Tuesday, January 13, 2015

James Lusk Alcorn and the Dark Dawn of Congressional Reconstruction

This post is number thirteen in a historical review of Mississippi’s J. L. Alcorn, Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during Reconstruction. For earlier posts on Alcorn, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent, see 17 February, 24 March, 16 April, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 18 October, 5 November, 22 November, 15 December, and 29 December 2014.

When last we saw Senator Alcorn in December 1865, both he and Senator-elect Sharkey had been denied their seats in Congress as had their fellow representatives in the House. This was true for all the Southern states whose tax-paying electorate had elected representatives to Congress during Presidential Reconstruction. All these civil governments had been approved by President Johnson and tacitly approved by Congress, which had seen fit to forward the Thirteenth Amendment to them for ratification. Aware of the looming contest between the executive and the Congress, the denial of his seat had not surprised Alcorn, and I would wager not one other such representative among the defeated Southern states.  

Alcorn remained in Washington through the rest of December 1865, observing the executive-legislative conflict and the emergence of the Radicals. He did manage to get a post office for Friar’s Point, site of his new plantation home. Additionally, he worked on some claims for his Coahoma County clients and made an indeterminate effort to free Jefferson Davis’ private secretary from prison. On that, one of Mississippi’s brightest stars, L.Q.C. Lamar, is on record for remarking that Alcorn’s energy might prove more effective than Sharkey’s influence. (I was unable to find out what happened with the secretary.) 

Alcorn returned to Mississippi in early 1866 having gathered a clearer understanding of what the South was up against and, probably, weighing his options for righting his world. For whatever its worth, it’s my opinion that Whigs, and the Republicans they excreted, considered the Constitution a hindrance to their program of protectionism (high tariffs), taxation for internal improvements (perversion of the general welfare clause), and mercantilism (at this place and time, classic crony capitalism). All require a strong central government. Anticipating such schemes, the Founders gave us a Constitution defining a central government with supreme, but limited powers, delegated by autonomous states. Our Founders wrote the Constitution specifically to thwart the designs of men like Henry Clay and his protégé, Abraham Lincoln. The rights of the states, the little “fiefdoms” that theoretically held the Federal government in check, stood in the way of the Whig/Republican economic agenda known to history as The American System.  

The Republican-dominated 39th Congress of the United States (March 4, 1865-March 4, 1867) was, at the time Alcorn returned home, putting its plan in play to subordinate the states to the Federal government. Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment increased representation across the South since the Negro was no longer apportioned as 3/5ths of a man, but as a whole man, and the Republicans needed to get that potential Negro constituency under their control and at the same time nullify the Southern white taxpayer’s vote. Congress was already working on the problem before the soon-to-be-not-seated Southern senators and representatives arrived to assume their rightful place in Congress. Key to Congress’ effort was a bill that would become the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Had those Southern senators and representatives been seated, that bill would have never made it out of Congress. That’s why they weren’t seated. 

For the past century and a half, this desecration to the Constitution has been used and abused by the Federal government to alter our Founder’s Republic beyond functional recognition. Its most odious feature is that it gives the Federal government supremacy over the states. During Reconstruction, it was critical to the victory of Clay and Lincoln’s American System. To give it its just due would require a separate post (or several), but for my purpose here, the Fourteenth Amendment was unconstitutional in concept and criminal in its passage and is anathema to the Republic our Founders created. The South knew it and abhorred it. The Northern mercantilists/Republicans knew it and approved it.

After much debate and rehashing, Congress passed the proposed Fourteenth Amendment in the summer of 1866 and sent it to the state legislatures for ratification, including (especially) those in the South. This action on the part of Congress makes a point that will come up again in my next post—just remember, Congress sent it to the duly-elected Southern state legislatures for ratification, irrefutable proof of Congress’ recognition of those legislatures.
Like the Thirteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth was sent for ratification to states that had not been represented at the time of its passage in Congress. Second, it ceded to Congress rights belonging to the states. Sorry, folks, civil rights, citizenship, disfranchise...these are not rights or powers the Founders would have ever left in the hands of the Congress. Nothing, nothing in the thing fell inside Congress’ bailiwick. Until Congress usurped these powers with the Fourteenth Amendment, such responsibilities were reserved for autonomous states. Not only would giving Congress the responsibility for such matters require an expansive increase in bureaucracy to carry them out, the very thought of giving Congress the power to dictate requirements to the states and their people was patently unconstitutional. Once upon a time—and this was still true in 1866—senators represented states. The House supposedly still represents the people of those states. At the time Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, eleven states were not even represented in Congress. What you have here, in 1866, is one section of the nation dictating to another section of the nation. Granted, the North had already violated the Constitution with its war of aggression—but everything it did/everything Congress did/everything the president did was illegal, accomplished through military arms, not through the law of the land. Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment codified such actions as legal for time immemorial. The thing should not have made it out of Congress.   

