Sunday, December 27, 2015

Behind the Scenes and Butler’s Bill

This post is number thirty-one in a historical series discussing Mississippi’s Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, following the War Between the States and continues the “saga” resulting from the Democrats’ victory over the Republican “reconstruction” constitution framed during the Black & Tan Convention in the winter/spring of 1868. For earlier posts in this Alcorn-driven series, (best read in sequence from oldest to most recent), start with 17 February, 24 March, 16 April, 17 July, 24 July, 18 September, 9 October, 23 October, 5 November, 22 November, 15 December, 29 December 2014, 13 January, 24 January, 9 February, 24 February, 9 March, 31 March, 8 May, 10 June, 30 June, 3 August, 30 August , 13 September, 27 September, 11 October, 25 October 2015, 8 November25 November 2015, and 14 December 1015.

This post continues discussion on the bill Benjamin Butler, chairman of the House Committee on Reconstruction, introduced in the spring of 1869 to bring Mississippi back into the loving arms of the Union (yes, that is sarcasm you hear in my words). Butler’s bill authorized the Mississippi constitutional convention to be reassembled upon the call of the president of the convention. If the president hadn’t called the convention back into session within thirty days, the commanding general (that would be Adelbert Ames, Butler’s son-in-law) would do so. At the time this bill was sent to the House, the president of Mississippi’s constitutional convention (Alston Maggot—oh, I do apologize, I’m letting my true feelings show again—that should read Alston Mygatt) was in town lobbying to have the rejected constitution declared in force and would have been only too happy to reconvene the convention. Under the Butler Bill, the reassembled convention was to have the power to appoint a provisional governor and remove and appoint registrars and judges of the election.

Excuse me? Where did those powers—once exclusive to the commanding general—come from? Mine is a rhetorical question, and I will here share my educated guess. On the surface it would appear they originated the previous summer with Bingham’s bill, but these are the very powers the constitutional convention presumed to usurp from General Gillem during the winter/spring of 1868 while framing the constitution. The change wouldn’t have made much difference with Ames, the Radical’s man, now the commanding general, as well as the provisional governor, but it is telling. 

And why the devil did Grant give Ames command of the Fourth Military District to begin with? You are not going to convince me it was an independent decision on his part. This takes us back to Ames’ appointment as provisional governor by General McDowell during the latter’s one-month tenure as commander of the Fourth District.  

Succinctly put, Butler’s Bill meant turning over control of Mississippi to the Black and Tan Convention, and that’s where control would remain, even if the people of Mississippi defeated the constitution again and again and again. And if they ratified the constitution—power would still be with that same group. Passage of the Butler Bill meant no way out. Butler’s heavy-handed prejudice in deferring to the convention hierarchy is indicative of overt tyranny that, it would seem, the man didn’t believe he needed to disguise. The other thing that’s interesting to note here is that when the 40th Congress closed on 4 March 1869, Ben Butler was not on the House Committee for Reconstruction. Two weeks later, he’s not only on the committee, he’s chairing it. The Massachusetts contingent had been switched out. The proof is in the pudding, folks. Butler had been part of that wheeling and dealing that winter meant to resolve the reentry of Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas on terms favorable to the Radicals. 

Henry L. Dawes, Butler’s colleague in the House and also from Massachusetts, is on record for saying he’d as soon leave the choice of the warden of the state prison at Charlestown to the convicts as to leave the choice of provisional governor of Mississippi to the Mississippi Reconstruction Convention. (It was the constitutional convention, but players were pretty much one and the same, so why split hairs?) Dawes was a conservative Republican, not a Radical. Not only that, but in Butler’s bill, the same constitution—irrespective of the proscriptive clauses—was to be presented to the people. This meant that the Mississippi constitutional convention of 1868 would have full control of all registrars—no other input required—and Butler’s son-in-law would be the commanding general should military support be required (or desired) during the election. As said earlier, the election was to be repeated exactly as before, only this time the scenario would be “orchestrated” to ensure the constitutional convention achieved the results it desired. 

James B. Beck, the Democratic Representative from Kentucky referenced above, took the floor and argued that President Grant appoint the provisional governor for Mississippi. It is at this juncture that Butler takes the time, apparently for the benefit of his fellow Republicans, like the skeptical Dawes, because the Democrats surely already had it figured out, to explain his rational for bestowing so much power in the constitutional convention: He said, and I paraphrase, that the president of the Mississippi Reconstruction convention (Eggleston), who had been the Republican candidate for governor in Mississippi, would now appoint himself governor. As he’d taken the surrender of Atlanta, so he’d accept the surrender of Mississippi. Butler called the act merely good politics to accept the radical schemes. If you don’t reconstruct Mississippi, he continued, you can’t get the loyal legislature and consequently two “loyal” senators. Without those two “loyal” senators you can’t pass the Fifteenth Amendment and you lose six Northern states. Okay, Dawes probably had it figured out, too, but he wouldn’t have been particularly in favor of radical schemes. 

This is all so telling and dovetails nicely with my thoughts on the Radicals being in trouble in the North and determined to maintain control in the South (and hence overall). The other thing is Butler—what the devil was his motivation? Greed would be my guess. He’d been a Democrat during the course of his political life. Now he was a Republican working hand in hand with the Radicals, but from his reference to the Radicals in the paragraph above, he clearly didn’t consider himself a Radical. There were rumors at the time discussed in my narrative he would return to the Democratic Party, so one must surmise it wasn’t ideology driving the man. I have little doubt that his son-in-law’s being the commanding general of the Fourth Military District as well as the provisional governor of Mississippi piqued his interest regarding events in Mississippi—or maybe the reverse is true, and he got Adelbert the job in order to further a preexisting interest. His subsequently finagling his way into the chair of the reconstruction committee testifies to his power, influence, and the corruption of all. 

Representative Beck countered that the President in his appointment of the provisional governor would ensure a free and fair election, and that the Mississippi constitutional convention would permit neither.

I’d like to elaborate further on the Butler Bill and James Beck’s rebuttal on the House floor next time. In lieu of Butler’s frank reasoning (or arrogant dearth of discretion, if you’d rather), the debate is particularly enlightening and does much to explain the insurmountable (and unsubstantiated) allegations of fraud, persecution, and sundry atrocities that continue to be attributed to the white Southerner over the past century and a half regarding electioneering in the post-war South. 

Thanks for reading, 



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