The year 1866 was an eventful one in the history of this country. A bitter war was in progress between Congress and President Andrew Johnson over the question of the reconstruction of the States lately in rebellion against the National Government. The President had inaugurated a policy of his own that proved to be very unpopular at the North. He had pardoned nearly all the leaders in the rebellion through the medium of amnesty proclamations. In each rebel State he had appointed a provisional governor under whose direction Legislatures, State officers, and members of Congress had been chosen, and the Legislatures thus chosen elected the United States Senators for the Southern States in accordance with the President's plan of reconstruction. To make restoration to the Union full and complete nothing remained to be done but to admit to their seats the Senators and Representatives that had been chosen. In the mean time these different Legislatures had enacted laws which virtually re-enslaved those that had been emancipated in their respective States. For this the North would not stand. Sentiment in that section demanded not only justice and fair treatment for the newly emancipated race but also an emancipation that should be thorough and complete, not merely theoretical and nominal.
The fact was recognized and appreciated that the colored people had been loyal to the Union and faithful to the flag of their country and that they had rendered valuable assistance in putting down the rebellion. From a standpoint of gratitude, if not of justice, the sentiment of the North at that time was in favor of fair play for the colored people of the South. But the President would not yield to what was generally believed to be the dominant sentiment of the North on the question of reconstruction. He insisted that the leaders of the Republican party in Congress did not represent the true sentiment of the country, so he boldly determined to antagonize the leaders in Congress, and to present their differences to the court of public opinion at the approaching Congressional elections. The issue was thus joined and the people were called upon to render judgment in the election of members of Congress in the fall of 1866. The President, with the solid support of the Democrats and a small minority of the Republicans, made a brave and gallant fight. The result, however, was a crushing defeat for him and a national repudiation of his plan of reconstruction.
Notwithstanding this defeat the President refused to yield, continuing the fight with Congress which finally resulted in his impeachment by the House of Representatives for high Crimes and Misdemeanors in office and in his trial by the Senate sitting as a High Court for that purpose. When the vote of the court was taken the President was saved from conviction and from removal from office by the narrow margin of one vote,—a sufficient number of Republican Senators having voted with the Democrats to prevent conviction. It was believed by many at the time that some of the Republican Senators that voted for acquittal did so chiefly on account of their antipathy to the man who would succeed to the Presidency in the event of the conviction of the President. This man was Senator Benjamin Wade, of Ohio,—President pro tem. of the Senate,—who, as the law then stood, would have succeeded to the Presidency in the event of a vacancy in that office from any cause.
Senator Wade was an able man, but there were others who were much more brilliant. He was a strong party man. He had no patience with those who claimed to be Republicans and yet refused to abide by the decision of the majority of the party organization unless that decision should be what they wanted. In short, he was an organization Republican,—what has since been characterized by some as a machine man,—the sort of active and aggressive man that would be likely to make for himself enemies of men in his own organization who were afraid of his great power and influence, and jealous of him as a political rival. That some of his senatorial Republican associates should feel that the best service they could render their country would be to do all in their power to prevent such a man from being elevated to the Presidency was, perhaps, perfectly natural: for while they knew that he was a strong and able man, they also knew that, according to his convictions of party duty and party obligations, he firmly believed that he who served his party best served his country best. In giving expression to his views and convictions, as he usually did with force and vigor, he was not always considerate of the wishes and feelings of those with whom he did not agree. That he would have given the country an able administration is the concurrent opinion of those who knew him best.
While President Johnson was retained in office he was practically shorn of the greater part of the power and patronage that attaches to the office. This was done through the passage of a bill, over the president's veto, known as the Tenure of Office Act. The constitutionality of this act, which greatly curtailed the power of the President to make removals from office, was seriously questioned at the time, but it was passed as a political necessity,—to meet an unusual and unexpected emergency that seemed to threaten the peace and tranquillity of the country and practically to nullify the fruits of the victory which had been won on the field of battle. The law was repealed or materially modified as soon as President Johnson retired from office. The President also vetoed all the reconstruction bills,—bills conferring suffrage on the colored men in the States that were to be reconstructed,—that passed Congress; but they were promptly passed over the veto.
