Monday, June 20, 2016

Louis Dent, a Relevant History

This post is number forty-two 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 Democratic victory over the Republican progressive constitution framed during the Black & Tan Convention in the winter/spring of 1868, which resulted in a second election. For earlier posts in this Alcorn-driven series, see the sidebar to the right.

In my recent post concerning the Mississippi Democratic Party, led as of 1869 by the dominant New Departurist faction, I discussed its coalition with the Scalawags (“Southern” Republican Party) to defeat the Radical ticket in November.
I think referring to the Scalawags in Mississippi at this point in history as members of a “Southern” Republican Party more accurately describes their affiliation than the term faction. There were two Republican parties in Mississippi in 1869 and probably as early as that Republican defeat in 1868, if not before.
As of  May, these covert allies, New Departurists/Scalawags, supposedly independent of each other, were whispering the name of Louis Dent, U. S. Grant’s brother-in-law, as nominee for governor in opposition to the Radical candidate.
Louis Dent was not a stranger to Mississippi, nor Mississippi to him, but he was not well-known to the masses and the bulk of what was known would not necessarily be judged as favorable. He had been a government lessee of abandoned land in Coahoma County since late in the war and had been residing in the county at the time Grant was elected president in November of 1868. After Grant and Dent’s sister Julia moved into the White House, Dent was invited to join them in Washington. This was where he was residing when the conservative political leaders in Mississippi approached him regarding his possible acceptance of the nomination for governor on the National Union Republican Party/Scalawag ticket. It’s my gut feeling, however, that feelers for the position had been made prior to that.

Back in the early winter of 1868-1869, when the Wofford group had followed the committee of sixteen to thwart the latter’s efforts to have Congress vacate the Republican defeat that past summer, Louis Dent had actively supported the Wofford contingent with the President. What exactly that meant, I can only surmise. We already know that Grant was sympathetic to the conservative Republicans involved in a similar situation in Virginia, and more than likely his feelings were much the same, without anyone else’s influence, regarding Mississippi. I have little doubt, though, that Dent’s relationship with Mississippi and that of the President, gave the Wofford group greater access to the President either directly or indirectly. I’m taking a leap in assuming, at this point, that the committee of sixteen’s inroads had been greatest with the House Reconstruction Committee and Congress, but I’m supported in my assumption by the subsequent record of events. Yes, the proof here is to be found in the pudding.  

Be that as it may, by July 9, 1869, when Dent officially responded to the conservative contingent that had come to Washington to obtain his permission to nominate him for governor at the September 1869 National Union Republican Party (conservative Republicans/Scalawag) convention in Jackson, he was delighted [my word] to say, “...I beg to assure you that if I can in the least be instrumental in restoring the state of my adoption to her normal place in the Union and securing to her a good local administration, you have permission to use my name for any position within the gift of the National Union Republican Party of your state.” At this point, all indications were that Dent had the President’s support. 

Louis Dent and his little sister and brother, Julia and John respectively, as well as their older brother Frederick, had been born and raised on White Haven Plantation, a large slave-owning farm in Missouri’s Little Dixie south of St. Louis. Frederick was a West Point graduate, whose roommate had been Ulysses S. Grant. After graduation, Grant was stationed at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri on the river and not too far from White Haven. Frederick often invited his old college friend home and it was on the third such visit that Grant met Julia. Grant visited often afterwards and in 1844, after, apparently, having been asked more than once, Julia agreed to marry him.  

The men all fought in the Mexican War. Louis (and possibly John), who fought with General Kearny (1846), did not return to Missouri at that war’s end, but opted to remain in California. Frederick, whose military career appeared promising, remained in the army. Grant, whose career did not, eventually left the army, wed Julia, and settled comfortably into management of her aging father’s plantation. 

