Scenes of the Carpet Bag Reign in Mississippi
As Portrayed by Hon. H. M. Street in the Picayune.
MERIDIAN, Miss., July 5. – The election in 1869, by which the constitution of that year was adopted, was such in name only. The adoption of the constitution was the only relief from an unfriendly military government. There was but one voting precinct for each supervisor’s district – five to the county. United States soldiers were at each precinct. On the second day the boxes were carried to the courthouse with the ballots uncounted, and the election continued for the benefit of all who failed to find the voting place the first day. The apportionment was entirely arbitrary. Tishomingo, then the largest county in the state, was given two representatives, while Warren, with a smaller population, was given five. General Adelbert Ames, who was a candidate for the United States senate, was commander of the military district, and had absolute control of the election machinery. The bottom rail was put on top and remained there, propped up by bayonets until the cyclone of 1875. In the first legislature under the constitution the Democrats had seven senators and twenty-four representatives. The senators were J. M. Stone, of Tishomingo; Stricklin, of Tippah; Duncan, of Yalobusha; Castles, of Choctaw; Johnson, of Carroll; Watts, of Newton, and T. J. Hardy, of Jones. Stone, Castles and Hardy are now living. The representatives were C. B. Mitchell and S. H. Wood, of Pontotoc; A. T. Roane, of Calhoun; Hemingway, McKenzie and Pittman, of Carroll; Hunt and Wells, of Tippah; Eli Phillips, of Itawamba; Graham, of WInston; I. L. Bolton, of Newton; H. C. Greer, of Neshoba; Street and Johns, of Tishomingo; Rowland, Jones and H. K. Mister, of Yalobusha; Conner and Dr. Hart, of Choctaw; Tom Maxey, of Rankin; Currie, of Smith; Collins, of Jones; Dr. Gillis, of Covington; Dr. McLeod, of Green, and George Hartfield, of Perry. Half of those are now living, and if Judge Currie, of Smith, is alive, there are thirteen of us, some of whom still adhere to the Jacksonian doctrine of sound money.
A new apportionment was made in 1871, under which the election of that year was held. While not fair, it was an improvement on the old one. A determined effort was made to capture the lower house. The close counties were Chickasaw, Marshall, Copiah and Lauderdale. The Democrats carried them all, but failing to carry DeSoto, with five representatives, and the only black county for which there was reasonable hope, the Republicans still had a majority and used it to unseat the Democrats from Copiah and Lauderdale, and two of the four from Marshall. Dr. W. F. Hyer and John Calhoun, of Marshall, retained their seats. The Democrats, led by General Robt. Lowry, of Rankin, and Colonel J. R. McIntosh, of Chickasaw, made a gallant fight for all the contestees, but eloquence and arguments counted for nothing.
At the election in 1873 the Republican majority was increased as a result of a want of organization and effort on the part of the Democrats. The complexion of the Republican side changed from a white majority in 1870 to two-thirds colored in 1874, showing the negroes had determined to hold the offices while they were doing the voting for the party.
Nothing approaching a true picture of the legislature from 1870 to 1875 can be drawn at this late day. To those who saw it or took part in it, it seems more a dream than reality. It is difficult to realize that the events of that time were the lawful acts of a regularly organized state government.
The legislature was composed of all sorts, classes and colors from the freckle-faced blond to the coal black son of Ham. An old man named Dansby held a certificate as representative from Jasper. He rented a shanty in which he and his wife lived. He worked on odd jobs of carpentering, except when some one wanted his vote in the house bad enough to compete with the outside man for his time. When there was no such urgent demand he would answer to roll call, draw his $8 and return to his job work. Aaron Moore, a very good blacksmith, now residing in Jackson, hailed from Lauderdale, and drew an $8 warrant each day for holding down a chair in representatives’ hall. Late in the summer of 1870 a resolution was introduced to adjourn sine die. Aaron rushed to the author and besought him to withdraw the resolution, saying he had purchased a house and lot in Meridian and wanted another month’s per diem to pay it out.
The reconstruction constitution having reduced the requisite number of square miles for a county, there was a general rush for new counties, and many were created. Most of them were made without trouble or expense. Colfax (now Clay), and Union, being the only exceptions. It was reported that a special tax was levied on the property of West Point to pay the expenses incurred in having the county created. The bill was opposed by the Democrats because it was purposely drawn by the Republicans so as to take more whites than blacks from Chickasaw in which the two races were about equal. Marshall, another close county, was mutilated for the same purpose by exchanging a white corner for a black one with DeSoto. The old line has since been restored.
In the apportionment of representatives only one member was allowed in some cases to two counties. These counties were all white, and cutting off representation reduced the chances of Democratic success. An amendment was proposed giving each county a representative. The Clarion next morning contained the following speech in opposition to the amendment:
“Mr. Speaker: I’se ‘posed to de ‘menment of de gentleman over dar. Dis thing of giving every county a representer is a very ‘spensive observation. ‘Sides dat, Mr. Speaker, it means mo’ Democrats, and dats jes what we don’t want. ‘Nough of dem here now. Dis ‘menment hadn’t ought to pass and I moves to lay it on the table and on dat I move the previous question.”
