Our Constitutions (Part 3)

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, December 04, 2019


Constitutional change during wartime often was overshadowed by issues more often than not having to do with matters of survival. Nonetheless, after Union forces occupied Little Rock on Sept. 10, 1863, the state began to move toward readmission to the Union in spite of the fact that Harris Flanagin’s Confederate state administration had fled to Washington in Southwest Arkansas and would hold at least nominal authority over about half the state until the end of the war.

After a period of rule under General Frederick Steele as military governor in Little Rock, the Union authorities began the process of reestablishing a loyal civil government under the terms of President Abraham Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” issued on Dec. 8, 1863. Better known as the “Ten Percent Plan,” it proposed that if 10 percent of a state's voter population swore allegiance to the future alliance of the United States as well as approving the emancipation of slaves, Reconstruction would then begin in that state. Lincoln also declared that all that had opposed and fought against the Union, with the exception of those ranking above colonel in the Army or lieutenant in the Navy, along with high ranking secessionists, would be pardoned, their property, except for slaves, restored, and their civil rights returned if they claimed allegiance to the Union.

Almost immediately after the proclamation was issued, Arkansas Unionists began taking the oath, and the 10 percent threshold had been met by early January. Due to wartime divisions, only 24 of the state’s 57 counties convened in Little Rock to draw up a new constitution on Jan. 4, 1864. With little debate, the delegates reinstated the 1836 constitution with fewer changes than they added in 1861. Some notable changes included abolishing slavery and repealing the ordinance of secession. Expressing the uncertainty that many Unionist whites felt about the freedmen’s status, the delegates did not spell out the rights of ex-slaves; this would be addressed by legislation. The 1864 document, unlike the original, provided for the popular election of the offices of secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and all judges. It also created the office of lieutenant governor.

On January 19, 1864, the convention elected Isaac Murphy, the lone holdout against secession in 1861, as provisional governor, and Calvin C. Bliss, a New England native who came to Arkansas before the war as head of a girls’ school and served as a Union Army officer, as provisional lieutenant governor. When the constitution was submitted to the voters in March, only 12,000 people voted. They voted to affirm the new document, as well as affirm Murphy and Bliss in office without opposition. After a conciliatory inaugural address in which the governor urged an emphasis on education, he urged unity in helping the state recover from the war.

Yet Murphy’s government had to deal with wartime realities for another year, and his government largely existed at the sufferance of General Steele’s forces, as half the state was under Rebel control, and the other half suffered under constant raiding from pro-Confederate irregulars. In Murphy’s first legislature, the lawmakers disenfranchised those who remained in Confederate service after January 1864, and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment the following year. When the war ended in April 1865, President Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, recognized the legitimacy of the Murphy government and the 1864 constitution, but huge changes were coming in 1866 and 1867, giving a new Congress dominated by Radical Republicans the opportunity to take control of Reconstruction away from President Johnson. In the spring of 1866, the Arkansas Supreme Court declared the law disenfranchising ex-Confederates to be unconstitutional. For Democrats, it was an electoral godsend in the 1866 midterm elections, as they overwhelmed the Unionists; not a single member of Murphy’s original legislature was returned for the 1866-67 session. Murphy urged the newly elected solons to cooperate with federal policies so the state could complete the process of rejoining the Union; he was promptly ignored.

Not only did the lawmakers brush aside Murphy’s advice and render the 1864 constitution increasingly irrelevant, but they appeared determined to take actions that distressed the governor and outraged Congress. Not only did the legislature reject the Fourteenth Amendment (which voided all Confederate debts, prohibited states from violating civil rights, reduced a state’s congressional representation when any adult male was denied the right to vote, and denied anyone who first took an oath to support the constitution, then supported the Confederacy the right to hold office), but legitimized financial transactions under the Confederacy, voted pensions for Confederate veterans, and denied many rights to ex-slaves, like the right to vote, serve on juries, to marry whites or to attend public schools. While these measures were milder than Arkansas’s Deep South counterparts, these were considered acts of defiance that compelled an enraged U.S. Congress to pass the Reconstruction Acts in 1867 over President Johnson’s veto. The acts effectively dissolved the legislature, as Arkansas would be joined with Mississippi in one of five military districts, in this case, under General Edward O.C. Ord. Unlike many of his counterparts, Murphy remained in office until the end of his term by cooperating with Ord. Unionist Republicans now sought to accomplish for the state what the Murphy government had been unable to do: to sweep away the remnants of the antebellum and Confederate-era institutions, and effect a comprehensive political, social and economic revolution.