The Dent boys, Louis and John, prospered in California. As of 1847, Louis was in San Diego, then Monterey. He became a judge of the California Superior Tribunal from which he resigned before 1849. In September and October of 1849 he served as one of forty-eight delegates to write and subsequently adopt California’s first Constitution. On 13 November of that same year, at age 26, he was elected to the California congress.

By the early fifties, he and John had become part owners of Knight’s Ferry on the Stanislaus River in the Sierras, Mr. Knight having managed to get himself killed in an altercation. The ferry was a very lucrative business during gold-rush days, drawing in $500.00 per day (this sum is from Wikipedia, and it computes to in excess of $14,000 in today’s money. Other sources limit that to “some” days. Either way, they were doing well). They put up a boarding house and restaurant at the ferry, then built a grist and sawmill around 1853. They sold the property (the ferry?), and the new owner built a bridge, which put the ferry out of business. John also served as the Indian agent for the area, and Louis ran the adjunct trading post. In 1856 these two laid out the “town” of Knight’s Ferry—since there was a great deal of construction there already, that probably means they purchased land, divvied it up into lots and sold those lots at a profit. In California, Louis wed the daughter of Judge Baine, late of Grenada, Mississippi and a Whig. Of additional note, while the Dent patriarch was building White Haven Plantation up in Missouri, two of his brothers (at least, I’m assuming they were Dents and not relations from the female side, but Louis’ uncles either way), Benjamin and George, were establishing residence in the then Mississippi territory. Both had apparently moved on by the time Mississippi achieved statehood.

So yes, Louis Dent had a connection with Mississippi of sorts, but he himself didn’t show up in the state until after his brother-in-law had ravaged it. Then Louis had taken advantage of the ravaged. Given the apparently close-knit relations between Grant and his wife’s people, I can’t help but wonder how much of what Louis acquired was done so based on the advice/with the assistence of his sister and brother-in-law, who were in the state at the time imposing on the locals.  

Well, someone had to enjoy the spoils of war, why not family? 

Next time I’ll discuss Grant’s subsequent failure to look out for good ole Louis. Hint: The Devil made him do it.

Thanks for reading,







Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Democratic Party and its Quest for Legitimacy during Congressional Reconstruction

This post is number forty-one in a historical series discussing Mississippi’s Whig/Republican governor and senator, James Alcorn, following the War Between the States. It constitutes another break in the series in order to bring the reader up to date as to what was happening in the Democratic Party across the South during the timeframe that would see Alcorn and the Radicals come to power and helps explain the context in which Democratic-Conservative policy was being applied in Mississippi.

As stated on numerous occasions throughout this series, the old leaders of the Democratic Party and of the Confederacy comprised the leadership of choice among the Southern taxpayer during Presidential Reconstruction. This was the party whose representatives elected in 1865 were denied their seats in the Republican-held U. S. Congress and for that reason. Matters worsened with the election of 1866, when the Northern populace gave the Radicals, armed with their agenda for altering the Founder’s Republic into a more “democratic” nation, majority control of Congress. In order to carry out the agenda (there were some “loyal” state legislators left who hadn’t completely lost their minds), it was critical that the Radicals had control of the Southern states to ensure passage of their unconstitutional measures. In other words, the right men had to be sent to Washington, as well as compose the Southern legislatures, and they sure as the Dickens couldn’t be Democrats. This accounts for the 1867 Congressional Reconstruction Acts and enactment of martial law across the Southern states, the registration of the Negro voters/disfranchisement of the Southern taxpayer, the progressive constitutions patterned after those in the North and, generally, the wholesale marginalization of both the taxpaying citizens of the South and their party of choice.

For the Democratic Party (self-styled Democratic-Conservatives), achieving electoral success under the restrictions of the Reconstruction Acts resulted first in its combining forces with the Scalawags to thwart the Radical Republicans who were rallying the Negro vote under the protection of federal bayonets. In Mississippi, this policy is seen in the 1868 defeat of the Radical ticket and the progressive constitution.

