Monday, December 29, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Eliminating the Delusions for Mississippi’s Reentry into the Union, Part Two

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 debt.  

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 1868-1875. 

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 cotton tax!

I’ll pick up with Alcorn in my next post. Thanks for reading, 



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.


Monday, December 15, 2014

James Lusk Alcorn, Eliminating the Delusions for Mississippi’s Reentry into the Union, Part One

This post is number eleven in a historical review of Mississippi’s Union Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, 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, 5 November 2014, and 22 November 2014.
After Federal General Canby dispersed the Mississippi legislature in May 1865 (see my 5 November post below), Alcorn visited his wife and children, still safely ensconced with her family in Alabama, and in July returned to Mound Place on the Yazoo Pass. During this interim, President Andrew Johnson appointed the “blight-free” Southern Whig and prominent judge, William Sharkey, provisional governor. Sharkey called for the election of delegates to serve at a state convention in July 1865—the purpose of which was to lay the groundwork for reinstating civil government. This groundwork included the scheduling of elections for governor, congressional representatives, legislators, and other civil positions. Alcorn did not participate, but he did discuss the convention, and I’m guessing his personal goals, with his law partner W. L. Stricklin who did run successfully as a delegate. The convention was comprised primarily of long-time Whigs, many of whom had opposed secession and reflected to some degree the same pragmatic conclusions that both Sharkey and Alcorn had reached.

Despite his non-participation in the convention, Alcorn was in Jackson at the time it met. He stayed in the home of another old-line Whig, Judge William Yerger. There he conferred with Judge Yerger’s brother, J. S. Yerger, an old political ally. Other friends/allies included among his “conferees” were Ethelbert Barksdale, then editor of the Mississippian and later the Clarion, both strong Democratic newspapers. In addition to his not playing a part in the convention, we know that Alcorn did not want his name placed in the gubernatorial contest, but that he was interested in the legislative seat representing Coahoma County. 

Around this same time, Sharkey told the people of Mississippi that regardless of their feelings about the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was over. 

I’d like to make a point here. The Emancipation Proclamation is the consummate example of an unconstitutional executive order. Even laymen, much less their leaders, across the South—and many outside the South—realized this at the time. Congress certainly did, hence its insistence on ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Presidents have used executive orders to carry out the responsibilities of the “executive” since President Washington, but to be legal, those orders should apply to the execution of an existing law—in other words, they should aid the president in enforcing laws passed by Congress. The Emancipation Proclamation is about as far as one can get from that. Slavery was legal and protected by the Constitution. So, those of you out there who praise Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation and lambaste Obama for his “pen in hand” and making laws under the guise of executive privilege, you’re setting a double standard. Me? I proudly lambaste both of them—along with a myriad of others. FDR comes first to mind, but there are plenty more, and Congress lets them get away with the abuse today, just like it did in 1863—of course, then, as at too many other times since, it was “party” to the conspiracy, pun intended. But I digress—back to Alcorn and Reconstruction. 

On the 26th of July 1865, with Judge Sharkey as witness, Alcorn took the oath of allegiance to the United States Constitution. Days later, at a local church in the Swan Lake area of Coahoma County, his son Milton (he was still alive) and his overseer Minga, along with a number of his Coahoma County neighbors, took the oath. Peace made with Governor Sharkey’s provisional government, Alcorn left for Washington and a pardon. Alcorn had his extensive holdings, but he could not participate in politics without that pardon. 

During this first sojourn to Washington, Alcorn met with Attorney General James Speed, with whom he made his application for a pardon; Secretary of State William Henry Seward; Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch; and President Johnson. In regards to the last individual, Alcorn notes that some of the interviews went well, some did not. My question is what were they talking about? Technically, Alcorn was not representing the state in an official capacity, and I don’t think the president would have been the person with whom Alcorn would have broached the subject of levees. This is just my opinion, but I think Alcorn had done some covert planning with Sharkey and friends in Jackson prior to his trip to Washington, and in Washington he was putting out feelers among the powers-that-be as to what was expected of the state—or more to the point, what the state should expect. 

