Monday, August 15, 2016

The 1869 Gubernatorial Campaign in Mississippi

This post is number forty-six in a historical series discussing Mississippi’s Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, following the War Between the States and continues the “saga” resulting from the Democratic victory over the Republican “reconstruction” constitution framed during the Black & Tan Convention in the winter/spring of 1868. That Republican defeat resulted in a second election, the story of which continues below. For earlier posts in this Alcorn-driven series, I refer the reader to the sidebar on the right.

After his nomination by the Conservative Republicans (National Union Republican Party) and his subsequent acceptance as its gubernatorial candidate, Louis Dent returned to Mississippi in early September. Recall that he had been living in the state prior to his brother-in-law’s (Ulysses Simpson Grant’s) moving into the White House, at which point Dent was invited to join the president and Julia (Dent’s sister). On the 14th of September, the Clarion published the schedule of his speaking engagements, forty odd, starting in Corinth on the 18th and ending on the 30th of September, after which, Dent informed Alcorn, he would be available for “discussion,” this in response to an invitation for debate extended by Alcorn. 

Louis Dent and James Alcorn held their first such face-off at Grenada in early October, and the Clarion declared Dent the winner. This assessment was supported by kudos published in the Aberdeen Examiner who saw in Dent an “eloquent debater and orator for the Conservative cause.” James Garner (Reconstruction in Mississippi), my source for the newspaper analysis, however, maintained that Judge Dent, whose main oratorical weapon was a subtle and deep sarcasm, was no match for the experienced Alcorn, whose booming oratory had been finely honed in the stump-style politicking of the South of that day. The topics for Dent’s biting invective were Alcorn’s role in the secession crisis back in ’61 and his subsequent war record—no battles, no wounds, and no taking the enemy capitol. 

Well, we saw Alcorn’s war record in the early part of this long series (follow the links for the fourth through seventh posts listed on the right under Alcorn Series for more information). No, he never found martial glory, but not for want of asking for the opportunity, and he was there for the Confederacy in a support role and served in Mississippi’s Confederate legislature despite his undermining criticisms of the war effort (which was going badly). At the same time, of course, he was ensuring his own survival to “fight” again another day by wheeling and dealing (selling) cotton to Yankee entrepreneurs along the river in the dark of night (Okay, that’s my synopsis, but it was done illegally and in violation of Confederate law, and Alcorn did get quite wealthy off the trade). Those “lucrative” investments at the time were now funding his present day “fight” for control of the state.

Dent spent a good part of the debate trying to convince people his “whole soul was enlisted in the great agricultural and commercial interests of Mississippi, and their resuscitation and development” as a bona fide citizen of the state. George Alcorn (James’ cousin) and clerk at the probate court in Coahoma County where Dent leased “abandoned” property, had circulated a letter that Dent was not on the tax rolls for that county. 

Alcorn kept his focus on the gloomy condition of the state under the last four years of Democratic leadership. Now, any reasonable person might argue that war and Reconstruction would account for that. Of course, Alcorn blamed the war on the Democrats and its loss on Jeff Davis’ policies/grand strategy. Understand that for the four years following the end of the war, Mississippi and the entire South needed an infusion of capital. Not only had the reconstruction contemporary Americans readily assume to be part of U.S. policy after having pounded the stuffing out of a foreign nation not occurred (and never would), the Southern states had been forced, under Federal bayonets, to contend with costly constitutional conventions, welfare for a huge vagrant population created by an invading army in an unwarranted war, and other self-aggrandizing expenses a hate-filled occupier imposed on a taxpayer it had managed to disfranchise. Their lands devastated, their populations decimated, and their labor force disbursed and living off the largesse of the American taxpayer, including Southern ones, Mississippi and her sister states did not have a means of generating income, and they were being raped by an unconstitutional Congress and an ancillary weak administration, under the Radicals’ thumb, imbued with a self-serving zeal to make the South Northern. A better analogy for the treatment of the South after the War Between the States for those of you familiar with history would be Rome to Carthage rather than the United States to Germany and Japan following World War II.

These conditions Alcorn blamed on Democratic intransigence in the face of Republican (Party) expectations for the South in the “new” democracy the Radicals were creating. In the mind of the exigency-driven, would-have-been-tyrant Alcorn, the Radicals and the North had a right to demand these things and create a new nation under the rules of war and conquest. For sure, unwarranted and unconstitutional as it may have been, there are not many things more effective than beating the stew out of someone, then telling him how things are gonna be from now on, especially after the Northern populace sanctioned the changes. Alcorn was advocating acquiescence to the destruction of the Founder’s Republic, and the principles of that Republic were critical to the South’s survival and always had been; that’s why she seceded.  

