Courage Beyond Secession: Gov. Isaac Murphy

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, March 25, 2020


Pennsylvania-born Isaac Murphy had pursued a notable career as a lawyer, teacher, farmer, local official, legislator and even prospective gold miner before the fateful day in 1861, when he stood for the Union and against secession during Arkansas’s state convention. The Civil War had just started, and most convention delegates supported plans to secede and join the Confederacy. He was the only delegate to stand firm in voting against secession, and he refused to sign the new state constitution that was enacted. After the convention, he returned to Madison County and resumed teaching, but fate and circumstances steered him to further acts of forward-looking choices that shaped the direction of Arkansas.

In April 1862, shortly after the Battle of Pea Ridge, Murphy fled to the Union lines and came under the Union Army’s protection. As a civilian member of Gen. Samuel Curtis’s staff, Murphy followed the army’s advance from Fayetteville to Helena.When Little Rock fell to Union forces in September 1863, he was positioned to take a leading role in postwar Arkansas.

President Abraham Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, better known as the “ten percent plan” on Dec. 8, 1863. The plan provided that, if 10 percent of men in a former Confederate state took oaths of loyalty to the U.S. federal government, then the state could reintegrate. The process, known as Presidential Reconstruction, attracted native Unionists like Murphy, who sought reconciliation with those he opposed on the secession question. He feared a harsher Reconstruction policy if the Radical faction of the Republican Party gained power.

There was considerable pro-Union sentiment in Central and Northwest Arkansas. A constitutional convention was called in January 1864, and after the new constitution’s approval, Murphy was elected provisional governor by acclamation. Murphy sought to calm the fears of ex-Confederates by promoting a moderate program that included expanding access to public education. He urged unity to help the state recover from four years of war.

The new governor initially faced the dilemma of a government that controlled little outside the capitol city, and in Murphy’swords, “under very embarrassing surroundings; without money power; without military power.” For a time, the very existence of Murphy’s government was dependent on the occupation troops of Union Gen. Frederick Steele. A decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court restoring the voting rights of ex-Confederates further undermined Murphy’s position and led to the election of a Democrat-dominated legislature in 1866.

Murphy stood his ground and urged lawmakers to cooperate with federal policies so the state could be restored to its place in the Union. He reached out to the former rebels by persuading President Andrew Johnson to pardon 125 high ranking former Confederate officials that had not been included in Lincoln’s “ten percent plan.”

However, Murphy’s efforts at reconciliation were for naught, because legislators ignored him.They rejected the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal rights for African American men. Then they legitimized financial transactions made under the Confederacy and made it illegal for African Americans to serve on juries, vote or marry white women. They also established pensions for Confederate veterans, which infuriated Unionists the most.Lawmakers accepted Murphy’s plans for a public school system and the creation of the University of Arkansas, but they fought against his other policies and routinely overturned his vetoes.

When Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress passed their own Reconstruction plan in 1867, they dissolved the Southern stategovernments and placed them under five military districts. Murphy alone among the Southern governors remained in place, but the military dismissed Arkansas’s legislature. Due to Murphy’s cooperation, Arkansas’s government largely was able to function even during the period ofmilitary rule. Murphy in turn took no action that could be construed as infringing on the military’s authority, which allowed Arkansas to avoid more stringent military directives that were experienced by states in the Deep South.

Confederate war veterans were denied the right to vote, which led to a state legislature dominated by Radical Republicans. A new state constitution was passed in 1868, and Murphy urged the new general assembly to support the new school system so that every child could gain “a thorough American education.” He then declared he would not be a candidate for reelection and yielded the reins of power to Gov. Powell Clayton in July 1868.

Now 69 years old, Murphy returned home to Huntsville, where he farmed, resumed his teaching career and served as a judge. He mostly shunned the public eye until his death in 1882, shortly before his 83rd birthday. Murphy’s chief legacies are the courage he showed by standing against secession before the war and by leading Arkansas to a viable and unified state government after the guns fell silent. He was, in the words of historian David Thomas, “a man of common sense, of good intentions and of scrupulous honesty.” In other words, he was just what Arkansas needed in tumultuous times.