The life of William James Samford exemplifies the State Bar motto, “Lawyers Render Service.” Born in Greenville, GA in 1844 but raised in East Alabama, Samford gave a lifetime of service to our state: as a soldier, as a lawyer, as a legislator and as its Chief Executive.
Samford was first called to service as a soldier. At the age of 17 Samford enlisted as a Private in the 46th Alabama Regiment, rose to the rank of first lieutenant, and was the youngest company commander in the regiment. Samford was captured in May of 1863, and was held for 18 months as a prisoner of war. After a prisoner exchange, Samford returned home – but only briefly – before a call to duty and a love for his men urged him to set out on foot to reunite with his unit in North Carolina. After the war he returned to Alabama a Confederate hero.
Samford was then called into service for his clients as a lawyer. He was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1867 and moved his family and law practice to Opelika in 1872 where he built a successful practice. It was said of Samford: “In preparing for a case, all sight was lost of self, until he had thoroughly investigated every phase of the subject. He was rarely ever surprised in the trial.” Samford had a gift of the oratory and enjoyed a reputation as a “direct, plain spoken, honest Christian gentlemen.”
While a lawyer, Samford was also called to service in politics at virtually every level, from local to federal. Samford began his political career as an Opelika City Alderman, and, at the age of 30, became the youngest delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1875 where he served on the Finance Committee.
In 1878 Samford was elected to the United States Congress and served one term. He did not seek reelection, but rather returned to Alabama, believing that he could do more good for Alabama people by serving them closer to home. While resuming the practice of law in Opelika, the surrounding counties, and the state of Georgia, Samford continued his involvement in state politics by winning election to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1882 and by serving in the Alabama Senate for terms in 1884-1888 and 1892-1896. In 1896 he was appointed a Trustee of the University of Alabama.
In 1900 William James Samford reached the peak of political service by becoming Governor of Alabama. During the election, the Athens Courier wrote, “There are few, if any men, in public life, with so enviable a reputation as this grand Christian gentleman.” He was warmly referred to as the “People’s Governor.” However, his health was fragile due to a heart condition and he died on June 11, 1901, having served as Governor less than a year. A notable accomplishment of Samford’s term was the establishment of the Alabama Department of Archives and History to house the public records and artifacts of the state.
William James Samford’s life undeniably centered on elevating the welfare of our great state and her people. For his lifetime of service to Alabama, William James Samford is inducted into the Alabama Lawyers’ Hall of Fame.