to Lawrence County in 1843 and practiced law. He
never married and until 1860 was not involved in politics.
In 1860 Lewis owned $20,000 in real property and $42,185 in
personal property (including thirty-four slaves). He was a Douglas
Democrat and represented Lawrence County in the 1861 Alabama
constitutional convention, where he opposed secession. However,
he signed the ordinance under instructions from his constituents.
In 1861 he was elected to the Provisional Confederate Congress
and was appointed to the Patents and Indian Affairs committees.
He resigned his office on 29 April and joined a volunteer company,
which was soon disbanded. In 1862 Lewis and other North Alabama
Unionists organized a secret Peace Society, and he declined appointment
as lieutenant colonel in Colonel Philip Roddey's command. In
1863 Governor John Gill Shorter appointed Lewis as judge of the
Fourth Alabama Judicial Circuit Court. Lewis resigned on 1 January
1864. Although exempt from conscription as the owner of a public
mill, he was ordered to report for military service in the fall
of 1864. He refused and crossed through the Federal lines to
Nashville, where he remained for the duration of the Civil War.
Lewis returned to Alabama in July 1865, began a law practice
in Huntsville, and soon applied for a pardon under the clause
in Andrew Johnson's plan of Reconstruction that required men
with over $20,000 to apply individually. In 1868 he attended
the Democratic National Convention as a delegate but the next
year quietly joined the Republican party in Alabama. By this
time Lewis had established a reputation as a man of "firm but
not obtrusive" opinions, a learned and respected attorney.
As a native white Republican (scalawag), Lewis joined others
of his background to battle for control of the party in Alabama.
Unlike many other states in the Reconstruction South, in Alabama
white natives managed to control their party even though they
were outnumbered by blacks and newcomers. Nevertheless, Lewis
was outraged, because Alabama Unionists were insufficiently rewarded
for their prewar opposition to secession. Especially offensive
was the officeholding disability, whereby men who had sworn to
uphold the federal Constitution and subsequently broke that oath
by aiding the Confederacy could not hold office until Congress
voted to remove this disability. Lewis was furious that those
who had "sincerely grieved at the success of secession, and whose
only crime was a fatherly sympathy for his son, who joined the
rebel army to avoid the disgrace of conscription," were deemed
as guilty as those who had concocted the scheme of secession.
He advocated general amnesty and removal of the disabilities
from all who had opposed secession in 1860. Other than these
occasional outbursts over political neglect of Unionists, Lewis
was not embroiled in Republican party quarrels.
As a man with few political enemies, Lewis was a desirable candidate
for governor in 1872. Having lost the Alabama governorship in
1870, Republicans now recognized how essential for their party's
success was the support of the conservatives of 1860. Lewis was
elected governor of Alabama over Democrat Thomas Hord Herndon
in 1872; however, the outcome of the election of the legislature
was disputed. Both parties claimed control of the general assembly,
and both parties organized legislatures. Although Lewis recognized
the Republican-controlled legislature, U.S. attorney general
George Henry Williams resolved the impasse by creating a fusion
legislature, with Republicans holding a slight majority.
The resulting configuration of the legislature produced a stalemate;
in addition, the panic of 1873 wreaked economic havoc on the
state, then suffering from earlier reckless railroad development.
Lewis has been unfairly blamed for Alabama's economic crisis.
Actually, the damage had been done between 1868 and 1872, when
first a Republican and then a Democratic government appropriated
the state's credit to build first a Republican-backed railroad
and then a Democratic-backed one. Lewis remained aloof from the
most important legislative action of his administration, the
efforts made by his party to pass a civil rights bill. Stormy
debates in both houses revealed the division within the Republican
party regarding racial issues, and the bills died.
In 1874 Alabama Republicans hoped to repeat their 1872 success
and nominated Lewis for a second term. However, Republican internal
quarrels and congressional debate over a federal civil rights
bill doomed his prospects. Furthermore, Alabama Democrats made
race the issue of the 1874 campaign and resorted to widespread
intimidation and violence to win the election. Democrats ostracized
white Republicans and employed economic reprisals against members
of the black population who did not respond to physical intimidation
and violence. Black Republicans, angry that their white colleagues
had not supported passage of a civil rights bill in Alabama,
attacked their white party leaders, calling Lewis a man of "utter
lack of backbone" who had betrayed black Republicans. As Democrats
waved the flag of white supremacy, whites deserted the Republicans,
and the Democrats won in a landslide.
After he tried and failed to receive an appointment as a federal
district judge in 1874, Lewis retired from active politics. In
1875, when Democrats rewrote the Alabama constitution, he supported
ratification of the new document. By the fall of 1876 Lewis,
like many other Alabama scalawags, had quietly returned to the
Democratic party. He explained that Republican Reconstruction
had been a "disgraceful failure" and that he saw no hope among
Republicans for southern men of conservative views. After leaving
public office Lewis resumed his law practice in Huntsville until
his death there.
A small collection of Lewis manuscripts is in the Governor David
P. Lewis Papers, Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH),
Montgomery. Other letters are widely scattered in manuscript
collections. For example, see Records of the Judiciary, Disabilities,
Alabama, 42d Cong., Committee on the Records of the U.S. House
of Representatives (RG 233), National Archives; Records of the
Adjutant General's Office (RG 94), National Archives; William
E. Chandler Papers and Andrew Johnson Papers, Library of Congress;
and William Hugh Smith Papers, ADAH. Two Lewis letters are published
in Sarah Van V. Woolfolk, "Amnesty and Pardon and Republicanism
in Alabama," Alabama Historical Quarterly 26 (1964): 240-48.
Another appears in the Montgomery daily Alabama State Journal,
8 Sept. 1872. His 1865 amnesty and pardon application is in Register
of Applications for Amnesty and Pardon, vol. 2, p. 174, ADAH;
and a sworn statement (12 Aug. 1865) is in Records of the Adjutant
General (RG 94). The legal affairs of Peter C. Lewis, David P.
Lewis, and Mary Lewis Webb can be followed in Pauline Jones Gandrud,
Alabama Records (probate records of Lawrence and Madison counties,
n.d.), Special Collections, University of Alabama Library.
Two biographical sources are Thomas McAdory Owen, History of
Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography (1921), and W. Brewer,
Alabama: Her History, Resources, War Record, and Public Men (1872).
Ezra J. Warner and W. Buck Yearns, Biographical Register of the
Confederate Congress (1975), and Kenny A. Franks, "David Peter
Lewis," in Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, ed. Richard N. Current
(1993), are critical of Lewis. See also Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins,
The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881 (1977), and Malcolm
C. McMillan, ed., The Alabama Confederate Reader (1963). Obituaries
are in the Huntsville Advocate, 4 July 1884; the Montgomery Daily
Advertiser, 5 July 1884; and the Huntsville Weekly Democrat, 9 July 1884.
Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins
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Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins. "Lewis, David Peter";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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