This post is number twelve in a historical review of
Mississippi’s J. L. Alcorn, Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during
Reconstruction, and is a continuation of my 15 December post immediately below.
It is best read in conjunction with the latter.
When we last saw James Alcorn, he had been elected by the 1865
state legislature to serve in the United States Senate for the long-term
session along with his old Whig colleague, William Sharkey, the former
provisional governor, chosen for the short term. Prior to Alcorn’s and
Sharkey’s departure for Washington in December, the legislature requested they
address the state house. Recall that Alcorn had returned from Washington in
September with President Johnson’s guidelines for the state’s reentry to the
Union. These points included the abolition of slavery/passage of the Thirteenth
amendment, extending the franchise to Negro property owners who met a literacy
standard, Negro access to the jury box, and repudiation of the Confederate
During their address, the newly elected Senators, doubting
they’d actually be seated in Congress, emphasized the requirement to allow the
freedman to bear witness and sit in the jury box. The legislature subsequently
voted to extend these rights to the Negro in those cases which involved a Negro
or mulatto. Guess it figured that should be enough to protect the Negro in a
court of law and satisfy the powers that be in Washington (theoretically it didn’t help an innocent white accused of a crime or white victims when the only witness was a Negro, either). Though people today
guffaw the inadequacy of the tactic, it was a major concession on the part of
that legislature and certainly would have been considered, in their eyes, a
compromise—ignoring the fact they were in no position to “offer” compromises.
I can’t find a reference made to
the legislature’s addressing the extension of the franchise to the freedman.
The subject had come up in the July 1865 convention, but was summarily
dismissed. Remember that the Negro was not considered a citizen of the United
States in most of the Union (and that includes parts of the North), and my
guess is that the distasteful topic was set aside as a non-issue. However, this
was one of President Johnson’s points to Alcorn. Educated Negro property
owners/taxpayers did exist and had for decades before the war. Some had been
slave owners themselves. Alcorn had no problem with the requirement and wrote
to his wife Amelia that as a politician he routinely solicited the votes of the
basest of their own race. What would be the problem in dealing similarly with
the Negro? Civil and political equality in no way represented social equality.
People of his and Amelia’s class didn’t socialize with poor whites—or whites
not of their “class”—and they wouldn’t need to socialize with the Negro either.
The legislators rejected the
Thirteenth Amendment. Read that again. They did not reject the abolition of
slavery, they rejected the Thirteenth Amendment. Drag out your pocket version
of the Constitution and read Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment. Mississippi
had already declared slavery abolished. Section 2 of that amendment granted to
Congress a right to dictate to the states, a right Congress did not have, and
Mississippi did not wish to cede. According to the interpretation of the
Constitution laid down by our Founders, Congress’ powers are limited and
granted by the states—all other powers are retained by the states (Tenth
Amendment). I know I’m spitting into the wind. Why would such a Congress, as
existed in the fall of 1865, concern itself with state rights after what it had
just done? But people actually knew and still believed in the integrity of the
Constitution in those days—at least in the South, and it was this persistent
resistance to Congress’ violations of the Constitution which guided
Mississippi’s and the rest of the South’s actions during this period. Of
course, I’ve long argued that this usurpation of state rights by the national
government was the long-term goal of those making up the central government and
was, in fact, the basis for the war itself.
Debatable musings aside, there is
a point worth making here. Not only was the executive order (Emancipation
Proclamation) that gave birth to the Thirteenth Amendment unconstitutional, so
was the amendment itself, and that is the reason Mississippi gave for its
rejection of the Thirteenth Amendment in the fall of 1865. She was right to do
so. For that same reason, though it doesn’t matter anymore, not in regards to
slavery nor state rights—because both are either dead or prevail at the whim of
the Federal government—Mississippi should not have ratified the thing in
February 2013. It was a simple matter of political correctness over principle.
The body that should
have passed it was one of the puppet
Reconstruction legislatures that came with Congressional Reconstruction between
Granted, I have no idea what that
1865 legislature would have done had Section 2 been stricken, but given Section
2, the Thirteenth Amendment should have never made it out of Congress—not a
Congress sworn to uphold the Constitution and by default, the Republic, and
certainly not a Senate, whose members should have been looking out for the
states they served. Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, with section 2
appended, is a clear condemnation of the Northern and Western state legislatures
that sent those senators to Washington and to the voters who elected said state
legislatures. Southern legislatures certainly played no role--they weren't even represented—good thing for the tyrants, too, because it would have never gotten out of Congress. Which, of course, is why it was handled the way it was. Yet they were forced to ratify the thing in order to return to the Union, where they hoped to reestalish order to their lives (another delusion). This extortion was unconstitutional, by the way, but what’s another mark on Congress’ already black record?
Lastly, Mississippi’s legislature
passed the “infamous” Black Code, which modified portions of the old slave code into a series of vagrancy
laws comparable in harshness to those then existing in Wisconsin, New York, Maine,
Massachusetts, Indiana, and Connecticut, but in Mississippi the legislation focused on the Negro vagrant and whites cohabitating with him. I add that given the hundred
thousand plus freedmen without domicile or employment, the vagrancy problem in Mississippi
in 1865 was exponentially worse than in any of those states—perhaps all of them combined.
