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James Madison Wells was an elected Unionist Governor of Louisiana during Reconstruction.

Early life

Born near Alexandria, Louisiana on January 8, 1808, Wells' father was Samuel Levi Wells II who was a member of the constitutional convention in 1811. His brother Thomas Jefferson Wells was involved in Louisiana politics. Samuel Wells died when James was 8, leaving eight children.

Wells was educated at St. Joseph’s College in Bardstown, Kentuckymarker, Partridges Academy, Middletown, Connecticutmarker and Cincinnati Law Schoolmarker, returning to Louisiana in 1829 to manage several of the families plantations.

Political activities

In 1833, Wells married 15 year old Mary Ann Scott; together they had 14 children. Wells inherited a substantial estate and he controlled a large cotton plantation near Alexandria, a sugar plantation on Bayou Huffpauer in Avoyelles Parish and a large summer home Jessamine Hill near Lecompte, Louisianamarker. Wells was appointed Sheriff of Rapides Parishmarker in 1840 by Governor Andre B. Roman. Wells was an active Whig and a large slave holder. Eventually, as the Whig Party collapsed in the 1850s, Wells became a Democrat. His brother, Thomas Jefferson Wells was the Whig nominee for Governor in 1859 against eventual winner Thomas Overton Moore.

In 1860, he supported Stephen A. Douglas, the Northern Democratic candidate for president and was an ardent supporter of the Union. For that, he was criticized by his neighbors and his brother. During the Civil War, Wells was arrested by Confederate officials for his Union sympathies. By 1864 Union troops control all or part of 17 parishes in South Louisiana. Wells formed the Unconditional Union Club of West Louisiana. He was nominated by both radicals such as Benjamin Flanders and moderates such as Michael Hahn to be Lt. Governor and he was quite progressive, but he retained a conservative opposition to rights for African-Americans.

Statewide office

On March 4, 1864, Wells became Lt. Governor under Governor Michael Hahn. He supported compensated emancipation for former slaves at the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1864. One year later on March 4, 1865, Wells was inaugurated as Governor when Michael Hahn resigned to become a United States Senator. In November, 1865, a special election was held under the Reconstruction government and Governor Wells running as a Democrat defeated former Governor Henry W. Allen, (who was in Mexico) by 22,312 votes to 5,497. As Governor, Wells came into conflict with the federal Military authority under General Banks. He supported Hugh Kennedy as New Orleansmarker Mayor and appointed numerous former Confederate officers to state and local offices. He recommended dismantling public education and using only taxes from blacks to pay for freedmen’s schools. Wells also wanted to build new levees, a new capitol building and a state penitentiary, but he was ignored by the legislature.

His advocacy for black suffrage caused political unrest and riots which led to his unseating. On July 30, 1866, riots erupted over actions taken under the Constitutional Convention of 1864. Governor Wells did little to prevent violence and General Sheridan held him responsible. General Sheridan removed him from office on June 3, 1867 for the riots and for failing to implement reforms regarding freedmen.

Later years

After being removed as Governor, Wells went home to Rapides Parish. In 1872 he supported Republican President Ulysses S. Grant’s re-election. During the 1870s Wells returned to politics as a scalawag and was known by opponents as "Mad Wells". In 1873, he was appointed chairman of the State Returning Board, which was responsible for determining the legality of ballots and for discarding fraudulent votes. In this, Wells helped Republicans gain a slight edge in elections. He was consequently appointed Surveyor of the Port of New Orleans (Customs) from 1874 to 1880.

He died on February 28, 1899 at his Rapides Parish home.


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