Our Constitution (Part 5)

Old State House Museum - Monday, December 30, 2019

Any hopes that the government created under the Constitution of 1868 could bring peace to a state that had known turmoil for eight years were quickly dashed. Half the state was disenfranchised, and the bitterness lingered even after ex-Confederates regained their voting rights. 

Fair and honest elections were nigh-impossible in such an atmosphere, as the rising Ku Klux Klan became more brazen in its violent attacks against Republican officials and African American people. The upheaval advanced to its height with the assassinations of Republican Congressman James Hinds and ex-Confederate General Thomas Hindman, who urged conciliation.

Powell ClaytonGovernor Powell Clayton learned that the Klan planned to depose him and sent for federal troops to calm the chaos. When President Ulysses Grant refused, Clayton formed a state militia, and after declaring martial law in 14 counties, the governor’s forces eventually broke the Klan. But the violence demonstrated that his government, as well as its constitution, held a tenuous position.

While making some progress in railroad development and education, the Republican government was hobbled by continued election fraud, high taxes, mounting debt, internal division and corruption. After Clayton departed for the U.S. Senate in 1871, the Republican organization suffered further division between pro- and anti-Clayton factions.

After the election of Elisha Baxter as governor in 1872, a constitutional amendment was passed restoring voting rights to ex-Confederates. Baxter in turn appointed ex-Confederate Democrats, along with Republicans, to positions in government. Many of Baxter’s appointees had been serving in the legislature, so this resulted in 40 vacancies in the state assembly. A special election in November 1873 resulted in a near-Democratic sweep of those seats, giving them control of the legislature. As a result, fellow Republicans began turning against Baxter. It did not help his cause that allegations of fraud marred his 1872 victory over Joseph Brooks.

Elisha BaxterBaxter’s support for the Democrats’ call for a constitutional convention, along with his refusal to issue any more railroad bonds, sent shock waves through Republican ranks. His opponents, now led by former allies Clayton and Senator Stephen Dorsey, swung into action and filed suit in Pulaski County to void Baxter’s election charging ballot fraud. A compliant judge granted the motion, and on April 15, 1874, Chief Justice “Poker Jack” McClure swore Joseph Brooks in as governor.

Immediately, Brooks and a squad of armed men marched Baxter out of the statehouse at gunpoint. Soon both claimants to the executive chair organized militias, resulting in the Brooks-Baxter War of late April and early May 1874. President Grant refused to send troops, but he did recognize Baxter as governor, which settled the immediate crisis. However, from then on, the Republican-led government was living on borrowed time.

Most Arkansans were concerned about restoring stability to state government by 1874; who was governor had ceased to matter. In June, voters by a 10-to-1 margin approved the calling of a constitutional convention, and Democrats won 70 of the 91 delegate slots. They would have as firm a control as Republicans had six years earlier. The convention convened on July 17, 1874, and met until early September.

The document guaranteed full civil rights irrespective of race (a hedge against federal intervention), but otherwise undid many of the provisions of the 1868 document. The governor’s term was cut to two years; the office of lieutenant governor was abolished; other state constitutional officers were subject to election; elected officials received low salaries; and a simple majority could override the governor’s veto.

The delegates also limited the governor’s appointment powers and set low maximum rates of taxation, resulting in underfunded public services. The constitution also signaled a massive shift of power from the state’s executive branch to the legislature and local governments. Clearly a reaction to Clayton and the activist government under the Republicans, the constitution would become known as the “Thou Shalt Not” document.

When federal intervention did not materialize, Republicans despaired of stopping the progression of events. The constitution was approved by an overwhelming margin on October 13, 1874. Republicans refused to put a state ticket and disowned Baxter. The Democrats in turn offered him their nomination for governor, but he declined.

Augustus GarlandThey turned instead to Augustus H. Garland of Hempstead County, a former Whig who served in the Confederate Congress but was pardoned by President Johnson. He had been elected to the Senate, but the Radicals had denied him his seat. Garland’s support had been key in Baxter’s fight with Brooks. In the largest voter turnout up to that time, Garland was elected as governor without opposition, while Democrats dominated the legislature by margins of 31 to 2 in the Senate, and 80 to 10 in the House.

On March 4, Congress accepted the report of the Poland Committee, who had investigated affairs in Arkansas, which stated that the new government was legitimate and that Congress should not interfere. Reconstruction in Arkansas was over, and Clayton, who had fought the Democrats’ return, concluded,

The action of Congress on Arkansas affairs is conclusive. The validity of the new constitution and the government established thereunder ought no longer to be questioned. It is the duty of Republicans to accept the verdict, and render the same acquiescence which we would have demanded had the case been reversed.

The document that was produced in 1874 endures to the present day. Wary of potential changes that would weaken the limits on government, voters rejected attempts to call for a new constitution in 1918, 1970, 1980 and 1995. However, it has been amended 100 times, and the changes cover every situation from compensation of elected officials to the makeup of state boards, the initiative and referendum, and even the minimum wage.