Personally, I think Alcorn viewed acquiescence to the party in power as temporary. In tandem with Alcorn’s detesting Democratic principles and stubbornness, he believed that once Mississippi submitted to the Radical plan for Reconstruction, she would get her representation back in Congress and from that source get her long-awaited share of Federal money. Alcorn, the Whig, had wanted Mississippi to receive her share of that money for decades, a point he made when accepting the gubernatorial nomination at the Radical convention.

The campaign apparently was a colorful one. Supposedly there was a threat from the Klan, but more in theory than actual fact. Keep in mind that the Klan was composed of, and led by, Democrats and many nominal Democrats were, by this time, leaning toward the “progressive” or New Departure  persuasion and weren’t gonna muck with the candidates—now, that’s just my opinion. There is some rumor that the Democratic leadership had lost control of its military wing, but I think those uncontrolled elements are more the result of Republican hype and propaganda. Truth was leadership of the political and military wings was probably the same. What wouldn’t have been under their control were independent groups whose so-called atrocities were readily attributed to the Klan, whether Klan or not. My point is that Alcorn did assume some risk by running on the Radical ticket. One might consider that Dent, running on much the same platform, would have shared those risks from those same fringe groups. Perhaps he did. If history says, I haven’t found it. Amelia, Alcorn’s wife, tried to dissuade her husband from running as did his friend J.F.H. Claiborne. The opportunity Alcorn had waited a lifetime for—one he’d spent time and money finagling into being—and  they’re asking him to sit it out? Not a chance.

Alcorn proved up to the perceived challenge. During a campaign address in Ripley, Mississippi, he nearly came to blows with a local politician, who Alcorn dubbed a liar (them’s fightin’ words back in those days, folks), and as the audience scrambled for the door and windows, Alcorn called them back and told them there was nothing to fear because his opponent was a “drunken cowardly vagabond.” Okay, that incident is recorded in a letter to Amelia, so one might speculate “Dandy Jim” embellished it some. In Aberdeen, he allayed the fears of his audience when, on hearing the cocking of pistols near the rostrum, he pulled a six-shooter from his satchel and challenged the would-be assassins to face him like men. Then, in an address to a mostly Negro audience at a railroad platform in Winona, when what has been described as “several of the more desperate whites” planned to kill Alcorn “with a rifle,” (implying distance from the platform, you think?), conservative Democrats prevented their carrying out the plan. I don’t know if that “prevention” occurred on scene or off or if it’s even valid or just another delicious rumor embellished to add excitement to the campaign. 

Dent, a non-Mississippian and abandoned by his brother-in-law, Grant, whose endorsement the Conservatives hoped might sway the people of Mississippi, left the state after the joint debates, not even sticking around for the election results. Of course, his presence up to that point was probably nothing more than the fullfilment of a commitment—that’s based on my assumption his brother-in-law had informed him privately the fix was already in, and he was not to be elected.  

But here’s something regarding the undercurrents of this volatile period: Alcorn readily attributes the poor economic condition of the state following Presidential Reconstruction to “Democratic” intransigence following defeat, the direct result being the state’s remaining outside the safety of the Union. But there’s more to the story of the Democrats not using the name Democratic Party because they were in disgrace. A more accurate reason for this fusion party using the sobriquet Democratic-Conservative or simply Conservative Party was because the ascendant leadership in the vast majority of all those Southern legislatures elected as far back as 1865 and 1866—the same ones that wrote the new state constitutions under the provincial governments set up by President Johnson, the ones who rightly resisted passage of the unconstitutional 14th and 15th amendments, the ones who enacted the infamous Black Codes—was not composed of Democrats. The bulk of the leadership in those Conservative parties were Old-line Whigs. They had been who the people had turned to with the defeat of the Confederacy. In the case of Mississippi, these old Whigs, for the first time ever, were at the top of the food chain. Alcorn was an Old-line Whig. Yes, they needed the Democratic polity, hence the annotated name, but they were the ones in charge. This would further account for the growing fissure between the Democratic-Conservatives and Old-line Democrats (Bourbons) within the “Democratic-Conservative” Party. Just as important, Old-line Whigs dominated the leadership of the Scalawags who were, despite appearances, opposed to the Radicals. It had been 140 “local men of affairs,” all reputedly Whigs, who wrote the address asking the people of the state to vote for Louis Dent. Now, that particular group of solicitors was probably composed of both Democratic-Conservative Whigs and National Union Republican Whigs (Scalawags).  The Whigs, be they of the Democratic-Conservative or Scalawag persuasion, are a whole different study and a very important one, and as soon as I’ve put Alcorn in the state-house in this series, I’m gonna take a detour and attempt to sort them out.
Next time, military governor and commander of the Fourth Military District Adelbert Ames’ extensive efforts to ensure a “fair” election. Thanks for reading. 










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