Monday, December 15, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Eliminating the Delusions for Mississippi’s Reentry into the Union, Part One

This post is number eleven in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent, from 17 February, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 18 October, 5 November 2014, and 22 November 2014.
After Federal General Canby dispersed the Mississippi legislature in May 1865 (see my 5 November post below), Alcorn visited his wife and children, still safely ensconced with her family in Alabama, and in July returned to Mound Place on the Yazoo Pass. During this interim, President Andrew Johnson appointed the “blight-free” Southern Whig and prominent judge, William Sharkey, provisional governor. Sharkey called for the election of delegates to serve at a state convention in July 1865—the purpose of which was to lay the groundwork for reinstating civil government. This groundwork included the scheduling of elections for governor, congressional representatives, legislators, and other civil positions. Alcorn did not participate, but he did discuss the convention, and I’m guessing his personal goals, with his law partner W. L. Stricklin who did run successfully as a delegate. The convention was comprised primarily of long-time Whigs, many of whom had opposed secession and reflected to some degree the same pragmatic conclusions that both Sharkey and Alcorn had reached.

Despite his non-participation in the convention, Alcorn was in Jackson at the time it met. He stayed in the home of another old-line Whig, Judge William Yerger. There he conferred with Judge Yerger’s brother, J. S. Yerger, an old political ally. Other friends/allies included among his “conferees” were Ethelbert Barksdale, then editor of the Mississippian and later the Clarion, both strong Democratic newspapers. In addition to his not playing a part in the convention, we know that Alcorn did not want his name placed in the gubernatorial contest, but that he was interested in the legislative seat representing Coahoma County. 

Around this same time, Sharkey told the people of Mississippi that regardless of their feelings about the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was over. 

I’d like to make a point here. The Emancipation Proclamation is the consummate example of an unconstitutional executive order. Even laymen, much less their leaders, across the South—and many outside the South—realized this at the time. Congress certainly did, hence its insistence on ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Presidents have used executive orders to carry out the responsibilities of the “executive” since President Washington, but to be legal, those orders should apply to the execution of an existing law—in other words, they should aid the president in enforcing laws passed by Congress. The Emancipation Proclamation is about as far as one can get from that. Slavery was legal and protected by the Constitution. So, those of you out there who praise Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation and lambaste Obama for his “pen in hand” and making laws under the guise of executive privilege, you’re setting a double standard. Me? I proudly lambaste both of them—along with a myriad of others. FDR comes first to mind, but there are plenty more, and Congress lets them get away with the abuse today, just like it did in 1863—of course, then, as at too many other times since, it was “party” to the conspiracy, pun intended. But I digress—back to Alcorn and Reconstruction. 

On the 26th of July 1865, with Judge Sharkey as witness, Alcorn took the oath of allegiance to the United States Constitution. Days later, at a local church in the Swan Lake area of Coahoma County, his son Milton (he was still alive) and his overseer Minga, along with a number of his Coahoma County neighbors, took the oath. Peace made with Governor Sharkey’s provisional government, Alcorn left for Washington and a pardon. Alcorn had his extensive holdings, but he could not participate in politics without that pardon. 

During this first sojourn to Washington, Alcorn met with Attorney General James Speed, with whom he made his application for a pardon; Secretary of State William Henry Seward; Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch; and President Johnson. In regards to the last individual, Alcorn notes that some of the interviews went well, some did not. My question is what were they talking about? Technically, Alcorn was not representing the state in an official capacity, and I don’t think the president would have been the person with whom Alcorn would have broached the subject of levees. This is just my opinion, but I think Alcorn had done some covert planning with Sharkey and friends in Jackson prior to his trip to Washington, and in Washington he was putting out feelers among the powers-that-be as to what was expected of the state—or more to the point, what the state should expect. 

Alcorn received his pardon on 11 September 1865 and started home two days later. What we do know from his assessment of the situation is: (1) The Radical Republicans hated the South. [The Radical Republicans had hated the South since the mid-fifties when they became Republicans. They’d hated the South as something else for decades before that.] (2) President Johnson might appear harsh, but his actions were nothing compared to what the Radicals would do. (3) The Southern states readmission to the Union would be based on the abolition of slavery (which the state convention meeting under Sharkey in July did); however, to Congress (and Johnson), abolition of slavery computed to ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Declaring slavery abolished simply would not do. (4) Repudiation of Confederate debts, and (5) some civil and franchise rights for the Negro. We see in his letters to Amelia that he doubted Southerners elected to Congress would be seated in the coming session. 

