Mississippi’s Constitution of 1890 Was Not Written In A Vacuum.Many Sections Were Written In Direct Reaction To The Experience Of Reconstruction.
By Perry Hicks
Republicans Fight for Dominance
The Peace Democrats were a small but vocal minority. None the less, their existence threatened Lincoln and a continuance of the war. Battle losses, with a horrific number of dead and grotesquely wounded, bolstered pacifist arguments. Washington City itself was endangered by Confederate Armies massed across the Potomac River in Manassas, Virginia.
In an effort to get an upper hand, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus on July 2nd, 1861 and announced the Emancipation Proclamation the following September. Of course, this resulted in a number of Republican defeats in the following election.
The challenge to Republican rule was greatest in the Midwest. The Federal Government jailed hundreds of vocal critics and closed a number of Democrat newspapers. No opponent had too high a profile as prominent Democrat leaders were arrested, too. Clement Vallandigham of Ohio was the most famous of the political opponents seized. Lincoln went so far as to exile Vallandigham to the Confederacy. He later made his way to Canada before returning to the United States.
Northern civil unrest and military stalemate continued to threaten Lincoln’s reelection. An anti-conscription riot broke out in New York City in July 1863. The violence disrupted draft and recruitment activities. It also turned racial as blacks were blamed for causing the war. Eight innocent Negroes were lynched during the riot.
With the voters so fragmented, the nomination of Democrat Andrew Johnson for Vice President was made in an effort to cobble together a coalition of Republicans and Pro-war Democrats. The move worked, Lincoln defeated Democrat and ex-Union General George Brinton McClellan by garnering 212 electoral votes to McClellan’s 21. However, the race was much closer than the electoral vote would indicate. McClellan won a full 45% of the popular vote. Lincoln lost in the border state of Kentucky and also Delaware and New Jersey.
Republicans saw that, should the Union win, the proclamation could never be enforced in the south. Clearly, an amendment to the Constitution barring slavery would be necessary. However, there was a question as to whether this could be done legally with 11 states in secession. If the seceded states were still in the union, they would never ratify a slave freeing amendment. If they were out of the Union, the United States was waging an unlawful war against a sovereign nation.
To the Republican way of thinking, more Union states would have to be created. West of the Mississippi, the vast public tracts could be sold for a nominal cost thus attracting enough population to create new (read free) states. This was effectively a continuance of the prewar debate as to how much representation should be afforded to the slave population of the Southern States.
During the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the 3/5s clause, where each slave would be counted as 3/5s of a person, had been a compromise to garner Southern ratification. The Northern States later realized that this federal ratio would not only keep the Northern States at a political disadvantage, the imbalance would get worse with natural increases in slave population. Thus, the term “slave power” did not mean slave labor, or empowerment of white masters, but the domination of Northern States by those of the slave-owning South.
The Homestead Act was signed into law May 20th, 1862. While Kansas entered the Union before the law was enacted (January 29th, 1861), Nevada became a state October 31, 1864 and Nebraska March 1, 1867. West Virginia was a special case. It was carved off of Virginia under a dubious constitutional pretext.
Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution reads:
New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well of the Congress.
For years, the rich planters of the tidewater had maneuvered the region of western Virginia (as it was called then) into an inferior status. Understandably, this built enmity and so when the vote for secession in Richmond came, Western Virginians held their own convention at Clarksburg on April 22nd, 1861 nullifying the ordinance. Union forces marched quickly in to occupy Western Virginia. A “restored” government was formed at Wheeling. A proposal was made, but at first rejected, to create the state of “New Virginia.”
This separation of Western Virginia begged the question: Which government would Washington recognize, Richmond or Wheeling? Furthermore, if Virginia had seceded, then it was no longer a state and so the constitutional mandate of Article IV could not have been met. If Virginia had not legally seceded from the Union, then the “restored government” was not legal and so all of their actions were null and void.
West Virginia was admitted as the 35th state June 20th, 1863. As would be expected, all legal arguments against the lawfulness of creating the new state were defeated in Federal courts. The final Supreme Court challenge in 1871 also ended in failure. The creation of West Virginia would stand.
Thus, machinery was set in motion to draft and ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barring slavery. This was done February 1st, 1865.
Twist of Fate
An end to organized military resistance came with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s army on April 8th, 1865 and General Johnston’s just ten days later. In revenge for defeating the South, President Lincoln was assassinated on the evening of April 14th. To their shock and dismay, Republicans suddenly had a southern Democrat occupying the White House!
Having Johnson was only part of the Republican’s worries. In ratifying the 13th Amendment, the Republicans had figuratively signed their own death warrant. With the slaves free, the next logical step would be to proclaim them citizens and possibly voters. In any case, the next census would reallocate congressional districts, not by the old 3/5s federal ratio, but according to the black population as full citizens. In a perverse twist of fate, the Confederates would win through elections what they couldn’t on the battlefield.