As of November
1865 the war had been over seven months, Mississippi’s infrastructure was devastated,
her economy in shambles and her labor force disbursed, endangered, and
undermined by the presence of undisciplined Negro troops, mostly ex-slaves, who
discouraged the freedmen from returning to their former plantations or even
securing new work contracts with different employers. A spring, summer, and
fall had passed with no significant effort to get the agrarian economy moving,
and the entire South was moving toward its third hungry year. The strain of
caring for what had become an indigent, lawless class of vagrant freedmen was
beginning to tell on even the Federal government, which kept them fed. One
should remember that in the fall of 1865 the Negro was free, but he was no more
a United States citizen in the South (and most other states and territories)
than the Indian and/or Chinese coolies making their way onto the west coast.
I’d like to rehash the “infamous”
code (not to be confused with the Jim Crow segregation laws, which came later):
(1) It regulated the relation of
master and apprentice as related to freedmen, free Negroes, and mulattoes,
making it the duty of civil officers to report to their respective county
probate court all Negroes under eighteen years of age who were orphans or were
without means of support. Their former owners (if considered competent in the
eyes of the court) were given preference for what was indenture, males up to
twenty-one years of age and females to eighteen years. Masters were empowered
to apply moderate chastisement for misbehavior and judicial remedy was
available in the case of abuse and in cases of runaway apprentices and those
judged to perpetrate such incidents. The masters provided food, clothing,
medical care, and teaching the child to read and write. This act was in no way
deviant from the treatment of orphans in the North, nor historically, in the
North or South.
[Nor, I concede, is it different from slavery, but then one would have to conclude, as Southerners always have, that slavery was a benign institution. Certainly it’s better than a bunch of unsupervised youngsters roaming the countryside, and that’s how things stood in the fall of 1865. You think folks in the North would have put up with it?]
(2) The laws against vagrancy,
whereby Negroes, mulattoes, and whites over eighteen in the state as of the
second Monday of 1866 without employment or business could be fined a maximum
fine of $50.00 and ten days in jail (whites were fined $200.00 and up to six
months in jail). The reference to whites relates to primarily males living in adultery/fornicating with
Negro women and those participating in unlawful assembly/disturbing the peace with Negroes. The jurisdiction for such vagrancy violations was conferred upon justices of the peace, aldermen, and mayors to try offenders without a jury. [Where, pray tell, would authorities have jailed so many prisoners, much less tried them in court?] If a Negro offender could not pay the fine upon conviction, he or she could be hired out by the sheriff for the amount of the fine or treated as a pauper. Paupers were supported by a “freedman’s pauper fund”, supported by a poll-tax levied by each county’s Board of Police (County Board of Supervisors) not exceeding one dollar on each Negro aged eighteen to sixty. The money was used exclusively for the colored poor and failure to pay the poll-tax was deemed evidence of vagrancy. [And yes, I can hear you out there thinking—wasn’t a dollar a lot of money back then? It was, and no doubt these folks didn’t have it to pay—but they were refusing to work, too. The legislators were painfully aware of this. They were not dealing with an unknown entity. I have no doubt, nor am I ashamed to admit, this legislation was purposefully designed to get these people off the streets and countryside and back to work, either on the old plantation or a new one. These folks had had more than enough time to secure work, under the watchful eye of the Freedman’s Bureau, in a place teeming with a need for laborers. And I’m sorry, folks, but except in rare instances requiring learned skills such as smithing or carpentry, farming was all there was.]
(3) Though the Negro could now sue (and be sued), plead in court, own and dispose of property, marry in the same manner as whites (issue resulting from cohabitation before the war was hereby deemed legitimate), he was expressly prohibited from renting or leasing land outside incorporated cities and towns. He could own land and farm, but he couldn’t rent? This dumbfounded reasonable folks (yes, even the white ones) way back then, especially since city life resulted in an idle Negro, drinking, gambling...riotous get-togethers (one of the major complaints against the huge vagrant community). And that was the problem—the sheer number of vagrant Negroes. The distasteful habits of a pack of white vagrants were no different, there were just significantly fewer such. Besides, the sheriff could shoot a bunch of the latter and the U.S. Army and the Freedman’s Bureau wouldn’t care—and yes, I’m being facetious.
(4) Marriages between blacks and whites were prohibited and punishable by life imprisonment. I’d love to know how many people served life terms for that. Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to not recognize the union? Yeah, bet our ancestors concluded likewise—they had to have been thinking they solved the problem with the threat. And just for the record—the South’s not the only place that law existed.