Back in Mississippi, elections for office were held on 2 October 1865. In Coahoma County, Alcorn’s name for representative to the state legislature had been placed in the hat while he was still in Washington. He ran unopposed, but for the most part, the Mississippi taxpayer elected a majority of Democrats and ex-Confederates to legislative office. Confederate general, B. G. Humphreys was elected governor over old-line Whig, Judge E. S. Fisher. The result was a legislature opposed to the extension of rights to the freedman. The Radicals in Congress, now in a power struggle with the president over the course Reconstruction would take, observed all this with glee. However, Mississippians chose four Whigs and one Union Democrat to represent them in the House. [That “Union Democrat/Union Whig” evolution occurred in the early fifties when Whigs and Democrats of like minds formed the “Union” party in an attempt to put the Union before party. Its biggest success was in the South, but the Northern branches lost interest and in the end it all fell apart. It’s a subject for a whole other post, but suffice it to say, a Union Democrat would work well with Whigs and would have cast a jaundiced eye on secession. Let me rephrase that—he would have worked well with Southern Whigs.]  

In the state house, Alcorn was nominated for speaker, but lost on the final count 26-38 to Democrat S. J. Gholson. Alcorn was also selected for several committees, but before any of those accomplished anything, the legislature went into joint secession to elect the state’s senators to Congress. William Sharkey was elected on the first ballot for the short term and Alcorn on the fourth ballot for the long term. Alcorn claims not to have solicited the position, but personally I think some more of that “conferring” had been going on. His desire for the senatorial position is the reason he didn’t want to be governor. Of course, another reason for his reticence regarding the gubernatorial race—because his election as governor would not have precluded his election as senator—was possibly to avoid the overt Democratic challenge to his candidacy. In Coahoma County, he didn’t have to speak one controversial word to get elected to the legislature, but for the gubernatorial run, he might have  anticipated the need to say plenty, not only in defense of his liaisons during the war but also, if he were forthright, in defense of his proposed post-war policies. And I do believe he proposed to address the challenges to the state, and how he would meet them, with candor.  

My perception of his anxieties aside, I think Alcorn wanted the senate position—I believe he had taken aim at it in July before he left Coahoma County en route Jackson. That was his reason for sitting out the convention (but his allies were represented) and for his “conferring” with the provisional governor and friends prior to his departure for Washington. His decision made, he did not deviate from his course even after his enlightening sojourn to the nation’s capital left him believing, correctly, that Congress would not seat Southerners elected to office under the terms of Presidential Reconstruction. Alcorn was a Whig and the South was in extreme economic distress. His view (hand in hand with Wiggery) was that Federal money was the way out.  

Alcorn’s biographer, Lillian A. Pereyra, points out that not only had Mississippi’s predominantly Democratic legislature sent Senators to Washington with the best possible chance of getting seated but it had also removed the two most capable members of the minority party from influencing legislation. That may have been true, but I’m not sure I agree the action was by design. That legislature was between a rock and a hard place—where were the capabilities of men such as Sharkey and Alcorn to be best employed when the choice has to be made between a hate-filled Congress or an aggrieved and defiant populace at home that might also spurn their efforts?  

Additionally, Sharkey may have been untainted by secessionist blight, but Alcorn certainly wasn’t. Recall his was the first name called at the secessionist convention in 1861, and he succumbed to the “fever”. His “yes” vote, given who he was and his decade-long fight against secession, nearly brought down the house with jubilation. Then he became a general of Mississippi’s state forces and served in the state’s Confederate legislature. He outfitted his son’s unit which became part of the Confederate Army...and on and on. Yes, he wined and dined and cooperated with Union generals during the occupation, but at the same time is known to have passed at least some intelligence to the Confederacy. Alcorn might have been acceptable to some in the Federal government, but he wouldn’t have been to the Radicals. [In fact, not even the squeaky clean Sharkey proved acceptable to the Radicals—he was a Southerner after all.]  

Hmmm—I might have just made Pereyra’s case. 

I’ll continue this tale in my next post. Thanks for reading. 






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