Monday, March 9, 2015

Defying Tyranny: Mississippi Stands up to the Reconstruction Acts

This post is number seventeen in a historical series dealing with Mississippi’s Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Lusk Alcorn, following the War Between the States and is a continuation of my 24 February post immediately below discussing the evolution of Alcorn’s activities under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867

“I propose to vote with him; to discuss political affairs with him; to sit, if need be, in political counsel with him, and from a platform acceptable alike to him, to me, and to you, to pluck our common liberty and our common prosperity out of the jaws of inevitable ruin.” 

The reference is to the black man and is Alcorn’s most famous quote—or infamous depending on your viewpoint. At the time, among the majority of his fellow white Mississippians, it was considered “infamous”, but not necessarily for the racial extremism, which many immediately assume. Alcorn was advocating the creation of a massive voting block composed of constituents who would  support a known enemy, and what was worse, he was doing it by capitulating to a hated Congress and the patently unconstitutional Reconstruction Acts. But Alcorn maintained that the only practical course for Mississippi was to return to the Union and regain its representation in Congress. To do that meant playing the enemy’s game, and that dictated working with the Negro vice driving him into the enemy camp. 

The Republican Party held its first convention in the state of Mississippi on 10 September 1867. The body was one-third Negro and included the registrars the military government under General Ord had appointed to register the electorate and Northerners who had moved into the state, and doubtless some “progressive” white Southerners. Members endorsed the platform of the national party in supporting all the progressive political reforms of the age. All you conservatives out there who think “progressive” is a dirty word in the context of the present day—it was then, too. Progressive programs have to be managed by governmental interference and paid for with taxpayers’ dollars. Southerners had always preferred small government and low taxes. There are tradeoffs in all things. This is what the taxpayers in Mississippi (and across the South) had preferred since before statehood. If those paying into the system didn’t like it, they could campaign to change it within their state or move to a state composed of taxpayers/citizens of like minds. That is what federalism is all about. Now the state was about to be overwhelmed by a constituency, the majority of whom did not pay taxes and never had, essentially nullifying the vote of those who did, that number further weakened by the disfranchisement of those who had defended federalism. The Democratic Clarion summed up the picture succinctly—the Negro vote is in the majority and it will be controlled by a few white men. [And those white men would not, as a rule, be Mississippians or even Southerners]. 

Alcorn, of course, wanted to be one of those “few white men,” but at the time of the Republican Convention he was still holding out for “Southern” white men and his hybrid Douglas Democrat/old-Whig party. “A mixed party of unionists,” he said, can obtain for us that great remedy of all our troubles—representation.” Isn’t it funny how he’s thinking? To paraphrase: “All our problems will be solved if we can just get our representation in Congress.” He envisioned his party as autonomous, representing the interests of the state—in true Whig fashion and we would be willing to support the Radical agenda in return for concessions (removal of the cotton tax, rebuilding the levees Grant destroyed, general amnesty). Alcorn envisioned getting the South some of that taxpayer’s money those proponents of “internal improvements” in Washington were throwing around. And if any section of the country at the time needed economic support, given the devastation heaped upon it, it was the South. Even worse, the South was paying into the kitty—big time and always had. Ah, but that money had long-ago been earmarked for the Republicans’ Northern mercantilist/railroad building constituents. The South’s only role in the scheme was to pay for it. This folks is one of the South’s primary reasons for its failed secession and independence from Yankee greed, and there was enough evidence on the record that Alcorn should have been aware of this reality. Now, in his defense, he could have been thinking the South’s never getting its fair share was because those stupid, fire breathing Democrats had always stood in the way—and now he, with his “new” party, would manage to manipulate the monster in power and get “our fair share” that the Democrats had been spurning since...well, since they were Democrats. But there had been a reason for that—the South didn’t want to be like the overtaxed, government/industrialist-controlled, “progressive” North.  

Alcorn received little public support from Douglas Democrats (Hmmm...wonder how many such creatures existed in Mississippi at the time?) or even his old-Whig compatriots. Judge William Sharkey, the man elected with him in 1865 to represent Mississippi in the Senate was, in fact, shocked by Alcorn’s avowed capitulation to the Reconstruction Acts, which Sharkey considered unconstitutional and fought throughout Reconstruction—recall he led the charge in the attempt to force the Supreme Court to rule on their constitutionality (see my 9 February post below). And I won’t even have to make guesses as to the reaction of those fire-breathing Democrats on the acceptance of Negro suffrage. They opposed it. 

Alcorn had yet to take that last step—joining the Republican Party. That would mean sleeping with the enemy and proved his path of last resort. In defense of him and his hybrid “unionist” party, the forces of tyranny were working fast and he was running out of time to convince his fellow Mississippians as to the need to throw federalism under the “stagecoach” shall we say.  