Alcorn received his pardon on 11 September 1865 and started home two days later. What we do know from his assessment of the situation is: (1) The Radical Republicans hated the South. [The Radical Republicans had hated the South since the mid-fifties when they became Republicans. They’d hated the South as something else for decades before that.] (2) President Johnson might appear harsh, but his actions were nothing compared to what the Radicals would do. (3) The Southern states readmission to the Union would be based on the abolition of slavery (which the state convention meeting under Sharkey in July did); however, to Congress (and Johnson), abolition of slavery computed to ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Declaring slavery abolished simply would not do. (4) Repudiation of Confederate debts, and (5) some civil and franchise rights for the Negro. We see in his letters to Amelia that he doubted Southerners elected to Congress would be seated in the coming session. 

Back in Mississippi, elections for office were held on 2 October 1865. In Coahoma County, Alcorn’s name for representative to the state legislature had been placed in the hat while he was still in Washington. He ran unopposed, but for the most part, the Mississippi taxpayer elected a majority of Democrats and ex-Confederates to legislative office. Confederate general, B. G. Humphreys was elected governor over old-line Whig, Judge E. S. Fisher. The result was a legislature opposed to the extension of rights to the freedman. The Radicals in Congress, now in a power struggle with the president over the course Reconstruction would take, observed all this with glee. However, Mississippians chose four Whigs and one Union Democrat to represent them in the House. [That “Union Democrat/Union Whig” evolution occurred in the early fifties when Whigs and Democrats of like minds formed the “Union” party in an attempt to put the Union before party. Its biggest success was in the South, but the Northern branches lost interest and in the end it all fell apart. It’s a subject for a whole other post, but suffice it to say, a Union Democrat would work well with Whigs and would have cast a jaundiced eye on secession. Let me rephrase that—he would have worked well with Southern Whigs.]  

In the state house, Alcorn was nominated for speaker, but lost on the final count 26-38 to Democrat S. J. Gholson. Alcorn was also selected for several committees, but before any of those accomplished anything, the legislature went into joint secession to elect the state’s senators to Congress. William Sharkey was elected on the first ballot for the short term and Alcorn on the fourth ballot for the long term. Alcorn claims not to have solicited the position, but personally I think some more of that “conferring” had been going on. His desire for the senatorial position is the reason he didn’t want to be governor. Of course, another reason for his reticence regarding the gubernatorial race—because his election as governor would not have precluded his election as senator—was possibly to avoid the overt Democratic challenge to his candidacy. In Coahoma County, he didn’t have to speak one controversial word to get elected to the legislature, but for the gubernatorial run, he might have  anticipated the need to say plenty, not only in defense of his liaisons during the war but also, if he were forthright, in defense of his proposed post-war policies. And I do believe he proposed to address the challenges to the state, and how he would meet them, with candor.  

My perception of his anxieties aside, I think Alcorn wanted the senate position—I believe he had taken aim at it in July before he left Coahoma County en route Jackson. That was his reason for sitting out the convention (but his allies were represented) and for his “conferring” with the provisional governor and friends prior to his departure for Washington. His decision made, he did not deviate from his course even after his enlightening sojourn to the nation’s capital left him believing, correctly, that Congress would not seat Southerners elected to office under the terms of Presidential Reconstruction. Alcorn was a Whig and the South was in extreme economic distress. His view (hand in hand with Wiggery) was that Federal money was the way out.  

Alcorn’s biographer, Lillian A. Pereyra, points out that not only had Mississippi’s predominantly Democratic legislature sent Senators to Washington with the best possible chance of getting seated but it had also removed the two most capable members of the minority party from influencing legislation. That may have been true, but I’m not sure I agree the action was by design. That legislature was between a rock and a hard place—where were the capabilities of men such as Sharkey and Alcorn to be best employed when the choice has to be made between a hate-filled Congress or an aggrieved and defiant populace at home that might also spurn their efforts?  

Additionally, Sharkey may have been untainted by secessionist blight, but Alcorn certainly wasn’t. Recall his was the first name called at the secessionist convention in 1861, and he succumbed to the “fever”. His “yes” vote, given who he was and his decade-long fight against secession, nearly brought down the house with jubilation. Then he became a general of Mississippi’s state forces and served in the state’s Confederate legislature. He outfitted his son’s unit which became part of the Confederate Army...and on and on. Yes, he wined and dined and cooperated with Union generals during the occupation, but at the same time is known to have passed at least some intelligence to the Confederacy. Alcorn might have been acceptable to some in the Federal government, but he wouldn’t have been to the Radicals. [In fact, not even the squeaky clean Sharkey proved acceptable to the Radicals—he was a Southerner after all.]  

Hmmm—I might have just made Pereyra’s case. 

I’ll continue this tale in my next post. Thanks for reading.