Thursday, May 31, 2018

Mississippi’s Readmission to the Union, With Conditions

This post is number fifty-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 Democratic victory over the Republican “reconstruction” constitution framed during the Black & Tan Convention in the winter/spring of 1868. With proscription conditions in the new constitution modified, the Republicans triumphed in the second election and the new puppet legislature enacted the final requirements for readmission. This post picks up the story in Washington during the winter of 1870. For earlier posts in this Alcorn-driven series, see the sidebar.

The legislature having completed its requirements as laid down by Congress, it retired to await the blessings of Congress, from which the new puppet Republican legislature expected the state’s speedy admission to the Union equal to that of the original state. In reality, true “equality” vis-à-vis the central government was dead for all the states—federalism itself having been butchered along with the Confederacy.

To emphasize this point: In conjunction with Mississippi’s readmission, Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts introduced a bill making it a qualification that any state officer swear under oath never to have born arms against the United States, unless that encumbrance had already been removed. It was the same old “iron-clad oath” requirement. Recall we’d been through this with Butler before. This new iteration referred to holding office, sans the voting restriction, but the stipulation already existed in the Fourteenth Amendment. But the bill also added the condition that the recalcitrant states could never amend their constitutions to deprive a citizen of the vote, right to hold office, or attend public schools. Such amendments to their constitutions of course, new, old, or amended, are the prerogatives of the individual states themselves. And more telling, why should such conditions be relegated to the “recalcitrant” states? And the condition that any state not be able to alter its constitution matter for what “noble” cause the restraint was perpetrated, is (was I should say) anathema to our federal system. Except where specifically outlined in the Constitution, the central government had no say in state matters. The restrictions in Butler’s “recalcitrant” state bill would shortly deprive Mississippi, Virginia, and Texas of their equality with the original members of the Union, and the denial of a state’s right to change its organic laws is contrary to federalism. Kentucky’s James Beck, still fighting, offered a counter proposal, “unconditional readmission.” The Butler Bill passed the House 136-56.

The debate in the Senate on Butler’s bill continued for two weeks at which point moderate Republican John Sherman of Ohio, who was no friend of the South (yes, he is little Billy’s brother) said on February 17th that he was going to start messing with other pieces of legislation if there wasn’t movement on the bill (don’t know which side he was taking). The senate judiciary committee, chaired by Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, another individual who was no friend of the South, found that Mississippi met all prior requirements for readmission and recommended unconditional readmission. The Senate rejected those findings, then passed the House (Butler’s) bill, in conjunction with Mississippi’s readmission, and sent it to the president. Grant signed it on the 23 February 1870.

This is the final aftermath of the battle that had been fought and won by the people of Mississippi in the summer of 1868.  Grant himself recommended separate votes on the proscription clauses and the constitution. As a result, in the fall of 1869 proscription was defeated and the progressive constitution passed. Now, only months later, Congress has made a de facto repudiation of the Mississippi taxpayer’s will and its token Republican president has participated in the treachery. I do not know Alcorn’s take on this treachery, but he is on record for telling his wife Amelia prior to the gubernatorial election in the fall of 1869, that if the Democrats won (Dent), he’d recommend Congress continue martial law in the state. Looking at the votes in both houses of Congress, it’s clear the bill was a collusion to give Mississippi’s usurping Republicans what the people of the state had denied them.

Writing in 1901, James Garner in Reconstruction in Mississippi states that after five years with no representation in Washington, and three of those years under martial law, Mississippi was readmitted to the Union under “conditions” that impaired her sovereignty. Congress, in assuming the power to deprive the state of the right to change its governing constitution in certain particulars, arrogated to itself sovereign powers, and had it been able to enforce its commands, the principle of the federal system would have been destroyed.

[H]ad it been able to enforce its commands...?

Garner was writing at a time when Republican hegemony over the federal government had been cracked, a time when folks who still believed in the Constitution and understood the basic tenants of federalism it governed. Sadly, those conditions do not exist today, and the underlying weaknesses of federalism framed during Reconstruction, the usurpation of state rights by a tyrannical central government, is today characterized by a worthless Congress and an overreaching executive branch, which Congress itself has been strengthening for decades with powerful, unconstitutional agencies to the detriment of us all. To us true believers in the founders’ republic, federal law does not trump state law. Federal law only trumps state law where the federal government has been delegated supreme power by the states, and those instances are limited. But that means nothing when the states fail to react, just like they did nothing in 1861 when Lincoln opted to make war on the Southern states after they legally seceded from a hostile “Union.” Well, okay, those Northern states did do something. They supported him against sister states to the detriment not only of the South, but to the republic. With the forced ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, the principle of the federal system framed by our founders was destroyed.