In Mississippi, Governor Humphreys sent the amendment to his legislature recommending it be rejected. The legislature agreed with his recommendation as did the legislatures in all the other states that supported the “rebellion.” Southerners weren’t the only states that had problems with the thing, but the history of the Fourteenth Amendment is too lengthy to address here. Let’s just say that during the summer of 1866, ratification failed. 

In October of that year, Alcorn attended circuit court in Bolivar County. There, his colleagues, including his Whig friends J. S. Yerger and James Chalmers, asked his opinion of Andrew Johnson’s chances against the Radicals in Congress and inquired his opinion as to whether he (Alcorn) would ever take his senate seat. [Side note here: It’s interesting that Alcorn is considered the font of all knowledge amongst these old Whig lawyers—and it is in keeping with Lamar’s observation regarding Alcorn’s “vigor” in making headway in getting Davis’ secretary released. My take is that Alcorn knew some folks back in Washington; he had contacts.] Anyway, he told his associates the state legislature made a mistake in not ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment and warned it would be forced on the South anyway. It was a natural outcome of emancipation and Federal victory. He did agree in principle that the thing should have been rejected. 

It says much about the character of a Whig/Republican that such an individual would so easily accept an amendment that he knew was unconstitutional, one that would flip-flop the state-federal dynamic. In fact, it was worse than a flip-flop. The Federal government always held sway in the limited matters granted it by the states. With the Fourteenth Amendment, time would prove that any authority nominally remaining with the states could, on a whim, be usurped by the Federal government.  

Of course, Alcorn was right about Congress’ forcing the Fourteenth Amendment on the South. After all, there had to be something wrong with those Southern legislatures to reject the measure. Certainly, theirs was not the response of a people ready to return to a glorious Union promising liberty and justice for all. They knew, of course, there wasn’t one thing wrong with those Southern legislatures, except that they knew the Constitution better than the Northern ones. Anyone (and these men were all lawyers) looking at the Fourteenth Amendment could clearly see that the inevitable result of the measure would be Federal tyranny, not liberty and justice for all.  

Just as the problem lay with those state governments, so did the solution. What Congress did next is so sloppy, goon-like, and tyrannical in both appearance and execution, it boggles my mind that anyone even remotely aware of what happened during Reconstruction cannot see it for what it was, an egregious violation of everything our Founders fought for. But then I have to accept that there are people who truly believe a strong central government is the way to go, and there is a smaller, but increasing, species of such beings that believes the government’s confiscating the taxpayers’ money to support healthcare, economic control, environmental control, crony capitalism, egalitarianism, never-ending war, etc., etc, is actually a good thing.  

What disturbs me most about Alcorn at this juncture is his ready acceptance of the South’s and, by association, the nation’s fate. Just a shrug of the shoulder, as if there were no consequences related to the Federal usurpation of state rights in the Fourteenth Amendment. His attitude seemed to be: Pass it, get back in the Union, get those damn Yankees out of here, and get this mess cleaned up. I do think he was considering the possibilities inherent in Mississippi’s return to the Union. Given the Confederacy’s loss and the emasculation of the Democratic Party across the South, perhaps he might, after decades, have seen a twinkle of light at the end of that long dark tunnel leading to his Whig platform in Mississippi. He might have even thought he’d be able to take his Senate seat and manage to divert some of those Federal subsidies to Mississippi in order to rebuild. So what if state rights had been blown asunder? He’d make the best of it. All he had to do was stumble along that dark corridor, dragging Mississippi behind him, avoiding the clubs of the Radical gauntlet, till he brought the state into the light of a new day—where there would be no obstructing democrats. 

All right, I know that “light of a new day” sounds corny, and even if Alcorn did contemplate the possibility of such potential within the money-crazed/power-hungry Republican Party, I think he was astute enough to realize it might never come about. Fundamentally at odds with the proponents of Henry Clay’s mercantilist economy, the South had been a stonewall standing in the way of the Whig/Republican platform. The South’s role as the tax-milk cow for the Federal government would not change now, and with the threat of free-market Confederate ports eliminated, Northern/Republican interests could relax and enjoy the South as a source of exploitation and plunder. The South was where they wanted her to be, and they had no intention of improving her lot.  

Here I will leave you anticipating what Congress would do about the Fourteenth Amendment and those unpatriotic Southern legislatures and their people, too stupid to appreciate how the wonderful Union and her magnanimous soldiers had saved them from sovereignty and the false promise of their misguided Founder’s nation. Many of you already know, but I’ve uncovered some details that succinctly highlight the despotic joke that called itself the 39th Congress of the United States. Look for my next post in a week to ten days and thanks for reading. 

Charlsie Russell

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