Thursday, October 23, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Out of the Delta and on to the Capital, Wherever That Might Have Been

This post is number eight in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator during Reconstruction. See my earlier posts, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent, from 17 February 2014, 16 April 2014, 24 March 2014, 17 July 2014, 24 July 2014, 18 September 2014, and 9 October.


During the summer and fall of 1863, there was movement afoot for Mississippi to make a separate peace with the United States Government. Yes, the going had finally gotten real tough. By that time Vicksburg had fallen and Yankees occupied the state capitol at Jackson or what they’d left of it after two successive burnings. Today traces of phosphorus used to carry out the deed can still be found in the city’s soil. And y’all thought the likes of napalm was a twentieth-century atrocity.

Despite the fact that fire-eating secessionist governor John J. Pettus, considered Alcorn persona non grata, Alcorn was not among those supporting the peace party—neither were the majority of people in the state even though many felt Richmond had abandoned them. Alcorn might not care for Jeff Davis and the controlling Democratic Party, but he didn’t believe Mississippi was wrong to have seceded, just foolish in having done so. A fool-hearted endeavor exacerbated by misplaced priorities and Richmond’s prosecution of the war.

The Democrats’ falling out of favor opened the door to ex-Whigs in the state elections scheduled for October. Though not a candidate for the legislature, Alcorn was out and about in Coahoma County that late summer/early fall making speeches and later writing to his wife in Alabama that his speeches had been well received, and he thought he’d receive a number of votes. He even expressed some concern over the possibility of being elected. He was not on the ballot that 5 October, but the people of Coahoma County voted to send him to the capital anyway. (Why don’t we do things like that today?) This was his seventh time to represent his county in the state legislature, then sitting at Columbus in Lowndes County in the eastern part of the state.

This was the legislature that saw the inauguration of former Confederate general Charles Clark as governor. Politically a long-time Whig and adherent to Henry Clay, Clark became a Democrat in 1860. Despite his Whig background, Clark had no dreams for a Reconstructed Union much less anything positive to say about the concept, nor did other ex-Whigs now finding favor, including Alcorn. All proved determined to carry on the fight. This legislature did manage to unseat Democrat James Phelan as senator to the Confederate Congress and replace him with J. W. C. Watson, a Whig.

Alcorn was a candidate for speaker, but though he failed to get the necessary votes he was appointed to several committees, the most important being ‘ways and means.’ It’s a stretch in my opinion, but one might say that for the first time in Mississippi history the Whigs had come to power, albeit, as an unorganized party.

In November, Alcorn was invited to address the legislature on the state of the country. What he had to say was well received—but remember, he was speaking to a different audience, at least in part, than the one he’d addressed in 1862 (see my 18 September post below); and in December he served in the absent speaker’s stead during a short-term session.

The legislature would not meet again till the late summer of 1864 at which time he would again address the body, this time expressing the folly of the South’s making the war over slavery and emphasizing Lincoln’s having “out generaled” Jeff Davis in the field of diplomacy. Well, up North there were plenty of folks—not Copperheads, either—whose feathers had been ruffled by Lincoln’s “having made the war  about slavery” with the Emancipation Proclamation.

All my life I’ve heard it said the war was about slavery, the century and a half-old argument that what the North did was for the common good and for a higher purpose—to free the slaves and to hold the nation together, because without the United States, united and free and set upon a course of  “democracy” for all mankind, the world would have sunk into a dark abyss from which it apparently would have never pulled itself out. Personally, I don’t even think that a separate United States and Confederacy either one would have sunk into an abyss, much less taken the rest of the enlightened world with it, but that’s neither here nor there. We’ll never know what might have been. Certainly with the outcome, the South sank and vis-à-vis the surge of northern industry has remained mired. So, I can’t help but question the argument that the South’s decision to secede was to protect slavery. Oh yes, I agree that slavery was integral to what the South was protecting, which translates into its very role within the nation.
Slavery in the South, at least in 1860, was still safe. The slavery issue dealt less with the threat of forced abolition than with the extension of slavery. The North’s determination that slavery not be extended into the territories, and thereby any future states, had nothing to do with freeing a people already enslaved and everything to do with ensuring there’d be no additional slave-state votes in Congress to thwart whatever big-government initiative the North concocted. As more and more free states were added to the equation, Southern influence would dwindle—ain’t no getting around it, folks; that’s what was happening, by design, and both sections knew it. The potential for sectional strife was obvious as early as the ratification of the Constitution (and even before), but was blatant by 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. That is when—and I know it’s 20/20 hindsight—the South should have told Henry Clay to go smoke his hemp, then left the Union. The South’s economy, rightly or wrongly, was dependent on slavery and had been for a century and a half before the Revolution. It came with the nation and everyone agreed to it, otherwise the South could have gone its own way from the beginning. Does anyone ever question why the North agreed to it? There had to have been a reason, but I’ll save my opinions on that for another post.

