Alabama: the Making of an American State
© 2016 Edwin C. Bridges
In December of 2019, the streets of Montgomery were thronged with people as the citizens of Alabama celebrated its 200th anniversary. The three years prior had been full of special events, lectures, etc themed around the history and heritage of the state; Alabama: The Making of an American State was one of the many books published during that period, offering a generously illustrated narrative history of the State from its earliest residents to the present day. A recent weekend trip exploring sites connected to the Creek War in Alabama prompted me to begin reading this for background information, and I was greatly impressed by its content and presentation.
Although a historical overview doesn’t necessarily need a thesis, Bridges offers one, arguing that Alabama has played a surprisingly central role in many of the United State’s pivotal moments. This goes well beyond the obvious roles Alabama played in the Civil War (hosting the first capital of the Confederacy, and providing 2/3rds of the South’s munitions in the latter years of the war) and the Civil Rights movement. Bridge’s account shows how Alabama’s early settlement contributed to rising tensions with the Creeks; in the intertwined conflicts of the War of 1812 & the Creek Wars, Alabama was the site of several decisive battles. The masssacre at Fort Mims by a belligerent faction of the Creeks prompted not only swift and merciless reprisal, but propelled men like Andrew Jackson into the national spotlight. Alabama led the way in creating the New South, embracing rails and industry with enthusiasm, and one of its native sons, John H. Bankhead, was instrumental in the creation of a national highway system. The 20th century story is more familiar – industrialization and wars, economic diversification, Civil Rights, the Huntsville contributions to the space race, etc.
Despite being a lifelong Alabama resident and student of history, I learned more than a few things from Bridge’s artful history. I didn’t realize how complicated the Creek wars were, for instance: they didn’t simply pit white settlers against native Creeks, but often mixed populations and people of mixed loyalties against one another. I didn’t realize how long it took the plantation oligarchy to fully establish itself, triumphing over Alabama’s far larger freeholding population. Though fiercely independent, the yeoman class’s zeal to be not dictated to often resulted in their being subtly manipulated, instead, generally to their detriment. Although the yeoman freeholders are long gone, their spirit lives on – as does their steady manipulation by both state and national politicians.
If you’re looking for a survey of Alabama history, Bridge’s work recommends itself. The narrative is easy to follow, doesn’t drift into partisan editorializing, and absolutely abounds with quality photographs.