Saturday, November 22, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, The Dawn of Reconstruction

This post is number ten 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, 16 April, 24 March, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 18 October, and 5 November 2014.

This article brings me to the period of history that initiated my interest in James Lusk Alcorn and is the setting for a number of my novels. “Reconstruction” is a term that has left a bad taste in the mouths of generations of white Southerners along with the epithet scalawag, which taints the name J. L. Alcorn to this day. After years of study, I see everything in a clearer, if not brighter light. If anything the taste of Reconstruction is fouler than ever. As a child I adhered to the simplistic approach that it was a period when a bunch of greedy, corrupt Northern opportunists and politicians, protected by the Yankee army, came South to plunder the spoils of war. Not much more to it than that. Later the “noble” ideas of civil rights for the Negro—a natural adjunct of his emancipation—seeped in. That noble idea translated, and rightly so, to Negro enfranchisement, which coupled with the disfranchisement of Southern whites, put in place a constituency designed to keep the Republican party in power for as long as it was able to hold the white South at bay. Both are true, simple concepts designed to get the blood of any self-respecting white Southerner boiling. These concepts would later be used to keep in place a constituency of a different sort—but this group, at least, was our own.

Putting aside the propaganda and ulterior motives of later generations of Southern demagogues, the tyranny and malfeasance of Reconstruction that ran rampant across the South, for over a decade in some places, were merely tools that apologists euphemistically refer to as the failure of a benign experiment in political and social awakening. My take on the apologists—smoke and mirrors in an attempt to create a faux truth from a lie.

Reconstruction was the realization of a pact loosely drawn by morally corrupt, self-righteous leaders, social, economic and political, to “Reconstruct” the South into what they thought it should be (socially) to serve their needs (economic/political)—needs reflected in the manifest destiny of the United States. The plan was not drafted with the South’s defeat in 1865. It was on the drawing table and set for necessary alterations by the 1850s. The South, its future clear within the “Union”, opted out. No war, no violence, just “you go your way and we’ll go ours”. But with its secession, the South had presented those Northern “architects” of what the United States was really meant to be with the opportunity to carry out the plan. It took some work to bring the rest of the North in line under the concepts of “Union” and “liberty and justice for all”, but ‘architects’ such as those always seem to achieve their ruthless goals. Hence a horrific war that took so many American lives, wasted the South, and destroyed the Founders’ Republic. Reconstruction was not an adjunct to the war. Reconstruction was the reason for the war.

But while research has hardened my frustration for those who view the South’s meager “victory” during Reconstruction as one of white Southerners against the defenseless and oppressed, my view of Alcorn is now more appreciative. In my opinion the term scalawag fits him less than simply noting what he was, a pragmatic Southern Whig who struggled to do what was necessary to return his Mississippi of old to its rightful place in the Union—given the terms demanded by a hate-filled victor.

It would never happen, of course, not for Mississippi nor the rest of the South. As stated above, Reconstruction did not refer to reconstructing the physical infrastructure of the devastated South. In fact, Congress (in which there was no Southern representation early on, an unconstitutional omission it later “corrected” by the introduction of Republican puppets as the Southern taxpayers’ representatives) and the powerful Northern constituents (industrialists, social engineers) that it represented went to great lengths to ensure the South’s recovery would be both slow and painful. Indeed, a case can be made that many of those people opposed recovery at all. Loyal Americans lived in the North—they’d saved the “Union” after all (Republic be damned)—and anything that would rise from the ashes of the South would be North-like in appearance and to the benefit of the North. I would like to make my point using an early example from Alcorn’s own history:

Thanks to his dealings with the occupying forces during the war, Alcorn returned to Coahoma county in the summer of 1865 with his lands intact and a supply of gold with which to rebuild. In the fall, the Union army released his home at Friar’s Point, and it is here that he brought Amelia and his children vice returning to Mound Place on the Yazoo Pass. Friar’s Point became the seat of operations for his post-war activities. He returned to his law practice and operated his plantations, acquiring new property east and south of his original holdings.

Long a Delta planter dependent on the rich alluvial land born of centuries of Mississippi River floods, Alcorn had spent his entire life in Mississippi focused on levees to control the “Father of Waters.” The river giveth, but it also taketh away—in a heartbeat. His determination to construct an adequate levee system meant constant battle with both the state and the counties making up the Delta—and interior counties that didn’t really care if the Delta flooded or not. In the early fifties, he’d become president of the Superior Board of Levee Commissioners created to coordinate all levee activity among the concerned counties. In 1861 he threw up his hands in defeat (apparently the players never, ever, all agreed) and resigned as president of the board. Disunion was on the nation by then, war followed, but Alcorn’s interest in levee construction never abated. As many of you Civil War buffs know, Grant did extensive damage to the existing levees—just one of the peacetime projects in need of real “reconstruction.”