Along with slavery came state rights and the 10th Amendment. Jump forward to 1820, 1830, 1850, and consider that to prohibit Southerners access, with their property, into the new territories, which they too shed their blood to acquire for the United States, was not in keeping with the spirit of the pact. Yes, I know there were compromises during those years and promises made that were not kept, but my point is, why were compromises needed to begin with? I am also aware of the argument that the Founders believed from the git-go that slavery would fade away, because in a short space of time there would be no reason for it. The attempts I’ve seen to substantiate they actually believed that are shoddy and pertain more to the “Northern” Founders than “Southern” ones. Then came the cotton gin and King Cotton and that “belief” was forgotten. Tell me, what was supposed to happen? Northern industry and manufacturing was going to grow behind the largess of Southern agriculture, and when the time was right, the South would industrialize and become like the North? Oh goody. Sounds more like a weak attempt to vindicate both the Founders and Lincoln’s War of Aggression, and that is exactly what it is. Then there was that other fly in the ointment—the South didn’t want to be like the North.

I just reviewed Mississippi's Articles of Secession, and my interpretation remains the same as it did the last several times I’ve read it: In the North’s zeal to neutralize slave power, Northern threats led to Southern secession. It was the secession that led to a war of aggression that accomplished in a much shorter time span (and at the cost of over, now I believe the estimate is in excess of 800,000 men, not counting the loss of thousands of Southern civilians of both races and sexes), what a Northern-controlled Congress would have eventually taken a few more decades to accomplish—nullification of the Southern vote. That was the true objective.

I’d like to draw your attention to articles 12 and 13 against the Federal Union:  

It seeks not to elevate or to support the slave, but to destroy his present condition without providing a better. 

I plan to elaborate more on the lofty “stated” Reconstruction goals of the radical Republicans such as William D. Kelly in future blogs, but they tie right into making the South like the North, under Northern “entrepreneurship,” of course. 

It has invaded a State, and invested with the honors of martyrdom the wretch whose purpose was to apply flames to our dwellings, and the weapons of destruction to our lives. 

This, of course, is a reference to John Brown. Yes, the political leadership gave lip service to condemning the raid, but the North made a hero of that psychopath (If you’re not already aware, check Brown’s record in Kansas). And what of the men who financed him? Ah, that’s an interesting shadow group. What was their fate? What role did they play during and after the war, because they certainly played a role in starting it? A case can be made for saying the first shot of the Civil War was not fired at Fort Sumter in April of 1861, but at Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859.

A person blinded with self-righteous prejudice might be seeing the love of perpetual slavery when reading Mississippi’s Articles of Secession, but that’s not what the document is. It is a list of grievances against the Federal Union that had threatened the Southern way of life since the birth of the nation: 

It has given indubitable evidence of its design to ruin our agriculture, to prostrate our industrial pursuits and to destroy our social system. 

It knows no relenting or hesitation in its purposes; it stops not in its march of aggression, and leaves us no room to hope for cessation or for pause. 

Indeed, there was no end in sight—not within the Union. So I do not agree with Alcorn’s statement that the South “made” the war about slavery, though by drawing a parallel between his statement and the Articles of Secession, I’m probably taking him out of context. I imagine his faulting Davis was more in frustration with how Davis handled international opinion on slavery contrasted with how Lincoln exploited it. Alcorn continued by saying the higher purpose of the war was state rights, which I believe is clear in the Articles of Secession and there’s no shortage of contemporary Southern writings that support that. Certainly the Scots-Irish author of the lyrics to The Bonnie Blue Flag saw it that way. Harry Macarthy’s focus wasn’t African slavery, but the slavery of the South to tyranny. Eighty years before, the Scots-Irish played an important role in winning American independence from such a tyrant. In 1861, the Southern ones hadn’t forgotten what that meant.

 Meanwhile, Lincoln and his cabinet, along with their Congress—with men dying, hate rampant, the opposition muzzled, and the job market soaring—have the North committed to righteous conquest. Now they can publicly state with little fallout that emancipation serves a higher purpose...than what? State rights? No, indeed. Rather, they elevated it higher than the Constitution itself—the very soul of the Republic. Maybe they should have founded a church. But, alas, a church was not what they wanted. What they wanted was unencumbered, free-sway for an industrialized nation. All they had to do was destroy the encumbrance.

Supposedly, Alcorn argues, Lincoln’s “smoke and mirror” tactic regarding the ending of slavery in the United States convinced Britain and France not to support the South. Actually, both those nations, not needing more problems, prudently sat back and waited to see how things went. Once the North opted for war (which was a forgone conclusion), time was not on the South’s side.

I believe, with the end in sight, Alcorn is paving the way for some ancillary use of slavery, but I’ll have more on that in my next post. Climbing up on my soapbox has drawn this post out. Look for another article on Alcorn shortly and thanks for reading. 


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