Clearly, a 14th Amendment was needed to end the question of citizenship for the former slaves and insure political dominance by the North. To the latter, former Confederates would have to be denied political office. Finally, Congress would also have to be afforded the power to enforce any of the provisions of the 14th Amendment by “appropriate legislation.” Thus, the pre-war notion of “Nullification”, itself, would be null and void.
Republican Congress Usurps Power
Before his death, Lincoln proposed reuniting the country under a 10% plan whereas a seceded state could reenter the Union if 10% of the voters took an oath to the United States. However, Lincoln’s assassination ended any hope of such a benevolent restoration.
Andrew Johnson, himself a southerner, wanted only for the Confederate leadership to take the oath and the reconstituted state government to ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. However, Congress had other ideas.
The foremost concern for radical Republicans was to hold onto power. To this end, the southern political activity would have to be curtailed until Southern Republican parties were strong enough to stand on their own. Thus, the seceded states should be ruled by military governors. The congressional prerequisite for restoring a state to the Union would be for a majority of the citizens to take an oath of loyalty.
Most Confederate soldiers had made their way home by the late spring. Their first order of business was to try to salvage some semblance of life by planting, staving off hunger, and rebuilding. They also had to contend with the political realities of a large free and presumably politically enfranchised Negro population.
Over the summer, state governments were reconstituted with ex-confederate representatives, governors, and officials. Believing that they were meeting President Johnson’s requirements for rejoining the Union, Congressmen and Senators were also elected and sent to Washington. “Black Codes” limiting Negro rights were also enacted.
Facing an emerging political landscape where Democrats would again have power in Congress, the Republicans refused to recognize the validity of the elections. Congressional membership was not only denied to southerners, one Senator from New Jersey was actually removed!
New Jersey Democrat John P. Stockton had won his Senatorial election, not by a majority, but by a plurality of the vote. Stockton was seated on December 5th, 1865. However, his vocal opposition to the proposed 14th Amendment became his undoing.
The Republican leadership realized that with Stockton seated, they did not have the 2/3 majority necessary to put the amendment before the states. By refusing to seat Stockton, even though he had already been seated, the 2/3rds majority could be met. Although several states recognized plurality vote to elect a senator, the U.S. Senate used plurality as an excuse to deny Stockton his office.
In the House, similar shenanigans were afoot to ram through the resolution for the 14th Amendment. Because the House was composed of 182 members, 122 representatives would have to vote in favor of the resolution in order to attain 2/3rds majority. When 30 members abstained, the 120 yes votes were deemed 2/3rds.
Congress then had the audacity to submit the proposed 14th Amendment to all 36 states, including the 11 secession states of the old Confederacy, for ratification. Naturally, these states voted the Amendment down. Not only did the 14th Amendment confer citizenship on the freed slaves, it also extended to them equal protection under the law; anathema to the ex-confederates. However, the 14th Amendment also disenfranchised the southern whites who “participated in the rebellion.”
Besides denying voting rights, the 14th Amendment also excluded from holding office those “who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” This was essentially the entire southern political leadership.
No matter how Congress had stacked the deck, by March 1, 1867, the 14th Amendment was defeated. Congress reacted violently by passing the first Reconstruction Act and the Tenure of Office Act. The former dissolved the Southern state governments (even though they had been previously accepted back into the Union) and placed them under the rule of military governors. The latter was a trap set for President Johnson giving Congress the pretext for his later impeachment.
Mississippi Reacts to Reconstruction
Mississippi was placed under martial law with Arkansas. The Military Governor was General Edward Ortho Cresap Ord. Ex-Confederates was forcibly removed from state and local office. With the political field essentially void of qualified voters and candidates, Ord begins a voter registration drive and makes interim appointments to public office. In January of 1868, a convention met to draft a new constitution. This new constitution was adopted in May.
The disenfranchised ex-Confederates were not about to accept a second defeat. Feeling defrauded by the Republican dominated Congress, they began forming “democratic clubs” to combat coercive reconstruction and suppress black political power. While the voter drives of 1867 went smoothly, threats and intimidation kept blacks away from the polls and so delayed ratification of the new state constitution in 1868. Scalawags regrouped under Governor Alcorn and a new Republican Party rewrote those constitutional provisions barring ex-Confederates from holding office. The constitution was ratified by December 1869.