After President Grant signed the bill readmitting Mississippi to the Union (with the conditions attached), Henry Wilson, the junior senator from Massachusetts, presented the credentials of Hiram Revels to the Senate. Revels’ credentials had been signed by Brevet Major General and Provisional Governor Adelbert Ames. A point rose as to the appropriateness of Ames’ signing Revels’ credentials—ha, wait until they get to Ames’—on two counts: Military officer certification was not on the list of evidence required by law, and Ames was not the true executive, Alcorn was. But remember, Alcorn couldn’t execute anymore than the legislature could legislate until after the bill admitting the state into the Union was signed by the president (by which time Ames and Revels were already in Washington. Perhaps they should have waited, huh? Got their credentials in order, then caught a later train?). I conclude the Senators figured Alcorn could have signed them and should have. Instead the arrogant Ames had done the deed.

They hemmed and hawed over Revels’ credentials for two days, then one of them proposed to just let the Senate vote to seat him, which it proceeded to do, 48-8. Popular sentiment brands those Democrats who opposed Revels’ seating as racists and the Republicans who supported him as brave reformers determined to eliminate the special burdens placed on the Negro. Hogwash. The Republicans were just as racist, and their constituents more malevolent in their opposition to the Negro than a Southern Democrat whose racism was condescending, yes, but comparatively benevolent. The Republicans sacrificed their racial prejudices to permanently break the link between the government framed in 1787 and the nationalist one they were codifying into law as of 1870. Whether the Democrats were racist, benevolent, malevolent, or whatever, is irrelevant. Their unsuccessful struggle was an effort to halt the creation of a tyrannical central government and its ancillary destruction of republican principles. The law/arguments used to seat Revels in 1870 were unconstitutional.  The race card was not needed to make their point. The Republicans, however, did need it to make theirs.

Now, as to those platitudes of poetic justice made in the case of a Negro taking Jeff Davis’ seat in the U. S. Senate. Davis’ physical chair had long before been taken by a Kansas senator who refused to give it up. (That actual, physical chair, of course, is another irrelevancy, but was considered symbolic by the idealists of the day). And as for the story that had been bouncing around since Davis resigned his seat in the Senate in 1861 in which Davis supposedly told Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron that he’d probably be replaced by a Negro in a few years time, that story has also been turned on its ear and reiterated with it being a prescient Cameron informing Davis of that dire fate. It doesn’t matter which one said it.  It’s all faux “poetic justice.” The seat Revels filled was the one vacated in 1861 by Mississippi’s junior senator, Albert Brown. Ames took Davis’ seat, and personally, I think Revels would have made a much better fill.

When Ames presented his credentials to the Senate, signed by his own hand, the issue of his seating went to the judiciary committee. The committee reported back that Ames had gone to Mississippi under orders as a military officer, and he was not a citizen of the state. That report from its own judiciary committee was not sufficient for the Senate to simply say, “go home,” preferably to Maine.
[All those Republican senators were mad at Trumbull, anyway, for breaking ranks and not voting to convict Andrew Johnson at his impeachment trial.]

Seating Ames took weeks. His chief supporters in the Senate were Radical Republicans Oliver P. Morton (Indiana’s gubernatorial tyrant; now, Senator), George Boutwell (Massachusetts), and George Edmunds (Vermont), and moderate Republican John Sherman (Ohio). Ames’ primary opponents were Democrats Thomas Bayard (Delaware) and Allen Thurman (Ohio).

Again citing Garner, Ames’ acceptance of the Senate seat from Mississippi’s legislature, over which, as provisional governor, he wielded influence, was (at best) in poor taste. He owned no real property in the state and paid little or no taxes. He knew little of the state or its needs. He was a stranger to Mississippi and her people. He had no respect for their tastes, habits, and prejudices, and he admitted that had he failed to get his appointment to the Senate, he would not have made Mississippi his home.

And on that note, back in Jackson, the puppet legislature passed a joint resolution to Congress stating that Ames’ election had been regular and legal, so seat him. Given that, the Senate rejected 40-12 the judiciary committee’s report. This non-resident Ames not only represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate, he would go on to do so as governor. Ames turned out to be a special emissary of the Negro race, and he later admitted that in leaving the military for a civil career he’d made the “fatal” error of his life.

No matter what else, by General Order 25 of 26 February 1870, the Fourth Military District ceased to exist. [Arkansas, the other state making up the Fourth Military District, had been readmitted to the Union in 1868, also under a puppet administration.]

Back to Mississippi, next time, and Alcorn’s inaugural speech, outlining his optimistic vision for the brand new United States, and the South’s finally getting its hand in the till.

In your dreams, Alcorn.

 Thanks for reading,


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