Monday, February 9, 2015

Congress and Judicial Review of the Reconstruction Acts in Mississippi

This short post is number fifteen in a historical review of Mississippi’s Whig/Reconstruction senator and governor J. L. Alcorn and my third overview of the enactment of the Reconstruction Acts in Mississippi (see my 13 and 24 January 2015 posts below). I will pick up with Alcorn proper and his actions within this federally-mandated setting (1866-1867) in my next post.

The Southern states’ rejection of the unconstitutional Fourteenth Amendment in the summer of 1866, in tandem with the North’s validation of the Radical Republican agenda in Congressional elections that fall, provided the Radicals the leverage they needed to assume their coveted desire to dictate Reconstruction. The Southern civil governments which had been operating effectively for more than a year were swept away and martial law established across the South. Private law remained fundamentally unchanged, but the military commanders were vested to modify or supersede it at their discretion. But the main role of the district commanders—and this is oh so telling—was to maintain order, register a new electorate (which for the most part enfranchised the non-taxpayer and disfranchised the taxpayer), and direct the movement for the reestablishment of “republican” government. Make that “Republican” government and you’ve got the true picture. Mississippi and the other Southern states had had republican governments since statehood. They’d never been constitutionally challenged nor should they have been.  

Under martial law, the district military commanders had absolute authority over life, liberty, and property, except that death sentences had to be approved by the president. 

The Radicals now argued that with the Southern states’ attempt to withdraw from the Union and in waging war against the United States (read that “in defending itself against Northern aggression”) it had forfeited its status as states. This despite the fact they’d nullified their ordinances of secession a year earlier. James Garner in his 1901 Reconstruction in Mississippi stated the Boutwell committee (creator of the Reconstruction Acts, see my 24 January post below) might have hit closer to the mark by claiming the Southern states had forfeited their right to be viewed as states if there was anything in the Constitution about a class of states not being equal to the original states. And what pray tell would give Congress the right to define such status? So after one post-war year operating as states, Congress decided the Southern states were not states—and used as its primary arbiter the fact that Congress had yet to guarantee the states that “Republican” form of government.  

Now, the only recourse the South had was through the courts. The state of Mississippi applied to the Supreme Court for an injunction against President Johnson and the district commander arguing that the state had nullified the articles of secession approved by a portion of the population; that the state had always been a member of the Federal Union (wasn’t that the administration’s argument all the time?) and there was nothing in the Constitution that gave Congress the authority to expel a state from the Union.  

I feel compelled to share this with my readers: Upon learning of the above cited injunction put forth by Judge Sharkey and Robert J. Walker, The Jackson Clarion expressed its offense thusly calling the argument “...a plea of not guilty to an act which is unjustly alleged to be a crime, and which all the world knows the state did deliberately commit....” I can just see Judge Sharkey pulling his hair out by this time, but The Clarion’s concern primarily seemed to be for Jefferson Davis who was still in prison for the “crime” of treason.  

In the injunction, Sharkey and Walker further maintained that President Johnson was being coerced to institute martial law by Congress and the decision belonged in the court not with the executive. The Supreme Court refused to file the bill on the grounds that for reasons of expediency and policy, the president should not be interfered with by the courts in performance of his duties. No opinion was expressed as to the constitutionality of the Reconstruction Acts. 

Now the South decided to shoot a little lower on the totem pole. Mississippi filed an injunction in conjunction with a joint bill (Georgia vs Stanton), against the Secretary of War (Stanton), the General of the Army (Grant), and in Mississippi’s case, the Commander of the Fourth District (General Ord). In this case the Supreme Court said it held no jurisdiction over the subject matter in the bill and deemed it unimportant to examine the question as it respected jurisdiction over the parties defendant. The matter was deemed political vice dealing with persons or property. I beg your pardon? Political? This was a “political” issue? Yeah, it was a political issue all right, on the part of Congress and the Supreme Court, but not for the South. Like I’ve said in my earlier posts, tyranny reigned. So, this whole matter—the question really being the constitutionality of the actions taken by Congress as a result of the Reconstruction Acts—was not reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States. 

But soon after, the district commander arrested one William McCardle, a Vicksburg newspaper publisher, for circulating “incendiary” articles regarding Reconstruction. After the Circuit Court of the Southern District of Mississippi sent him back into custody under the Reconstruction Acts, he invoked habeas corpus, and it looked like the Supreme Court was actually gonna have to look at it. It would have been a great win for the Radicals, but truth is, they were afraid the Court’s looking at McCardle’s case would undo the Reconstruction Acts in their entirety, so they withdrew McCardle’s case from appellate review, exercising the powers granted to Congress under Article III Section 2 of the Constitution. Needless to say, the South challenged the move which had appeared so promising in forcing the Supreme Court to actually look at the Reconstruction Acts, which anyone with half a brain knew to be unconstitutional. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court upheld Congress’ right to pull the case under the “exceptions clause”. Here it is y’all, the exceptions clause: 

“In all other cases before mentioned the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make. 

So Congress made the “exception”. You all realize that Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s erstwhile, rabid abolitionist and egomaniacal Secretary of the Treasury was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when all these nonsensical rulings in favor of Radical tyranny were being made, don’t you? Anyone other than me wonder who directed Congress how to get out of the mess it had gotten itself into with McCardle—and got himself off the hook? 

The way was now clear for the coup de grace—passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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.

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