FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: Henry Watkins Collier [Alabama Governor and Chief Justice]
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American National Biography Online
Collier, Henry Watkins (17 Jan. 1801-28 Aug. 1855), chief justice
of the Alabama Supreme Court and governor of Alabama, was born
on a plantation in Lunenburg County, Virginia, the son of James
Collier and Elizabeth Bouldin, planters. When he was one year
old, his family moved to the Abbeville District of South Carolina.
Collier received a classical education at Moses Waddel's well-known
academy. In 1818 he moved with his parents to Madison County,
Alabama, a booming cotton-producing area of the Tennessee Valley.
Over the next few years he read law in Nashville, Tennessee,
with Judge John Haywood of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Collier
began practicing law in Huntsville in 1822 and the next year
was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of Alabama. He moved
in 1823 to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and soon established a law practice
with Simon L. Perry. In 1826 Collier married Mary Ann Battle.
The Colliers had four children and were devout Methodists who
took a leadership role in the church and often entertained visiting
Methodist dignitaries in their home.
In 1826 Collier stood for the Alabama legislature. He was elected
to the house on a platform of constructing a new capitol in Tuscaloosa,
where the legislature had recently relocated the state capital.
His dignified demeanor, keen knowledge of the law, generous nature,
judicious temperament, and reputation for fairness so impressed
the legislature that in 1828 it elected him a circuit judge (and
thus a member of the supreme court). In 1836, when the Alabama
Supreme Court was constituted separately, the legislature elevated
him to associate justice. The next year he became chief justice
and held the office for twelve years. On the bench, Collier wrote
more than 1,165 opinions, more than any other justice to that
time, and he was frequently cited in appellate court decisions.
His opinions varied from brief, one-paragraph summations to many
pages. He was always mindful of constitutional principles and
tried to apply them with fairness. He was known as an attentive
listener with a reflective and impartial nature and as a judicial
scholar with a gift for analysis. Of the legal profession, Collier
wrote in 1838 that the lawyer "explores the abstruse and obscured
learning of other ages, that he may more successfully protect
the weak, vindicate the innocent, and punish the oppressor--looking
to the consciousness of having performed his duty for his chief
reward." Collier maintained his home in Tuscaloosa, although
after the Alabama capital was moved to Montgomery in 1846, he
spent much time there.
With sectional issues causing divisive politics in Washington,
D.C., and the state Whig party increasing its influence, the
Alabama Democratic Convention refused to renominate Governor
Reuben Chapman and in 1849 selected Collier as its nominee instead.
Collier faced no opposition candidate since his views were decidedly
Whiggish, especially on the dominant political question of the
day--the issue of the state bank. He received all but 704 of
the 37,925 votes cast. Collier favored a state public education
system, private banking, a state insane asylum, and prison and
judicial reforms. He believed in the importance of an educated
citizenry, advocated more equitable funding and centralized oversight
of education through a state superintendent, and called the attitude
in Alabama of neglecting to fund schools a "blighting apathy
that pervades the community." Because of the economic importance
of agriculture to the state, he advocated establishing a professorship
of geology and agriculture at the University of Alabama.
Although Collier supported southern rights in his inaugural
address on 17 December 1849, he remained a moderate, not disturbed
by sectional conflict, which he viewed as a natural consequence
of democratic politics. Collier agreed that Alabama should send
delegates to the Nashville convention to discuss the deteriorating
relationship between the southern states and the federal government,
but when they returned he refused to call a state convention
as the radicals wished. Judicious and conservative, he supported
Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850, and he did not believe that
the people of Alabama were ready to make secession an issue.
Collier accepted renomination in 1851 but refused to campaign
across the state, standing instead on his record. He was reelected
decisively with only token opposition coming from both extremes--staunch
Unionist Benjamin G. Shields and disgruntled southern rights fire-eaters.
Collier believed that the problems of the nation could be solved
by voters, who had the opportunity to repudiate "political hucksters
for high places and the supplicants for federal favors." He supported
the prison reform work of Dorothea Dix, and she consulted with
him during her visits to Alabama. He frequently toured the state
penitentiary and followed its administration closely. He also
advocated economic diversification, especially increasing the
number of textile mills in Alabama, which would locate the manufacturing
process close to raw-material production and decrease shipping
and commission costs for the planter. As his second gubernatorial
term drew to a close in 1853, Collier declined to be considered
for a legislative appointment to the U.S. Senate and retired
to his plantation near Tuscaloosa. Suffering poor health in the
summer of 1855, he visited Bailey Springs in Lauderdale County
in hopes that the waters might restore his strength, but he died
there of cholera morbus, an early term for gastroenteritis.
Collier's experience on the Alabama bench and his twelve years
as chief justice came in the formative period of Alabama statehood,
and his extensive judicial decisions form the basis of numerous
citations and case comments. His gubernatorial leadership paved
the way for the enactment of an Alabama public education system
in 1854, moved the state toward diversification and investment
in manufacturing, and strengthened the Alabama Democratic party
at a pivotal time in its history. His successor, Governor John
A. Winston, called him "a man of ability, integrity, and sterling
worth." Collier's guidance and example were calming influences
in Alabama during the growing emotionalism and extremism of the
sectional conflict, and his death left a vacuum in the moderate
political leadership of the state at a critical time.
Collier's gubernatorial papers are preserved in the Alabama
Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. His judicial
opinions are in the Alabama Court Reports. Biographical sketches
are in Thomas M. Owen, History of Alabama (4 vols., 1921); William
Garrett, Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama (1872); Willis
Brewer, Alabama (1872); Benjamin F. Riley, Makers and Romance
of Alabama (n.d., 1915?); and John Craig Stewart, The Governors
of Alabama (1975). Alabama politics and Collier's role are explored
in J. Mills Thornton III, Politics and Power in a Slave Society:
Alabama, 1800-1860 (1978); and William W. Rogers et al., Alabama:
The History of a Deep South State (1994). An obituary is in the
Mobile Daily Register, 9 Sept. 1855.
Leah Rawls Atkins
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Leah Rawls Atkins. "Collier, Henry Watkins";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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