The Honorable James Burnie Beck was a native of Scotland who came to the United States when he was sixteen. As of age twenty-one (1843), he had made Lexington, Kentucky his home. He studied law and was a law partner of John C. Breckenridge, future U.S. vice president and Confederate General. In the fall of 1866 his neighbors in Kentucky chose Beck to represent them in the 40th Congress (March 1867-March 1869). He was immediately chosen to serve as one of two token Democrats on the House’s reconstruction committee. It is suspected the Radicals considered the junior congressman would give them little opposition on the committee.
Here, recall my imaginary musing on what Senator Conkling of New York thought of the Radicals in the House? This whole thing with Beck may support that thought. Why would they assume Beck wouldn’t be a problem? Even today the two houses look at the background of who they allow to take their seats—I mean, really, they’d made a premium of such perusal since 1866, so House Republicans had to have been aware of who Beck had partnered law with? Of course, the other possibility is Beck ended up on the committee in return for a democratic favor—they still do things like that today, too. That would imply, of course, that the Democrats knew what the man was capable of. For whatever reason he ended up where he did, James Burnie Beck was one of the few bright stars that lit up the Southern sky during this darkest of nights. He served Kentucky well, too, through four successive Congresses. In 1876, the Kentucky legislature elected him to the Senate and then it elected him again—he died in office in 1890. James Beck’s speech on the floor of the U.S. House rebutting the Butler Bill provides an excellent understanding of what the Radicals in Mississippi were perpetrating and is the primary source for James Garner’s presentation of these events in Reconstruction in Mississippi. I’ll hit the highpoints here. Gee, I love Google, and I love James Burnie Beck.
Now we know there had to be some debate of Butler’s Bill at the committee level, so Beck’s speech is for the benefit of the entire House, not Butler, who had already heard Beck’s arguments.
On the House floor, James Beck stated he was resigned Mississippi’s constitutional convention would be reassembled, though he was against it. He believed, simply, that the obnoxious clauses should be removed and the commanding general should resubmit the constitution to the people for ratification.* Beck then drew Benjamin Butler in with two simple, proposed amendments to the latter’s bill. Those were that the President of the United States, that being Grant, be the person responsible for appointing the provisional governor for the state of Mississippi as well as the registrars and judges for the election. That was no more than what the other Southern states readmitted to the Union under the Reconstruction Acts had received, he said, and Grant, who was a Republican and, therefore, their man, was certainly as capable of appointing a governor as President Andrew Johnson, who the Radicals opposed, had been.
Beck went into all the reasons why the Mississippi Constitutional Convention could not be trusted for the appointment. I have already elaborated on the convention’s abuses and attempted usurpations of the commanding general’s authority—Beck’s speech was, in fact, the primary source, so I’m not going to rehash them here. For a refresher, see my posts of 8 May 2015, 10 June 2015, and 30 June 2015. My primary reason for this particular post is to counter the accusations of white Southern intimidation and fraud against the freedmen being the reason the Republicans lost the July 1868 election. Ku Klux Klan terror and intimidation today are as quickly cited (by rote) as the reason for the failure of the noble struggle for civil rights during Reconstruction as slavery is cited as the cause of the war. Reconstruction, in the form of civil rights, failed because there wasn’t the first damn thing noble about it or the men perpetrating it. Reconstruction as the bane of our Founder’s Republic, the destroyer of that concept of limited government and sovereign states, did not fail. It accomplished exactly what it’s perpetrators wanted it to—the Reconstruction of the Republic, the skewing of the relationship between the states and the federal government, and you can bet the men perpetrating that metamorphosis didn’t care a bit more about civil rights than the Klan did, if for different reasons.
In response to Butler’s support of the bill, which if you recall, granted omnipotent authority to the president of the Reconstruction Convention in the state, Beck pointed out that in July of 1868 there was scarce doubt on the part of any member of the House Reconstruction Committee that the proposed constitution and the Republican ticket had been fairly defeated by the people of Mississippi. What doubts there were (or hopes I should say in speaking of the Radicals) of fraud and intimidation, General Gillem’s report quickly dispelled. What Butler was proposing was basically the Bingham Bill of the past summer, and Beck told the House, as he’d told it eight months earlier, the Bingham Bill puts the people of Mississippi and her property in the hands of men who had perpetrated a fraud and a lie, not only at the state level, but in Congress—before the Reconstruction Committee, no less, because in December of 1868, when this group first showed up, everyone on the committee knew they were lying. Beck points out that if Butler had been on the committee in December, he wouldn’t be standing on the floor, pushing this bill. I think Beck was being gracious. Butler was in the House when Bingham’s Bill was submitted; he spoke in favor of it—he didn’t vote one way or the other. Now, here they are, eight months later, and Butler is pushing a bill which, at least as regards Mississippi, duplicates the Bingham Bill.
Beck elaborated on the abuses of the progressive constitution—primarily the proscription clauses, and he emphasized my pet peeve regarding the proscription. The bulk of the people disfranchised were the state’s taxpayers. And in regards to proscription, that constitution went over and beyond the requirements set forth in the 14th amendment, denying ex-Confederates not only the right to hold office, but also the vote into perpetuity. It further denied the right of the U.S. Congress to ever remove the disability (unless of course the Mississippi Radicals requested they do it, but I would think once the Radicals had control and their constitution in force, they wouldn’t need Congress to “bless” anyone. Of course, if you had a democratic administration in ten years, and a democrat wanting his encumbrances removed, and a Republican legislature/governor in Mississippi, they could just say “no” and Congress would have no say. This, of course, is all oxymoronic supposition because that Republican Congress was striving for complete subordination of the states and wasn’t about to cede that power to anyone, including its minions in Mississippi. This brings us back around to Mississippi’s Republican Party being in the hands of “idiots.” Beck’s purpose in all this was pointing out the fallacy of putting the fate of Mississippi in the hands of such men by exposing their true character. This he did in tearing apart their allegations of fraud and intimidation against the Freedmen. Next time.
Thanks for reading,
*I footnoted that point on proscription, because it highlights an observation that is becoming more and more obvious as we move through Reconstruction, that being the compromises being made by the Democratic leadership at the expense of principle. There was a lot more wrong with Mississippi’s Constitution than the proscription clauses (i.e. increase in civil offices, increase in executive powers, progressive programs to be funded at taxpayer expense, taxpayer funding of private initiatives, just to highlight a few). The rank and file that busted a gut to defeat that constitution in the summer of 1868 knew that, and they knew a vote against it meant continuation of martial law, which was, I must assume in their mind, preferable to representation in an unconstitutional Union. But now it begins to appear that the Democratic “leadership” across the South (not just Mississippi), desperate to return to the Union in hopes of votes in Congress and the end of military rule, is now willing to cast principle to the wind (along with the Cause its people sacrificed so much for). I will return to this thought later, because such concessions by the Democratic Party leadership will come back to bite them in the butt in a couple of years.