The speech was made by Randle Higgins [writer seems to be combining David Higgins and Randle Nettles], an Oktibbeha negro. Some member told him the paper had slandered him, and advised him to lay the matter before the house. He sent the paper to the clerk’s desk and had it read. The only serious face in the hall was Higgins’. As soon as the speaker could control himself he asked what the gentleman from Oktibbeha desired? “Mr. Speaker, I want a vote tuck to see who writ dat,” was Higgins’ reply. As the matter was not put in shape for a vote, the reporter was not called to account.
Gilbert Smith answered to the name of Smith, of Tunica. He introduced and advocated the passage of a bill to allow all members of the legislature to practice law. He said: “One lawyer says the law is this, another lawyer says the law is that and another lawyer says he don’t know what the law is. We makes the laws and knows what they is, and the lawyers say they don’t know.”
An occurrence that caused some comment was the partnership of the Pilot and Clarion, in the public printing. There were two Republican candidates – Kimball and Raymond, of the Pilot, representing the Ames wing of the party, and Alcorn and Fisher, of the Alcorn wing. Several Democrats were inclined to vote with the weaker or conservative wing, but finally consented to the other combination. It was feared when the joint convention met that an adjournment would follow without a ballot, so that Republican differences could be harmonized in caucus. To prevent this it was arranged that whatever point of order was made against adjournment should be sustained by the presiding officer. This was done. The Republicans divided and the Democrats voted for Power and Barksdale. Before the result was announced the votes were changed to the other candidates. To prevent a stampede of the negroes the first Democratic change was to Alcorn and Fisher. The changes to Kimball and Raymond were made quietly and those to Alcorn and Fisher so as to attract attention, some being reported two or three times. When the result was announced, the Republicans seemed in doubt as to whether they had won or lost. In a few days the Alcorn and Fisher party presented a bill reducing the cost of printing. The Democrats united with them and passed it, greatly reducing the profits of the public printers. This measure could not have passed if the Republicans had been harmonious.
Want of harmony was noted at the called session in 1873, when it was proposed to postpone the State election for one year, as the only way to defeat Ames. The feeling was so intense between the two wings of the Republican party that a Democrat was elected speaker of a body two-thirds Republican. The bill postponing the election passed the house easily, but never came to a vote in the senate. The vote in that body was close and one or two senators were admitted to seats which they had forfeited by accepting other offices. The seat of Morgan, of Yazoo, was declared vacant after several days’ filibustering. Senator Mygatt belonged to the Ames wing, but it is said that he placed himself in the hands of the other side and agreed to go wherever they directed. He was put under guard and sent off, but was captured and returned by the regulars.
At the session of 1872 the seats of several Democrats were contested, and two each from Copiah, Lauderdale and Marshall were unseated. In the Lauderdale case it appeared that the day before the election a number of negroes were hired to go up the Alabama Great Southern Railroad to remove a wreck. They did not return in time to vote, but would have voted the Republican ticket. This was charged as a Democratic trick, and was one of the grounds upon which the Democrats were unseated.
There were a few old time negroes that desired to act and vote with the Democrats on nonpolitical questions. I remember Tom McCain, of DeSoto, and Alfred Walker [Jefferson C. Walker?], of Monroe, who were conspicuous in that respect, but they could not resist the dictates of a caucus. The contrast between then and now is such that the scenes then enacted are now more like a dream than reality. We were fortunate to come through it all as well as we did.
About the time the Legislature adjourned in the spring of 1875 the writer was told by a prominent, dissatisfied Republican that President Grant would not interfere in the next State election, and that if the Democrats did not win it would be their own fault. There was no interference and the Democrats did win, working the most complete revolution in the history of American politics. The Republicans had all seven State offices and six of them for an unexpired term of two years. They had the three supreme judges, the fifteen circuit judges and twenty chancellors, with two-thirds of the Legislature and the same proportion of county officers. The Democrats elected nearly nine-tenths of the members of the house, but by reason of holdover Senators they secured one less than two-thirds of the Senate. General Chalmers was the only Democratic contestant, and he easily secured the seat to which Sullivan, of Bolivar, had been returned as elected. This strengthened the Senate as a court of impeachment, and the tables were turned on Governor General Ames and his lieutenants. He resigned to avoid impeachment. Davis and Cardoza, lieutenant Governor and superintendent of education, were both convicted and removed from office. On the 1st of May, 1876, the only Republican judicial officer in the State was Judge Simrall, of the Supreme court. Jim Hill, secretary of State, was not disturbed, nor was there any disposition to disturb him. The Democrats were glad of an opportunity to show that it was crime and not color they were after. It must not be assumed that all Republicans were bad. There were many honorable exceptions, who suffered from the same misfortunes that befell old dog Tray. Judge Niles, of Atlanta, father of United States Judge Niles, was an able and conscientious man and a Republican from principle. He was a member in 1870. Other names could be given, but I have written enough.
H. M. STREET.