The rejection by the country of the Johnson plan of reconstruction, had clearly demonstrated that no halfway measures were possible. If the colored men were not enfranchised then the Johnson plan might as well be accepted. The Republican or Union white men at the South were not sufficient in numbers to make their power or influence felt. The necessities of the situation, therefore, left no alternative but the enfranchisement of the blacks. It was ascertained and acknowledged that to make possible the reconstruction of the States lately in rebellion, in accordance with the plan which had met with the emphatic approval of the North, the enfranchisement of the blacks in the States to be reconstructed was an absolute necessity.
The first election held in Mississippi under the Reconstruction Acts took place in 1867, when delegates to a Constitutional Convention were elected to frame a new Constitution. The Democrats decided to adopt what they declared to be a policy of "Masterly Inactivity," that is, to refrain from taking any part in the election and to allow it to go by default. The result was that the Republicans had a large majority of the delegates, only a few counties having elected Democratic delegates. The only reason that there were any Democrats in the Convention at all was that the party was not unanimous in the adoption of the policy of "Masterly Inactivity," and consequently did not adhere to it. The Democrats in a few counties in the State rejected the advice and repudiated the action of the State Convention of their party on this point. The result was that a few very able men were elected to the convention as Democrats,—such men, for instance, as John W.C. Watson, and William M. Compton, of Marshall County, and William L. Hemingway, of Carroll, who was elected State Treasurer by the Democrats in 1875, and to whom a more extended reference will be made in a subsequent chapter.
The result of the election made it clear that if the Democratic organization in the State had adopted the course that was pursued by the members of that party in the counties by which the action of their State Convention was repudiated, the Democrats would have had at least a large and influential minority of the delegates, which would have resulted in the framing of a constitution that would have been much more acceptable to the members of that party than the one that was finally agreed upon by the majority of the members of that body. But the Democratic party in the State was governed and controlled by the radical element of that organization,—an element which took the position that no respectable white Democrat could afford to participate in an election in which colored men were allowed to vote. To do so, they held, would not only be humiliating to the pride of the white men, but the contamination would be unwise if not dangerous. Besides, they were firm in the belief and honest in the conviction that the country would ultimately repudiate the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction, and that in the mean time it would be both safe and wise for them to give expression to their objections to it and abhorrence of it by pursuing a course of masterly inactivity. The liberal and conservative element in the party was so bitterly opposed to this course that in spite of the action of the State Convention several counties, as has been already stated, bolted the action of the convention and took part in the election.
Of the Republican membership of the Constitutional Convention a large majority were white men,—many of them natives of the State and a number of others, though born elsewhere, residents in the State for many years preceding the war of the Rebellion. My own county, Adams (Natchez), in which the colored voters were largely in the majority, and which was entitled to three delegates in the convention, elected two white men,—E.J. Castello, and Fred Parsons,—and one colored man, H.P. Jacobs, a Baptist preacher. Throughout the State the proportion was about the same. This was a great disappointment to the dominating element in the Democratic party, who had hoped and expected, through their policy of "Masterly Inactivity" and intimidation of white men, that the convention would be composed almost exclusively of illiterate and inexperienced colored men. Although a minor at that time, I took an active part in the local politics of my county, and, being a member of a Republican club that had been organized at Natchez, I was frequently called upon to address the members at its weekly meetings.
When the State Constitution was submitted to a popular vote for ratification or rejection I took an active part in the county campaign in advocacy of its ratification. In this election the Democrats pursued a course that was just the opposite of that pursued by them in the election of delegates to the Constitutional Convention. They decided that it was no longer unwise and dangerous for white men to take part in an election in which colored men were allowed to participate. This was due largely to the fact that the work of the convention had been far different from what they had anticipated. The newly framed Constitution was, taken as a whole, such an excellent document that in all probability it would have been ratified without serious opposition but for the fact that there was an unfortunate, unwise and unnecessary clause in it which practically disfranchised those who had held an office under the Constitution of the United States and who, having taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, had afterwards supported the cause of the Confederacy. This clause caused very bitter and intense opposition to the ratification of the Constitution. When the election was over it was found that the Constitution had been rejected by a small majority. This result could not be fairly accepted as an indication of the strength of the two parties in the State, for it was a well-known fact that the Republican party had a clear majority of about 30,000.