Race riots also marked this early period. On July 30th, 1866, blacks marched in demonstration for voting rights in New Orleans. Whites reacted violently killing 48. In Memphis, 91 homes, 12 schools, and 4 churches were burned; 46 blacks were killed. In 1871, Klu Klux Klan violence targeted black schools in Mississippi. Armed with the Force Acts (Klu Klux Acts) of 1870, President Grant ordered the Army to track down and arrest Klansmen.
It was manifestly clear that the Army would never permit a Democrat-led Mississippi state government. Thus, Democrats worked with Republicans so Mississippi would attain the minimum requirements (ratifying the 15th Amendment) for readmission to the Union. This was accomplished February 23rd, 1870.
Southern Republican Rule
Casual students of history usually believe that the Southern Republicans were all blacks, carpetbaggers, and “traitors” (scalawags- turncoats who supported Northern rule.) The truth is that much of the pre-war aristocracy and Confederate leadership were Whigs. Because the Whig party did not survive the war, those ex-Confederate Army officers and wealthy planters joined the Republican Party. Southerners did not loose control of Mississippi’s Republican Party until 1873. Also, Democrats were not fully ousted from government until 1869.
As Reconstruction continued to grind the South into ever lower levels of poverty, the political agenda revolved ever more around the subject of race. One of the first “progressive” moves by the Republican Party was to begin public funded education. In particular, this was seen as necessary to uplift the former field hands who, under slavery, were taught little more than how to work in gang labor. Education, along with numerous other state funded projects, cost money.
In 1869, land tax was only 10 cents on each dollar of accessed value. By 1874, that tax had risen to $1.40. Along with the crushing national economic depression of 1873, Mississippians were finding it difficult to live, much less pay their real property taxes. By 1875, a full 27% of Mississippi’s land area had been forfeited in taxes. As would be expected, a number of tax riots broke out across Mississippi in 1875. Violence was particularly bloody in Vicksburg, Yazoo and Clinton; where in the latter, 50 blacks were killed.
The old Whig leadership now saw their policy of conciliation to be foolish. They realized that Mississippi, as had the whole of the South, been victim to the treachery of Northern Democrats and Republicans. Former Whigs crossed over and once there quickly took control of the Mississippi’s Democrat Party.
The Mississippi Plan
It is difficult for us today to fathom the kind of freedom whites had prior to the War Between the States. Their contrast with African-Americans held in slavery also cannot be adequately described. Thus, we are disadvantaged when trying to understand the shock and disorientation Southerners had after the war. Neither can we fathom what they suffered during the war; these were hard men who had survived horrific battles and depredations. Although we, today, are appalled at the barbarity of their acts, they would defend them as necessary under the circumstances.
Around the time of 1875, the Democrats formulated a scheme to retake control of state government that is now called The Mississippi Plan. The details were simple: Forge a solid Democrat front of candidates; as Negroes were the single largest voter block, persuade them if possible, and intimidate them if necessary; stuff ballot boxes with Democrat votes; destroy Republican ballots; where possible with illiterate Negroes, substitute Democrat ballots for Republican ones; miss-count Republican ballots in favor of Democrat ones. This method of taking political control spread all through the south; Democrats took control as state Republican parties were left almost exclusively to blacks.
Carpet baggers headed north and Negro vote dropped dramatically with the new voter qualifications. Coincidentally, the presidential election of 1876 found Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in a dead tie with Democrat Samuel Tilden. To break the deadlock, Hayes cut a deal with the Southern states to end military occupation in return for Congressional support. Thus, Democrats put still another Republican into the White House. In return, the last Federal occupying forces left South Carolina in 1877.
Mississippi Constitution of 1890
Sir, it is no secret that there has not been a full vote and a fair count in Mississippi since 1875, that we have been preserving the ascendancy of the white people by revolutionary measures. In other words, we have been stuffing ballot boxes, committing perjury, and here and there in the state carrying the elections by fraud and violence. The public conscience revolted, thoughtful men everywhere foresaw that there was disaster somewhere along the line of such a policy as certainly there is a righteous judgment for nations as well as men. No man can be in favor of perpetuating the elections methods which have prevailed in Mississippi since 1875 who is not a moral idiot.
Democrats kept up a united front until the late 1880s. At that time, old tensions began to reveal cracks between farmers, merchants, and bankers. It had been a full 15 years since the end of the war and whites were no longer voting in a solid bloc. Indeed, some of the tactics used to control the black voters were now being used against other white candidates. Clearly, the whole body-politic had been corrupted.
Rather than see the situation continue to deteriorate, a growing sentiment drove whites to forge a new state constitution codifying discrimination against African-Americans. The methodology was simple: Require a poll tax and literacy as a prerequisite to vote.
The effect was immediate and quite dramatic. In 1890, Mississippi had 70,000 more black voters than whites. In just two years, the new prerequisites had eliminated all but 8,615 black voters. Of course, whites were not unaffected. In 1892 the number of qualified white voters had been nearly cut in half.