With General Ord’s completion of registering the electorate in September, he announced an election to the people of the state as to whether they wished to form a civil government (that would be to replace the perfectly good one he had removed) or to remain under military authority without representation in Congress. A new civil government meant the people were voting for a new constitution and, by default, representatives to the constitutional convention. Ord scheduled the election for the second Tuesday in November 1867. Passage of the initiative required the approval of a majority of registered voters. On 15 October a group calling itself the Constitutional Union Men met in Jackson and asked their fellow Mississippians who opposed the Reconstruction Acts to sit out this election, thereby defeating a call for a new constitution under the guidelines of the Reconstruction Acts. It would also leave Mississippi under martial law. This Alcorn diametrically opposed, being he was confident representation in Congress would alleviate “all our woes.” The majority of white Southerners did indeed sit out this election, but a majority of registered voters (by a slim margin of 151 voters casting ballots) did vote for a new civil government, deciding yes, there would be a new constitution and choosing the delegates who would write it. 

According to Alcorn’s biographer Lillian Pereyra it was a good constitution, but then she wasn’t a taxpaying Mississippian confronted with a document that represented the kind of government he despised—tax-draining and rife with the potential of malfeasance and graft and all under the guise of general welfare. Y’all do know the Confederate government removed the “general-welfare” clause from its constitution, don’t you? And for the very reason that the federal government, from which it tried to extricate itself, applied “general welfare” loosely to waste taxpayers dollars on issues requiring powers not delegated to it—its own expansion, in other words—all under the euphemism of “public good.”  

The constitutional convention met in early December 1867. In Reconstruction in Mississippi James Garner states that the native whites’ decision to sit out the election proved bad in that members of the newly established Republican Party formed the bulk of the delegates to the convention. I’m not convinced, however, that the Constitutional Union men did not realize that potential from the start, but may have regarded their non-participation as the only possible chance they had for averting a progressive constitution. Under the Reconstruction Acts, the new constitution had to be a “republican” one. Well, Mississippi had a republican constitution at the time Ord showed up. Had had one, in fact, since 1817 when it entered the Union. What the term meant under the Reconstruction Acts was that the new constitution would be “republican” as Congress determined “republican” to be—spell it with a capital “R” and you’ve got the picture—a progressive “Republican” constitution, which Congress, per the Reconstruction Acts, would approve.  

-The new constitution eliminated all distinctions of color, property, and education as requirements of citizenship
-It forbade the legislature from pledging the state’s credit
-It extended the powers of the governor
-It increased salaries

-It made additions to the roster of state officials (this is progress in action, folks): a lieutenant governor, a superintendent of education, commissioners of agriculture and immigration, a board of equalization, state and district printers, special treasury agents (I’m assuming state), and triple the number of judges 

The new constitution “governed” more in contrast to the state’s historical preference for Jacksonian politics, and here’s the real crux—it cost more, much more, and we are talking about a state whose economy had been and remained devastated—and did not and would not, even after that “manna” of representation was realized—receive federal dollars to offset the obscene costs this piece of legislation forced upon it. People who are struggling to get back to a point where they know some degree of comfort and freedom from worry do not want their taxes raised to pay for unneeded civil servants—“loyal,” no less, to an enemy who has rendered them to their present impoverished condition. And let me add this for those of you unfamiliar with the history of Reconstruction—the books and desks and paper, pencils, and blackboards, etc. etc. required for public education and all those printing presses and ink and paper the anticipated Republican legislature granted to itself would be purchased from the North at top dollar. Add to that the increase in public jobs, in tandem with salaries and Mississippi would sink deeper and deeper into the red hole she was already struggling to get out of, and all this would be carried out without the input of those who had to pay for it. Yes, one must take into account that perhaps these people did prefer martial law to that kind of usurpation. 

So I would argue that participation in the election would have made no difference. The taxpaying Mississippian may have been represented at the constitutional convention, but if his input were even reflected in the document, it would not have passed Congress. Nevertheless, the tactic had failed. The Democratic Union Men’s next attempt would be, despite the seemingly insurmountable impediments placed upon them, to defeat ratification of the new constitution as well as the Republican ticket when they were placed before the people of the state the following summer.   

And on the 10th of July 1868 they did. 

It was a shock for both parties, and I imagine that in the once hallowed halls of the nation’s Capitol, now permeated with the foul stench of tyranny, one could have heard a pin drop. But the Republican Party in Mississippi would not be deterred for long. What happened next is classic in the annals of human tyranny, its finesse pathetic—probably because the petty dictators didn’t realize beforehand they would need a back-up plan.  

And, sad to say, Alcorn was part of it. 

Next time and thanks for reading. 

In addition to this post on Alcorn and the one sighted in my introduction above, see 17 February, 24 March, 16 April, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 18 October, 5 November, 22 November, 15 December, 29 December 2014 and  13 January, 24 January, and 9 February 2015 posts below, best read in sequence from oldest to most recent.





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