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.
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.
[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?]
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.]
(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.
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.