Monday, August 27, 2018

The Inauguration of Mississippi’s Republican Administration

This post is number fifty-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 “reconstruction” constitution framed during the Black & Tan Convention in the winter/spring of 1868. That Republican defeat resulted in a second election—Washington’s Radicals were simply not going to take Mississippians’ rejection of their agenda as the answer. As planned, the election of a Radical administration in Mississippi followed. This post opens in Mississippi during the late fall of 1869 immediately following the Radical victory and continues through Alcorn’s inaugural address as governor. For earlier posts in this Alcorn-driven series, see the sidebar.
On 20 December, the Radical Republican ticket victorious in the fall election, Adelbert Ames, commander of the fourth military district and still provisional governor, issued an order announcing ratification of the progressive constitution and directed 11 January 1870 as the date for the new legislature to meet in Jackson. Further, by the authority invested in him by President Grant, (who received his authority from George Boutwell of Massachusetts—yes, I’m being what is known in the vernacular as a smart ass), Ames directed Alcorn to assume the role of provisional governor prior to his actual inauguration.

Alcorn refused. He informed Ames that he’d been elected governor by the people of Mississippi and he’d take his seat on inauguration day, [not under the shadow of military tyranny—my words, not his, but that was his point].

As governor, James Lusk Alcorn became the leader, for the first time in his political career, of a majority party with a new state constitution that gave him more power than any Mississippi chief executive who had held power before him. Given that state civil elections were not scheduled until the fall, he inherited from the military dictator who preceded him the right to appoint normally elected civil servants, to be approved by the state senate. 

Evidence supports Alcorn’s political descent from Federalist (in spirit if not in fact), to National Republican, to Whig. He came to Mississippi as a National Republican, became a Whig under the guidance of Henry Clay, and resorted to embracing the Northern offshoot of that defunct group out of pragmatic necessity. Personally, I don’t think he was ever really a Republican, but I think he was quick to embrace those strands of the Federalist wing of the old National Republicans when it served his purpose. Alcorn considered Jefferson Davis a weak “tyrant.” One might surmise from this how he would conduct his governorship.

During his campaign, Alcorn had attacked the civil-military government in Mississippi (because of its divided loyalty) for the rise in crime. I take this to mean he accused the civil powers (Southern residents) to turning a blind eye whenever their “side” committed (political) “crimes.” I say this, other than the opposite, because between 1867-1869, the period of the “Reconstruction Acts” and martial law, he had wanted the military governor given full reign over civil government, and he told his wife Amelia that if the Democrats won the legislature, he would advise Congress to continue martial law. Yeah, he was a believer in “democracy” all right. Of course, he couldn’t work with the Democrats—turned out he couldn’t work with the Republicans either for long. The Carpetbag Republicans had their agenda, the Scalawags theirs, the Democrats (who represented the majority of tax-paying Mississippians) theirs and then there was Alcorn who had his. Alcorn was focused on Congressional money, which he’d seen Congress bestow on the Northern states for decades, to rebuild Mississippi. He’d also watched the state’s Democrats, who stood on the principle that selling one’s soul to the central government undermined the rights of the states and their people to govern themselves, reject such funds his entire public life in Mississippi. Alcorn needed power to get that money, and now he thought he had it. The Carpetbaggers, of course, were in the state to line their pockets and the more money in the kitty, the better.

R. C. Powers, ex-United States Army, and by all accounts an honest man, had been elected Alcorn’s lieutenant governor; James Lynch, a Northern Negro minister, secretary of state; Henry Musgrove, another ex-member of the Grand Army of the “Union”, auditor; W. H. Vasser, a pre-war Mississippian, state treasurer; another Mississippian, Joshua A. Morris, attorney general; and Henry R. Pease, ex-U.S.A., superintendent of education.

Alcorn’s inaugural speech identified the South’s secession as failed treason against the Constitution, and he hailed the magnificent mercy of the Federal government in their handling of the failed rebellion—his way of giving thanks, I guess, for their ensuring his governorship instead of executing him given his bringing the house down on the 7th of January 1861 when he voted to take Mississippi out of the Union. His “statesmanship” of course, was predicated on the concept that the only time treason isn’t treason is when the traitors win. Very pragmatic. So, why didn’t he just fall on his sword? Like I said, the man was pragmatic. Alcorn placed the central government, now in the hands of traitors of the first rank, ahead of the Constitution, the republic, and the South. He intended not only to survive, but to thrive. One thing for certain can be said to his credit, he intended Mississippi to thrive right along with him. He was wrong, not only about his own people, whose attitude might have been a little better if he hadn’t been so delusional about the central government/Congress from which he assumed he and the state would receive succor. He actually thought the South was going to get its share of the pie now that Republicans were in control down here. 

Lillian Pereyra says Alcorn “...was one of the few Southerners on whom the reality of the preceding events had made an impression...” Really? Does she think the reality of preceding events had not impressed all Southerners? I think what she meant was he was one of the few Southerners on whom those events had made the “right” impression. You can interpret that to mean, in my opinion, Pereyra was either an idealist who in contemporary times embraced the concept of one Leviathan United State or a realist who accepted the fact the republic was dead and gone, time to move on and share in un-republican greed. I don’t know what she really believed, but I do think Alcorn suffered from a false impression of whom he was dealing with in the North, or those with whom he was wheeling and dealing in Washington had led him down the garden path. [Of course, if one were to hear Ames and the other Radicals in Mississippi tell it today, they might well say it was Alcorn who led those with whom he was dealing in Washington down the garden path.]