In Road to Redemption Michael Perman states that initially the Democratic-Conservatives believed that by employing a fusion policy with the Scalawags they could split the Negro vote with the Radicals, a perception prevelant across the South. I had trouble coming to grips with this, because in the 1868 Mississippi campaign to defeat the Radical agenda I saw a coalition of white Southerners (Democrats/Scalawags) united to defeat white Northerners, shored up by a Negro voter base. There was no effort then to garner the black vote, at least not a dedicated one. Yet by the spring of 1869, I see the Democratic Conservatives rallying to the Scalawag ticket, not as it turns out to replicate the 1868 victory, but to support a moderate Republican candidate and a Republican platform, little better than the Radical one. The purpose of this coalition was to defeat the Radical ticket headed by J. L. Alcorn by championing Reconstruction and siphoning off a significant portion of the Radicals’ black voters. Between the summer of 1868 and the spring of 1869, during all those visits and consultations in Washington (which no doubt included pow-wows with other displaced Democrats from all over the South...and probably the North) something had gone haywire within the Southern Democratic Party indicative of a power struggle. The efforts of 1868 and that of 1869 in Mississippi were significantly different, the change being the missing white voter who had championed the conservative call in 1868 to defeat the Radical agenda. Looks like someone figured his support wasn’t enough. But another point Perman makes is that these “enlightened” Southern leaders now perceived the evolution of a two-party system in the South based on race and class, which would have been disruptive to the social order and they would have wished to nip it in the bud.

Fusing with white Scalawags and hoping for black support from that source was not the same as taking the “competitive” approach to electioneering and wooing the Negro voter to the Democratic Party. That required autonomous acceptance of Reconstruction. 

This change in direction for the black vote is known as the “New Departure,” and by 1870 it had become Democratic policy across the South. It sprang as the brainchild of the fusion politics of 1868-1869. The new policy included supporting passage of the Fifteenth Amendment ensuring black suffrage. This capitulation, the leadership spouted, had to occur if the party were to survive and if the South were to salvage any part of its fortunes. The New Departure enabled the Democrats to vie for the black vote by assuring the Freedmen their civil rights were safe in the hands of the Democratic Party, and it also served to assure the “national authority” that Reconstruction had worked.  

Just my opinion, but I figure it more likely the Democrats would have been trying to influence the Northern populace, which was itself getting fed up with the Radicals. Nothing would have persuaded the so-called national authority that the Democrats were now okay, because they didn’t care one way or the other. The Radicals wanted to remain the “national authority”, and they needed control in the South to do that. 

The conservative (Bourbon) faction of  the Democratic Party never committed to the New Departure and was, in fact, opposed to it, seeing it as a fruitless betrayal of principle since the party would not get the black vote. Why would the Negro, entrenched with the party in power—indeed he was the power base that kept it in power—give up his leverage to join the Democrats? This tactic, the Bourbons claimed, operated from a position of weakness and was both degrading and ineffective. The Bourbons correctly maintained that the interests of the black Republicans and white Democrats were different. Rally the white vote they said, it’s there, and forget catering to the blacks. Worse yet, the New Departure, in the minds of the Bourbons [and me] made the Democrats willing participants in the Republicans’ new order and cast aside the principles of the Democratic Party, heir to the antebellum Democrats who believed in home rule, decentralization of the Federal government, non-interference by government in folks’ personal behavior, free trade, and restoring local and individual autonomy. Georgia’s Alexander Stephens said, and I paraphrase, if the country were to be redeemed, it would be done under old-line Democrats with Jeffersonian ideas and principles. Ha! Remember, back in the day of old-line Democrats, Alexander Stephens was a Whig. I think his epiphany occurred back with the secession.

Nevertheless, by 1870 New Departurists were on the ascent across the entire South [and in the North, too, though who they targeted for membership I’m not sure, because there wasn’t much in the way of a Negro population up there, and they’d been bestowing early citizenship on new immigrants for decades before the war, which might explain why so many Yankees didn’t understand the concept of federalism and followed Lincoln to war].