Notwithstanding the large Republican majority in the State, which was believed to be safe, sure and reliable, there were several causes that contributed to the rejection of the newly framed Constitution. Among the causes were:
First. In consequence of the bitterness with which the ratification of the Constitution had been fought, on account of the objectionable clause referred to, intimidating methods had been adopted in several counties in which there was a large colored vote, resulting in a loss of several thousand votes for the Constitution.
Second. There were several thousand Republicans both white and colored,—but chiefly colored,—who were opposed to that offensive and objectionable clause, believing the same to be unjust, unnecessary, and unwise; hence, many of that class refused to vote either way.
Third. There were thousands of voters, the writer being one of that number, who favored ratification because the Constitution as a whole was a most excellent document, and because its ratification would facilitate the readmittance of Mississippi into the Union; after which the one objectionable clause could be stricken out by means of an amendment. While all of this class favored and advocated ratification for the reasons stated, yet their known attitude towards the clause proved to be a contributary cause of the rejection of the Constitution.
The reader may not understand why there were any colored men, especially at that time and in that section, that would have any sympathy for the white men who would have been victims of this clause had the new Constitution been ratified. But if the reader will closely follow what this writer will set down in subsequent chapters of this work, he will find the reasons why there was and still is a bond of sympathy between the two races at the South,—a bond that the institution of slavery with all its horrors could not destroy, the Rebellion could not wipe out, Reconstruction could not efface, and subsequent events have not been able to change. The writer is aware of the fact that thousands of intelligent people are now laboring under the impression that there exists at the South a bitter feeling of antagonism between the two races and that this has produced dangerous and difficult problems for the country to solve. That some things have occurred that would justify such a conclusion, especially on the part of those who are not students of this subject, will not be denied.
After the rejection of the Constitution no further effort was made to have Mississippi readmitted into the Union until after the Presidential and Congressional elections of 1868. The Democratic party throughout the country was solid in its support of President Andrew Johnson, and was bitter in its opposition to the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction. Upon a platform that declared the Reconstruction Acts of Congress to be unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void, the Democrats nominated for President and Vice-President, Ex-Governor Horatio Seymour, of New York, and General Frank P. Blair, of Missouri. The Republicans nominated for President General U.S. Grant, of Illinois, and for Vice-President Speaker Schuyler Colfax, of Indiana. These candidates were nominated upon a platform which strongly supported and indorsed the Congressional Plan of Reconstruction.
On this issue the two parties went before the people for a decision. The Republicans were successful, but not by such a decisive majority as in the Congressional election of 1866. In fact, if all the Southern States that took part in that election had gone Democratic, the hero of Appomattox would have been defeated. It was the Southern States, giving Republican majorities through the votes of their colored men, that saved that important national election to the Republican party. To the very great surprise of the Republican leaders the party lost the important and pivotal State of New York. It had been confidently believed that the immense popularity of General Grant and his prestige as a brilliant and successful Union general would save every doubtful State to the Republicans, New York, of course, included. But this expectation was not realized. The result, it is needless to say, was a keen and bitter disappointment, for no effort had been spared to bring to the attention of the voters the strong points in General Grant. A vote against Grant, it was strongly contended, was virtually a vote against the Union. Frederick Douglass, who electrified many audiences in that campaign, made the notable declaration that "While Washington had given us a country, it was Grant who had saved us a country." And yet the savior of our country failed in that election to save to the Republican party the most important State in the Union. But, notwithstanding the loss of New York, the Republicans not only elected the President and Vice-President, but also had a safe majority in both branches of Congress.
One of the first acts of Congress after the Presidential election of 1868 was one authorizing the President to submit Mississippi's rejected Constitution once again to a popular vote. The same act authorized the President to submit to a separate vote such clause or clauses of said Constitution as in his judgment might be particularly obnoxious to any considerable number of the people of the State. It was not and could not be denied that the Constitution as a whole was a most admirable document. The Democrats had no serious objection to its ratification if the clause disfranchising most of their leaders were eliminated. When it became known that this clause would be submitted to a separate vote, and that the Republican organization would not insist upon its retention, no serious opposition to the ratification of the Constitution was anticipated. And, indeed, none was made.