Maybe Alcorn realized he was taking a gamble and thought the potential gains worth the risk. I think the majority of old leaders in the South—those who remained, at leastknew exactly what they were up against and weren’t willing to stroll down the path or gamble with the Republicans because they knew the deck was stacked and the South was not going to benefit in any form or fashion. Any plum awarded the South would serve the North or some Republican sycophant tenfold. So, call Southerners stupid and stubborn if you want. Stubborn I’ll buy, stupid no. Those old Southrons were right about the South’s fate. And, no, kowtowing to those traitors up North wouldn’t have made a difference. They had a war to pay off, long-postponed public works to restart, and coffers to refill to make it all work. Rebuilding the South was not part of their agenda. Needless to say, the biggest fault found with Alcorn’s speech was his calling the South’s secession “treason.”

In addition to his despicable “confession” regarding secession, Alcorn lectured the people on the responsibility of government (this to a people who long believed that the least government was the best government). Now, said he, given the new order, the state had a duty to look out for the welfare of all people rather than the heads of a few chosen families. [Thats a mercantilist theme, not Southern Democrat!] Because of this greater responsibility, taxation would be much greater, but application of those taxes would tend to enrich the state through industrial colleges and public schools because the highest production of wealth follows what’s created by combining muscle and intelligence. You know, the “intelligentsia” that builds factories and industry to provide jobs for the rest of us peons—get off the farm and live in a slum for a pittance. Just where does that produced wealth end up? Factory work may or may not provide security. At least the farm boy would no longer be at the mercy of the weather, but he would be at the mercy of new workers if he demanded increased wages—labor unions backed by the government hadn’t evolved yet; in fact, the situation was just the opposite—industrialists backed by the government using what was for all intents and purposes “slave” labor, except their workers received a pittance, which was the qualifier between free and slave labor. 

To put it succinctly, Alcorn was going to make Mississippi like the North, and Mississippians were going to pay higher taxes to live in Utopia. Theoretically, at least, all that industrialization would increase income/profits which leads naturally to increased taxation, managed by increased bureaucracy, which meant more jobs. The real cost to all this government control? Individual liberty, what our ancestors had fought for roughly a century earlier and Southerners had struggled to hold onto less than a decade before.

In the interest of economy, Alcorn stated in his speech that he was not in favor of large expenditures on public works. That part had been a bone to the upper classes who paid the majority of the taxes (property). Plus, his plan was to use Federal aid to pay for any public improvements he did enact. That’s the way the North did it. And it should be noted that in this part of his speech, he invoked the memory of Henry Clay...and love of the “Union.” He also let it be known that he planned to inactivate the militia, but would call it out if lawlessness broke out, which would result in heavier taxation.

I’ve done a little research, but I’m still not sure about the status of the militia at that time. All Southern militias had been deactivated in March 1867 with martial law, and I don’t know what authority the provisional governors had to reactivate them, nor, with the army present, if any would have. Alcorn’s statement, however, seems to  indicate there was an active militia at the time of his inauguration.
Alcorn stated there would be equality at the ballot box, jury box, and in the distribution of public office to coloreds and poor whites, but softened his egalitarian stance by stating that wealth, intelligence, and social position have always been and trusted always would be great powers in the state.

Then he contrasted the more “practical” accomplishments of the North—their canals, harbors, railroads with the intellectual political theorizing in the South, stating Southerners must abandon it for the “wiser” statesmanship which devotes itself to the fosterage of material interests. Now, read that again.

And there it is, folks, in a nutshell. Think about Alcorn’s words above and Pereyra’s assumption he understood the reality of what had just happened. This is the reason for the war and you can combine those thoughts with hundreds of others, but what comes readily to mind are Sherman’s words referring to state-rights “nonsense” to his subordinate over in Alabama. Here, now, Alcorn is telling his people to forget the Constitution and wallow in the greed/power that can only be fostered through centralization. Of course, it would be those with money and political influence who would always have benefited. Yeoman farmers were savvy enough to know who would provide the muscle for this new “statesmanship.” The Negro, looking to Alcorn for leadership and drunk on his political value, didn’t realize (and may not have cared) where this was leading. Blacks and poor whites were being lumped together at the bottom of the totem pole as cheap labor. Bones in the form of work, wages, and education were being tossed their way. Everyone would be free and happy, taxed to pay for their often “unsolicited” benefits...or for benefits demanded by and for someone else. 
With every government benefit provided, a piece of individual liberty is lost.
Alcorn considered himself the ideal man to lead Mississippi from the abyss and back into the Union. Whether he was the ideal man or not is somewhat irrelevant. That abyss is Alcorn’s concept. The South had already been pushed into the abyss. He was the one willing to contaminate himself, pulling Mississippi up and over the edge by breaching the gap between invading Radicals and native conservatives.

I’ll continue with the actual Alcorn administration next time.

Thanks for reading,


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