Our Constitutions (Part 2)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, November 13, 2019


From the moment that the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, secession was in the wind, and it would come to Arkansas. But at first, Arkansans were not of one mind on the issue. Some felt that President Abraham Lincoln had the right and duty to put down the rebellion but did not want to fight fellow southerners. Others viewed Lincoln’s resupply of the fort as an act of aggression.

On March 4, 1861, the day that Lincoln was inaugurated, a secession convention was convened in Little Rock, divided between Unionists and secessionists. An almost evenly divided convention voted down secession in the early weeks, but angry delegates from the southern counties threatened to secede and fight on their own. On March 19, the convention worked out a compromise that called for an August referendum between secession and “cooperation.”

Governor Henry RectorYet everything changed after Fort Sumter. What seemingly pushed Arkansas over the edge was Lincoln’s call for 780 volunteers from Arkansas, which was firmly and angrily rejected by Governor Henry Rector, a secessionist “fire-eater” who defeated the candidate of the long-ruling Democratic Party machine, “The Family,” in 1860. When convention chair David Walker called the delegates back on May 6, Rector had already ordered an expedition up the Arkansas River to seize the federal arsenal at Fort Smith after doing the same at Little Rock. When the militia arrived at Fort Smith, they found that the federals had abandoned the fort and moved their supplies into the Indian Territory, a huge embarrassment for Rector.

After Tennessee seceded on June 8, 1861, the remaining resistance in the convention broke down, and later that day, all the delegates, except for Madison County Unionist Isaac Murphy, took Arkansas out of the Union.

The convention remained in session as a constitutional convention. Delegates readopted most of the 1836 constitution with changes. The delegates came to understand that they could make whatever changes to the constitution that they wished, and the conservatives, many of them former Unionists having been affiliated with the defunct Whig Party, decided to take control from the “fire-eaters.”

C.C. Danley, editor of the Arkansas Gazette, wrote in a letter that “…the conservative men of the convention should take charge of the affairs of the state and prevent the wild secessionists from sending us to the devil.” They did not disappoint. The new document would contain a number of reforms sought by Whigs and anti-“Family” Democrats. Outside of provisions pledging allegiance to the Confederacy, private banking, banned in the 1840s, was legalized; the state Senate was reapportioned for the first time in two decades; and the provision requiring that slaves accused of crimes be given impartial jury trials was removed. Emancipation of slaves was made illegal in all cases.

The convention’s biggest change was its move to throttle the powers of the governor. Governor Rector was still deeply unpopular with the conservative ruling class, a status which had only deepened after the seemingly impulsive expedition to Fort Smith. Plus, the remnants of the “Family” and its allies had never forgiven him for his insurgent challenge in 1860. But their motives went far deeper than animosity toward Rector, as Civil War historian James A. Woods pointed out: “The Whig-Dynasty leaders simply did not want change to get out of hand, so they took control of the new government. Thus the revolution against the Union would not become a revolution at home.”

Rector suspected that the convention would try to make some kind of move against him, as indicated in a note that he had written at the convention: “Col. Webb says that when the convention meets they will try to declare my office vacant.” The delegates cut the governor’s term from four years to two, and then diluted his war powers by placing them under the authority of a three-man board in which Rector had only one vote. Rector attempted to have the state Supreme Court strike down the provision shortening his term, but he was ignored. Rector’s authority was further undermined when General Thomas Hindman declared martial law in 1862 after blaming the governor for rampant inflation and war profiteering.

While viewing the act shortening his term as illegitimate, Rector still stood for a second term at the 1862 election, but was beaten by almost a three-to-one margin by Harris Flanagin, a New Jersey-born lawyer and former Whig who had settled in Arkadelphia. Flanagan, who was serving as a colonel in the Confederate Army in Tennessee, did not come home to campaign. An infuriated Rector delivered one final angry diatribe to the legislature before resigning almost two weeks early, leaving the state and its constitution in Flanagin’s hands just months before the Union Army marched into Little Rock. With the Union Army charge in Little Rock, Flanagin, his government, and constitution, began a retreat to Southwest Arkansas and increasing irrelevancy.