Genesis Of Corruption
Part One of Two
Mississippi’s Constitution Of 1890 Was Crafted To Disenfranchise Blacks.
Its Real Legacy Has Been To Disenfranchise Most Everyone.
By Perry Hicks
Historically, Mississippi’s struggles have been all about power: Maintaining dominance; whites over blacks; rich planters over tenant farmers; native Mississippians over outsiders. This struggle has been well evidenced by Mississippi’s four constitutions enacted over just 73 years. The last constitution (1890) has been blamed for giving Mississippi the dubious honor of being the most corrupt state in America. Let’s examine the record and trace the genesis of corruption.
Planters vs. Farmers
Contrary to what most people believe, the problem of corruption started at the very beginning; that is, at the very birth of the state. At that time, both wealth and political power was concentrated in and around the river city of Natchez. The wealthy planters there viewed themselves as a kind of landed aristocracy- a position they very much wanted to preserve. Hence, the Mississippi Constitution of 1817 attempted to entrench their political power by making both tax paying and substantial land ownership prerequisites for holding political office. In their view, the state’s governance should literally come from either those who paid for it (taxes) or who owned it (land or businesses). In my view, this attitude has prevailed in some quarters down to this very day.
However, all was not moonlight and magnolia. Residents in the eastern part of the state were not the educated and cultured upper classes but were independent frontier types: small farmers and woodsmen. They were not going to sit back and allow someone to tell them what to do. Politically speaking, they were in the beginning Democrats of the Thomas Jefferson type. Later, they became followers of General Andrew Jackson. The planters and bankers were either Federalists or Whigs.
This polarity in geography, politics, and social status was the source of great tension. With the influx of new residents entering Mississippi from the north and east, the Jacksonian-Democrats forced a convention that resulted in the Constitution of 1832. Here the chief reform was to drop the taxpaying and land owning requirements for holding office. Thus, Whig power continued to decline while Jacksonian-Democracy ascended to power.
War Between The States
The wealthy planters did not want Mississippi to enter into the rebellion against the Union. Their wealth was derived from a combination of cotton production and the valuation of their land and slaves. They simply had too much to loose. However, the Democrats continued to dominate state politics and thus overwhelming support went to southern Democrat presidential candidate, John Breckenridge. This support for Breckenridge over northern Democrat Stephen Douglas has been attributed to handing Abraham Lincoln victory in 1860. Thus, Mississippi voted for the Ordinance of Secession on January 9th, 1861.
The Confederacy’s strategic military problem was one of geography. Not only was there an enormous east-west border with the Union, there was also the Mississippi River cleaving the Confederacy north to south. Union armies, supported by gunboats, would effectively cut the Deep South off from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
By the end of the war, Union armies had persevered in their struggle to dissect the Confederate states into ever smaller and more easily managed pieces. Civil government was driven first into hiding, and then with the sudden collapse of organized military resistance, virtually ceased to exist. With complete victory, northern armies of war became armies of occupation. Everywhere there was critical need to restore order and ease human suffering.
Mississippi, like all the other Confederate States, was left in devastation. Entire populations were uprooted. For example, Black Hawk, Carroll County, Mississippi had an almost complete change in family names between the U.S. Census of 1860 and 1870. Many families that had been affluent before the war were now utterly destitute.
During the latter stages of the war, Union raiders had cut a wide swath of destruction through north and central Mississippi. Livestock was forcibly taken, crops destroyed, and in some cases, older boys conscripted. Former slaves fled the plantations to either flock into cities or follow the Union Army for protection and sustenance. So many blacks perished due to disease and famine that some Union commanders feared they would cease to exist all together.
Thus, there were no hands to put farms and plantations back into production. Warehoused cotton and foodstuffs had been put to the torch so there was no stored wealth on which to fall back. The ranks of Southern white youth had been decimated by war service. And in any case, many of the surviving young men were paroled either out of their Confederate units or Federal prisons hundreds of miles from home.
It is difficult for us to imagine the social, political, and economic chaos left in the wake of the War Between the States. The returning ex-Confederates did so literally to smoking ruins. During their brief return to political power over the summer and fall of 1865, they were able to enact the short-lived “black codes”. However, they soon found their social order was to turn completely upside down with the imposition of Reconstruction.
Congress refused to seat elected Democrats in December of 1865. Occupying Union forces followed this lead by removing participants of “the late rebellion” from public office. Bereft of legally qualified candidates, state and county governments had to be reconstructed with carpet baggers (northern opportunists), scalawags (Union sympathizers), and Negroes appointed by Union military commanders.
Disenfranchised veterans did not accept this calmly. They formed “Democratic clubs” that were essentially armed militias organized to wreck terror on Republicans and blacks.
The proposed Mississippi Constitution of 1868 reorganized the state as a prelude to rejoining the Union. The major change here was the conformance to the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment abolishing slavery and the exclusion of former Confederates from holding public office. However, violent Democrat reaction kept the new constitution from being ratified. Thus, state Republicans rewrote the constitution enfranchising the ex-Confederates. This revised constitution was adopted by a convention for the purpose May 15th, 1868 and was ratified by December 1st, 1869.
A new legislature convened in January 1870. The first order of business was to ratify the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The second order of business was to send two Senators to Washington: Adelbert Ames, former Union General and Mississippi Governor from 1868 to 1870, and Hiram Revels, a prominent Negro politician. There is some irony with the selection of Revels for he filled the Senate seat vacated by Jefferson Davis on January 21st, 1861. Immediately thereafter, Congress readmitted Mississippi into the Union February 23rd, 1870.
Although the Mississippi Constitution of 1868 did not prohibit ex-Confederates from holding office, state politics continued to be dominated by a Republican coalition of whites and blacks. It is interesting to note that of the 107 state legislators in 1870, only 30 were black. The remainder was either white Republicans (52) or conservative Democrats (25).
Regardless, ex-Confederate Democrats continued to resist by violent means. This resulted in Congress passing the First Enforcement Act putting teeth into the 15th Amendment. In reaction to the armed and organized terror resistance happening all across the South, Congress passed the Klu Klux Act in 1871 and the Army began to hunt down and arrest Klansmen.
Unwanted attention from military authorities did not discourage Democrats from pursuing political power by any means necessary. In Part Two, we will see how the lawless came to attain power under the law.
Perry Hicks is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics, and is a former Ford Motor Company technical trainer. He currently works as an Associate Professor of Automotive Technology at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, VA.
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