Back on point: In the newly formulated credo of the Southern New Departurist, state rights were as dead as the right to secede and life must go on. They needed to get the damn Yankees out of the South, and they needed the Negro vote to do it. Campaign policy was to influence the Negro and convert him to the Democratic Party, but not to make promises. Canvassers/campaigners were to be honest as to motives (i.e. “We couldn’t stop your suffrage, so now we’re trying to win your vote.”) At the same time they were to point out that the Yankees had not fulfilled their false promises and, therefore, Democrats weren’t going to make them any. Um, for a competitive approach, it doesn’t sound too promising does it? Nevertheless, the Democratic-Conservatives did well in 1870, winning elections at the state level in Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina (and in Texas in 1873). Victories were even more numerous everywhere at the local and county levels where whites were in the majority or where, for whatever reason, Republicans were weak. Oh, duh? Were they delusional on top of everything else? Of course those factors increased the odds for victory. Wishful thinking or not, the New Departurists in Alabama attributed this success to the black vote. Reality struck home in Alabama two years later when participating voters returned the state to Radical rule, but that’s a tale for another post. 

Here’s another tale for a future post, or several future posts, but I wanted to touch on it here primarily because Perman did in Road to Redemption. The Ku Klux Klan predated the New Departure, but its activity during this time period, Professor Perman claims, is testimony to the discord within the Democratic Party. I think my take on what was happening might deviate a little from his, so here’s my opinion: I never bought into the Federal and state governments bringing the Klan to “heel.” Subsidence of Klan activity in the early ’70s coincides with the Democratic-Conservative embarkation on the New Departure competitive policy to expand its voter base. Reading between the lines, one could make a case for the leadership within the Democratic-Conservatives, some perhaps active in the Klan, attempting to “call off the dogs” in order to woo the Negro vote. This, of course, leaves the Bourbons as the bad guys—theoretically, they’d have been the ones promoting continued threats and violence. Perman also points out that it was New Departurist Democrats who were giving testimony at the Congressional hearings on the Klan during these years—they’d had a hand in, but now couldn’t quite get a handle on it—if anything, they couldn’t get a handle on the Bourbons. My point is that the schism within the party could account for the lessening of Klan activity during this time vice its ceasing altogether. Perman further suggests the calling off came too late. Maybe. Maybe not. I’d as quickly put my money on those glittering Radical promises made to the Negro as I would his residual resentment to threats and violence instigated by the Klan; another thing I don’t buy into is black folk being as scared and helpless as they were reported to be.  

So, the Democrats were not idle, and the party was not united in its methodology for ousting the Republicans, but for a brief period in the early 1870s, the New Departurists comprised the party leadership and that resulted in the capitulation to Reconstruction and the loss of its faithful voter base. The most obvious conclusion one could draw from this mess is that the Southern politicians of both parties wanted power (independent of each other), and they wanted the Yankees gone. It made for strange bedfellows, discord, and sacrifice of principle. In the end it was the most principled of the groups (as archaic and dead as some might perceive those principles to be, then as well as now) that ended up in power and held it for over eighty years. Ah, but in the end, its own abuse of power and lack of vision left the Southern Democrats vulnerable to the dark forces of the long-unprincipled Northern Democracy, by then embracing the concept of pure democracy, which purposefully destroyed it. It was the modern national Democrats, again under the shadow of federal bayonets, who played the major role in putting the Republicans back in power across the South. Well, at least they aren’t Carpetbaggers this time around, but I bet we can find plenty of Scalawags among ’em.

There’s more to the New Departurists’ story, primarily the Democratic economic policies vis-à-vis the Republican. Those I will address during the course of my Alcorn series.

I’ll return to Alcorn and Louis Dent next time—one of the best examples of  New  Departurists’ tactics in all of Reconstruction, I imagine.

Thanks for reading,