(5) If doing odd jobs, the Negro required a license from the mayor to work in town or the Board of Police to work in the country. The license could be revoked for cause at any time and all work contracted for more than a month was to be agreed to in writing—in duplicate and read to the freedman before two disinterested white witnesses, so there was no confusion as to what was expected of either party. [Failure of the freedman to complete his contract had become a real problem for the individual hiring him.] The freedman could be arrested for not completing his obligations, then required to work it off—along with the cost of arresting him/her. Fines were also enacted against individuals encouraging the freedman to break his contract. Note that it was the Freedman’s Bureau, not
the former slave master, who insisted on contracts for Negro workers. This was
a misguided effort to protect the worker, but the Negro considered contracts an
effort to tie him to individuals/plantations and resisted agreeing to them. Again, labor was refusing to “work” and lord knows there was a lot of work to do.
(6) Other prohibitions enacted included the right to carry firearms and knives, rioting/disturbing the peace, using insulting language or gestures, and impersonating a minister. I do believe some of the above derived from the old slave code, but given that last prohibition, I don’t think the legislature came up with all these sanctions willy-nilly. They came up with them because they were a problem. The main complaint against their enactment would be that they were aimed at the Negro only. I mean really, we don’t want white men impersonating ministers do we? But I would also be willing to bet that law already existed somewhere else—as would have been one against inciting a riot.
This legislation created some degree of consternation among the more pragmatic in Mississippi and a firestorm of opposition in the North where newspapers reprinted it in detail and claimed its enactment would mean a return to slavery. The point is the legislation was imprudently directed against the overt problem—Negro vagrancy—and being judged by an ignorant and prejudiced people who neither understood nor cared to understand the mess they had made of the South or how the South should be expected to deal with it. If I might quote the Chicago Tribune
, 1 December 1865
: “We tell the white men of Mississipi that the men of the North will convert the state of Mississippi into a frog pond before they will allow any such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves.”
A bit arrogant in my opinion. The Chicago Tribune and papers like it had already been responsible for the self-serving sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Yankee lives to fullfill their self-righteous cause—want to take any bets as to how many of those soldiers would tell you he was fighting to free the slaves? No, odds are he’d tell you he died to preserve the “Union” and for better or worse the Union had been preserved. Now the Tribune is obligating more? “Our big mouth, your blood” so to speak. The Chicago Tribune was an anti-slavery/abolitionist newspaper, Lincoln’'s “voice” in the west and instrumental in winning him the Republican nomination and the presidency. So, think about the source when being told about the “firestorm of opposition” to your trying to simply make your home liveable after said opposition has burned it down.
Arguably, the actions of the 1865 legislature undermined
Presidential Reconstruction. Certainly it might have pushed some conservative Republicans into the Radical camp, but I’d say those were already on the brink. The issue of slavery and justice for the Negro was not the higher purpose here and not what those men should have been guarding against. Nor would they have had to jump into the Radical camp to ensure said justice. Afterall, there was never any secret, nor should there have been surprises, as to where the South stood in any of this. Did they really think that the South now believed God had been on the North’s side in all this, and it had finally seen the light? No, the South’s actions simply made it easier for the snake to shed his last shred of old skin and excuse the coming onslaught to Reconstruct the South into what he wanted it to be.
But the battleground indeed was in
Washington between President Johnson and the Radicals in Congress (and not to
be ignored, the shadowy, self-aggrandizing economic interests that fueled them).
In my opinion, the Radicals were pathetic excuses for Americans who, spurred by
a variety of interests ranging from idealism to economic expediency, spurned
the restrains placed on them (and their handlers) by the Constitution. They would stop at nothing
short of full control of Reconstruction. Once Reconstruction was in their
hands, they had the South on which they imposed radical legislatures and
representatives. These in turn provided the means to permanently alter the
Constitution and, therefore, the Republic. In my opinion, there was nothing,
short of full capitulation to tyranny, the South could have done during Presidential
Reconstruction that would have met with Radical favor. The “Union”, stability in the South,
prosperity for all, or even advancement of the Negro race was not their goal. Every attempt
to bring order back to the South was blasphemed as an attempt to reinstitute
slavery. At that point in history, the Old South, devastated as it was, still
blocked their way—because their way required major alterations to the Constitution, and with
the path blocked, the bloody war of attrition against the South was for
naught. Today, yesteryears’ veiled offensive by the self-righteous to eliminate all
threats to their goal of a corrupt democracy is lauded as the just, but
failed attempt to fulfill the promises of democracy “gleaned” from the
Declaration of Independence. This belief is sacrosanct.
And for the record, those evil doers did not fail. Aided by
the malfeasance and base corruption of less visionary men who served as their vanguard [dare I say smokescreen?],
their insidious objective of skewing the federal-state dynamic achieved, they merely
abandoned their minions. Those infesting the South, which never gave up
fighting them, subsequently fled. But the damage was done.
As they’d predicted, Senators Alcorn and Sharkey were denied
their seats in the Thirty-ninth Congress as were their counterparts in the
House. The same holds true for the other representatives elected across the
defeated South. Ah, but represented or not, the South could still jump in there and happily pay that
I’ll pick up with Alcorn in my next post. Thanks for
For earlier posts on Alcorn, best read in sequence from
oldest to most recent, see 17 February, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July,
18 September, 9 October, 18 October, 5 November, 22 November, and the prequel
to this one, 15 December 2014.