Our Constitutions (Part 4)

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, December 17, 2019


By the end of Isaac Murphy’s term as governor in 1868, Arkansas government was nearly deadlocked due to its refusal to cooperate with federal policies on Reconstruction. When Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, the acts dissolved the legislatures of all Southern states except Tennessee (which had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment) and placed them under five military districts under an Army commander. Murphy’s record of cooperation allowed him to remain as governor, although his authority rested on the continuing presence of federal troops. Unionists and ex-Confederates, who now called themselves “conservatives,” distrusted one another more with each passing day. Every spiteful remark made by a Radical Republican (those who favored harsh punishment for the South and desired to remake it in their image) in Washington was indicative of the intentions even of native Unionists, while Unionists repeatedly claimed that each attempt by ex-Confederates to ignore federal policy simply meant that they had learned nothing from secession and war.

Unionist meetings at Van Buren and Fort Smith resulted in the calling of a Union State Convention in Little Rock in April 1867, which marked the political debut of General Powell Clayton, a Pennsylvania born ex-cavalry officer who had bought a plantation near Pine Bluff and was married to the daughter of a former Confederate major and steamboat captain from Helena. Clayton was a “carpetbagger,” a Northerner who had remained in the South after the war. Native Unionists came to be known as “scalawags,” which was also the name applied to low-grade farm animals. In time, such name calling of the Reconstruction regime, made a civil discourse unlikely.

Joseph BrooksThe atmosphere in which Unionists came together to create the third state constitution and government was, in a word, chaos. Murphy’s government was unable to extend its authority much beyond Little Rock, and the governor was ready to return to his native mountains of Madison County. Voters approved a new constitutional convention in October. With most ex-Confederates disenfranchised under the Reconstruction Acts (which contained a requirement for the “Ironclad Oath” that required all voters and officials to swear they had never supported the Confederacy), and armed bands terrorizing much of the state, a new coalition assembled in Little Rock on Jan. 7, 1868, to convene the state’s third constitutional convention in seven years. The Arkansas Gazette, then hostile to Unionists, attacked the convention as a “menagerie.” The convened delegates consisted of 48 Radical Republicans, 17 Conservatives and five delegates who were non-aligned. The Radical faction was divided itself into 17 carpetbaggers and 23 scalawags.

With the support of eight African American delegates, the carpetbaggers quickly took control of the convention. Thomas Bowen, a carpetbagger from Van Buren, presided as president of the convention, and carpetbaggers dominated the committees. It was argued that eight men controlled the writing of the constitution. Dominating the proceedings was Joseph Brooks, a former antislavery activist and Methodist minister from Iowa who was said to have a voice like a “Brindle-tail bull.” Others active in the proceedings were John “Poker Jack” McClure, a future Chief Justice, Arkadelphia delegate Miles Langley, who made a push for women’s suffrage, and black delegates W. H. Gray of Phillips County and James W. Mason of Chicot County. 

James MasonMason, the son of antebellum planter Elisha Worthington and a former slave, had been educated at Oberlin College and the French Military Academy. When Worthington fled to Texas, he left Mason in charge of his Sunnyside plantation in Chicot County. After the war, his son became the most powerful politician in the county.

The convention granted sweeping new rights to African Americans, including the right to vote, serve on juries, hold office and serve in the state militia. It established Arkansas’s first system of free public education for all races, although most schools would be segregated. It also provided for the establishment of a state university, which was to become the University of Arkansas. It undertook the first comprehensive redrawing of legislative districts in many years and in doing so, gave a greater voice to the Delta and the Southwest. It ushered in a revolution in government powers, giving the governor a four-year term and vastly expanding executive powers, especially the power of appointment. The governor was given the power initially to appoint county officials as well as all county tax assessors after elections were held for other county officials. The governor was also given the power to fill any vacancies in state, county and local offices and to decide which newspaper in a county would publish all legal notices. The governor was empowered to decide all patronage appointments and had the final authority in granting state credit to railroads, the credits also authorized by the constitution. Finally, the document disenfranchised any person who had sworn allegiance to the Confederacy or “who during the late rebellion violated the rules of civilized warfare.”

To loud objections from the helpless conservative bloc, the document was sent to voters in March 1868. The Union League worked to increase African American voter participation and helped 22,000 African American Arkansans register. The campaign, which was marked by fraud and intimidation on both sides, was centered on the issue of full civil rights for African Americans. While Republicans sought to effect a radical transformation of the state as well as to assure Republican ascendancy, their opponents pledged to maintain a “white man’s government in a white man’s country.” By a disputed vote of 27,913 to 26,597, the document was adopted, and at the same time, Clayton was elected governor. Arkansas’s third constitution since secession was adopted in an atmosphere of upheaval, which would not abate in the six years of its existence.