By today’s standards, a $2.00 poll tax seems trivial. However, based on an average annual income of $411 per year, the tax was nearly ½ percent. In inflation terms, $2 would have the same buying power as about $40.00 today. Of course, ½ percent of today’s average annual income would be about $150.00. Clearly, the literacy requirement had the most effect on voting.
By 1900, the number of white voters had shrunk to where only 20 percent of eligible white voters paid the poll tax.
The Populist Revolt
Farm prices declined sharply during the later years of the 19th Century. The southern “Redeemers” or “Bourbons” as they were called favored industrializing Mississippi. Remember that the Democrat Party had been virtually taken over by the old pro-banking Whigs. Naturally, this same leadership also favored railroads.
When railroads entered the state, their routes followed lines favorable to the rapid laying of track. Hence, many of the original towns were bypassed and so either died, or “moved” to the rail lines. This naturally generated some enmity. Later, when farmers grew dependent on the “roads” to move their product to market, America entered the age of the “Robber Barons.”
From 1875 on, Mississippi farmers increasingly felt that the Democrat leadership favored industrialization at the farmer’s expense. Of course, the same system that failed to protect the freed slaves also overlooked the poor class of white farmers. In this way, populist movements such as The Grange, Populist Alliance, and Farmer’s Alliance gained support from 1888 onward. Ironically, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 that worked to suppress blacks also suppressed the white populist vote.
By 1900, the populist movement had died out. Still, the demand from small farmers and woodsmen kept pressure on politicians until a primary system was adopted in 1903. Capitalizing on white unrest, James K. Vardaman ran for governor in 1903. Essentially, he blamed all of Mississippi’s woes on banking, big business, and the totally disenfranchised blacks.
In Vardaman’s time, he was considered a liberal- a “progressive”- that worked for higher taxes, abolition of child labor, improved public education, public health, and other “populist” causes. In contrast, his other major plank was race-hate.
Equally difficult to understand today was the relative social ease blacks had in the post- war south. True, Federal troops and plantation owners did work together to enforce the Black Codes. True, most blacks, having been field laborers, had little, if any, education. However, there were wealthy black planters, business owners, and government officials. Prior to 1888, if an African-American had the money, he could travel 2nd class on coaches and sometimes 1st class. If he had to eat at segregated tables, at least he could eat in the same restaurants as whites. Provided that they were voters, blacks did serve on juries and blacks could be members of “white” churches. In fact, particularly if they had been house slaves, blacks continued to be members of white churches on into the 1960s.
However, Vardaman knew that the poor white voters resented earning the same wages as blacks. He played on this resentment by bringing up race-hate into every speech: blacks were not unlike “hogs” being a “lazy, lying, and lustful animal.” Of course, there was little chance of black voter backlash since blacks were excluded from the Democrat Party. Being a Democrat virtually guaranteed election to most offices.
It should be noted here that Vardaman was born in Jackson County, Texas and raised in Yalobusha County, Mississippi. He read law and entered practice in Winona, Mississippi. He later edited a newspaper there, The Winona Advance. Vardaman moved down to Greenwood, in the delta, to edit The Greenwood Enterprise. He later founded The Greenwood Commonwealth. He entered politics in 1890 as a state representative from LeFlore County and was the Governor of Mississippi from 1904 to 1908 and U.S. Senator from 1912 to 1917.
Still, Vardaman’s political career was no cake-walk. Despite the myth of the “solid” Democrat south, the party was a fractured one. Most notable: the conservative (Whig) wing of the Democrat Party representing the interests of large delta planters, banks, and industry; and the liberal populist wing represented the interests of the “hills” of north- central and the Piney Woods of South Mississippi. In 1907, Vardaman formed an alliance with Pearl River state senator, Theodore Bilbo. Their machine dominated Mississippi for ten years.
Vardaman’s senate reelection bid was denied in 1918, largely over his opposition to the U.S. entry into World War I. Vardaman tried again for the U.S. Senate in 1922 but was again defeated. He then moved to Alabama where he died in 1930. The town of Vardaman, in Calhoun County, is named in his honor.
By 1930, cotton prices fell to a point below the cost of production. Mississippi struggled on until World War II brought military bases and Federal demand for farm produce into the state. A combination of farm mechanization and Jim Crow pressured blacks to migrate to the industrial cities of the North. Where the relative numbers of blacks and whites had been about equal immediately after 1865, after World War II, blacks became a decided minority.
It should also be noted that ultimately whites were not the victor in this civil-rights struggle spanning more than 75 years. In 1880, 60% of Mississippi farms were worked by their owners. By 1920, that number had fallen to about 20%.