William Harrell Felton was born in 1823. He served as a Methodist minister, farmer, Confederate army surgeon, and U.S. congressman from 1875 to 1881. While mainly remembered as the husband of Rebecca Latimer Felton, his second wife and the first woman to officially serve in the U.S. Senate, he was one of the most prominent politicians in Georgia after Reconstruction ended and was a champion of farmers in that region.
Born on the family plantation near Lexington, Georgia, to John and Mary D. Felton, William received his undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia's Franklin College in 1843 and his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, the next year. Soon after, he married Ann Carlton, the daughter of a prominent Athens merchant family.
From descriptions of contemporaries, Felton appears to have suffered from some kind of palsy or neurological condition that affected his ability to practice medicine for any prolonged time or later to serve as a full-time minister in the Methodist church. His wife's obituary for him noted, “[T]he strain of the work was too much for his nervous system” (Felton 12 ).
The couple retired to a small plantation outside of Cartersville, Georgia, until the start of the Civil War. During the conflict, the Feltons and their children moved to Macon, where William served the Confederacy as a surgeon in the military hospitals there. After the war, the family returned to Cartersville. Dr. Felton then ran afoul of local Reconstruction officials when he violated the law in the eviction of an African American tenant, but the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. The Feltons held extremely conservative racial views throughout their public careers.
In 1874, William Felton decided to oppose the Bourbon Democrats who controlled the area and run for the U.S. Congress. In what Rebecca later called “the fiercest political battle ever known to the state at that time,” her husband won his 14-county district by a mere 82 votes (Northen). Drawing on the rhetorical lessons he learned in the pulpit, he spoke logically but attacked opponents with “satire and scathing denunciation of error and evil” (Northen).
Serving on the Ways and Means Committee, he was a strong supporter of tariffs on luxury goods, but more important, he was a proponent of bimetallism. A writer in the Cartersville News, a paper the Feltons owned for a year and a half, noted, “Perhaps the most distinguished feature of his career in Congress was his skillful diagnosis of the financial depression then afflicting the country. He brilliantly advocated the remonetization of the silver dollar. His speeches read like prophecy in the light of contemporary financial disasters” (The Cartersville News).
With Rebecca working as his campaign manager, aide, and writer of numerous commentaries and letters to the editor, theirs was a political partnership. Constituents often joked that they were blessed with having two government representatives instead of one like the rest of the nation.
Losing his bid for reelection in 1880, William Felton served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1884 to 1890. In those years, he was deeply involved in trying to end the convict lease system, which put wage laborers and small-scale farmers and businessmen at a disadvantage. At both the state and national levels, he pushed for vocational education. His wife claimed that his political legacy could be summed up as “securing proper scope and authority to the Railroad Commission of Georgia, for a reformatory for juvenile offenders, and for the second lease of the Western and Atlantic Railway” (Northen). Negotiated at the Felton's home, the Western and Atlantic Railway contract put $420,000 annually in the Georgia state coffers for nearly three decades.
Trevor Jason Soderstrum
See also: Bourbon Democracy ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Railroad Regulation
“Dr. William H. Felton.” The Cartersville News, September 30, 1909.
Felton, Rebecca Latimer. My Memoirs of Georgia Politics. Greenville, SC: The Index Printing Company, 1911.
Northen, William J. Men of Mark in Georgia. n.p.: A. B. Caldwell, 1906. http://www.archive.org/stream/menofmarkingeorg04nort/menofmarkingeorg04nort_djvu.txt .