In August of 1865, a state convention (this one blessed by President Johnson—see my 5 November 2014 post) appointed Alcorn as one of three commissioners to go to Washington to enlist Federal aid to rebuild the levees and/or find private investors. Since the state convention forbade the commissioners from pledging state funds in repaying the loans, private investors were not enthused. Needless to say, the thirty-ninth Congress was downright hostile. Regardless of Congressional sentiment, Alcorn was an optimistic Whig at heart, so it was the Federal government where he focused his hopes for support by depicting Mississippi River levees in terms of “national” interests.

In the summer of 1866, opportunity knocked when Congress began debate on a revenue bill. In 1863, when there’d been no representation of the cotton states in Congress, that body passed a law placing a 3¢ tax per pound on raw cotton. Now, the Southern states still not represented, it proposed to increase this tax to 5¢. It just so happened that at this time the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi was in session and contained a goodly number of the Delta’s lawyer-planters. Alcorn was one. This group took advantage of the session to hold a protest meeting against the proposed “cotton tax”. The district judge adjourned court so the protesters could hold their meeting, which Alcorn dominated. He nominated and secured the election of his friend and fellow Whig, C. D. Fontaine, as chairman and proposed a set of resolutions to be set before Congress.

One argument urged planters, in view of the tax’ probable passage, to plow up unpromising stands of cotton and plant corn since the state wouldn’t have funds to buy food from the North and West that winter anyway. That argument was countered by one that emphasized the value of cotton as wealth for the entire nation, which made it an instrument in foreign affairs. The Northern blockade during the war had forced the traditional European markets for Southern cotton to supplement their purchases of raw cotton from elsewhere. Indeed, Britain was encouraging the cultivation of cotton in her colonial possessions. Cotton, the counterargument concluded, provided the South purchase power to buy Northern goods. Southern commercial credit was based on cotton; therefore, the well-being of all Southerners, black and white, was dependent on it. A committee was appointed (Alcorn was a member) to write and present a memorial to Congress protesting the cotton tax and arguing for why it should not be.

Before the petition was drafted, the New York Chamber of Commerce memorialized Congress against the increase to 5¢, stating that taxation without representation was tyranny; the tax, at least in spirit, was unconstitutional; and the increase “lacked an impartiality which was calculated to provoke hostility at the South.” Congress, it argued, should be producing legislation to inspire the Southern people to hope for better days instead of continuing to beat them down. The tax was not removed, but was decreased to 2.5¢ per pound as of 1867.

In his annual report for the year 1867-1868, Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch recommended repeal of the tax as a measure to restore the productive power of the Southern states as soon as possible. (Note that McCulloch was a free-market fella and perceived opponent to the “American System.”) He stated: “Even in their deplorable condition, more than two-thirds of our exports last year [1866] consisted of their products, and it is the crop of the present year [1867], small though it is, that is to save us from the ruinous indebtedness to Europe.” Don’t jump to the conclusion that this was support for the South—think of it as, “we need to jump start our new colony’s economy so we can pay the national debt we created by waging the war to destroy the South.”

Just for the record, here’s Mississippi’s share of the cotton tax, paid when the state was not represented in Congress: 

1866—3¢ per pound— $756,289.00

1867—2.5¢ per pound—$4,640,664.00

1868—2.5¢ per pound—$3,521,702.00

                For a total of—$8,918,655.00 

Between 1863-1868 when the tax was repealed, the Southern states paid $68,072,385.00 in cotton tax, all during a period when they were not represented in Congress.

Regarding Mississippi’s burden, note that the cotton crops of both 1866 and 1867 were near failures; the amount of the cotton tax paid in those years was 6 and 8 times state expenditures; and the tax was estimated to represent one quarter the value of the crops (remember that the tax was based on the weight of the cotton, not the market price).

Now, let’s go back a bit to Mississippi. That half-cent reduction in the cotton tax disarmed the 1866 planter protest, but Alcorn was not done with the tyrannical cotton tax. Now he put on his “Whig” hat and on 18 December 1866 presented a petition to both houses of Congress, which bore his name alone. In it, he cited his life-long activities with the levees in Mississippi; he highlighted the potential of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta—to include tax revenue; and he emphasized the threat of foreign cotton production to the U.S. cotton industry (I’d be willing to bet that Congress was preoccupied with U.S. industry—maybe even the cotton industry—but not in the South.).

Then he came to the crux of his address: The people of the South considered the cotton tax not only a grievance, but a wrong. If it had to be enforced he said, mitigate its existence by using that tax on the South for the South. In the case of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, spend the revenue on the levees to protect the alluvial cotton lands subject to flood. [Recall that such use of national subsidies for internal improvements was integral to the Whig platform.] The national government was being generous with subsidies to the North and West, particularly regarding railroad construction. Alcorn’s argument was to give the devastated South her share of her contribution (goodness knows she needed it).

Congress did not respond.

Point made.  

Thanks for reading, and more to come, Charlsie



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