The time fixed for holding the election was November, 1869. In the mean time the State was to be under military control. General Adelbert Ames was made Military Governor, with power to fill by appointment every civil office in the State. Shortly after General Ames took charge as Military Governor the Republican club at Natchez agreed upon a slate to be submitted to the Military Governor for his favorable consideration, the names upon said slate being the choice of the Republican organization of the county for county and city officials. Among the names thus agreed upon was that of the Rev. H.P. Jacobs for Justice of the Peace. It was then decided to send a member of the club to Jackson, the State capital, to present the slate to the Governor in person in order to answer questions that might be asked or to give any information that might be desired about any of the persons whose names appeared on the slate. It fell to my lot to be chosen for that purpose; the necessary funds being raised by the club to pay my expenses. I accepted the mission, contingent upon my employer's granting me leave of absence.
Natchez at that time was not connected with Jackson by railroad, so that the only way for me to reach the capital was to go by steamer from Natchez to Vicksburg or to New Orleans, and from there by rail to Jackson. The trip, therefore, would necessarily consume the greater part of a week. My employer,—who was what was known as a Northern man, having come there after the occupation of the place by the Federal troops,—not only granted me leave of absence but agreed to remain in the city and carry on the business during my absence.
When I arrived at the building occupied by the Governor and sent up my card, I had to wait only a few minutes before I was admitted to his office. The Governor received me cordially and treated me with marked courtesy, giving close attention while I presented as forcibly as I could the merits and qualifications of the different persons whose names were on the slate. When I had concluded my remarks the Governor's only reply was that he would give the matter his early and careful consideration. A few weeks later the appointments were announced; but not many of the appointees were persons whose names I had presented. However, to my great embarrassment I found that my own name had been substituted for that of Jacobs for the office of Justice of the Peace. I not only had no ambition in that direction but was not aware that my name was under consideration for that or for any other office. Besides, I was apprehensive that Jacobs and some of his friends might suspect me of having been false to the trust that had been reposed in me, at least so far as the office of Justice of the Peace was concerned. At first I was of the opinion that the only way in which I could disabuse their minds of that erroneous impression was to decline the appointment. But I found out upon inquiry that in no event would Jacobs receive the appointment. I was also reliably informed that I had not been recommended nor suggested by any one, but that the Governor's action was the result of the favorable impression I had made upon him when I presented the slate. For this, of course, I was in no way responsible. In fact the impression of my fitness for the office that my brief talk had made upon the Governor was just what the club had hoped I would be able to accomplish in the interest of the whole slate. That it so happened that I was the beneficiary of the favorable impression that my brief talk had made upon the Governor may have been unfortunate in one respect, but it was an unconscious act for which I could not be censured. After consulting, therefore, with a few personal friends and local party leaders, I decided to accept the appointment although, in consequence of my youth and inexperience, I had serious doubts as to my ability to discharge the duties of the office which at that time was one of considerable importance.
Then the bond question loomed up, which was one of the greatest obstacles in my way, although the amount was only two thousand dollars. How to give that bond was the important problem I had to solve, for, of course, no one was eligible as a bondsman who did not own real estate. There were very few colored men who were thus eligible, and it was out of the question at that time to expect any white property owner to sign the bond of a colored man. But there were two colored men willing to sign the bond for one thousand dollars each who were considered eligible by the authorities. These men were William McCary and David Singleton. The law, having been duly satisfied in the matter of my bond, I was permitted to take the oath of office in April, 1869, and to enter upon the discharge of my duties as a Justice of the Peace, which office I held until the 31st of December of the same year when I resigned to accept a seat in the lower branch of the State Legislature to which I had been elected the preceding November.
When I entered upon the discharge of my duties as a Justice of the Peace the only comment that was made by the local Democratic paper of the town was in these words: "We are now beginning to reap the ravishing fruits of Reconstruction."