Alcorn’s Administration

James L. Alcorn was inaugurated March 10, 1870. The State officers elected with him were, R. C. Powers, lieutenant-governor; James Lynch, secretary of State; Henry Musgrove, auditor; W. H. Vasser, treasurer; Joshua A. Morris, attorney-general; and to the new office of superintendent of education, Henry R. Pease. Powers, Musgrove and Pease were former officers in the Union army, who had settled in the State since the war; Vasser and Morris were old Mississippians; Lynch was a black from the North. When the legislature met, March 8, the lieutenant-governor addressed the senate, saying, “Our political status, which has been so long a source of anxiety and doubt, is at last fixed, by the re-admission of the State into the fold of the Union, and the restoration of civil law.” In his inaugural address, two days later, Governor Alcorn referred to his long association with Mississippi, and his sharing of the common lot of suffering and sorrow and humiliation. “A son of American liberty, whose heart is glowing with blood of 1776, I may, therefore, be pardoned for feeling; struggling for first utterance, on this occasion, the profound emotion with which I receive from the hand of the Conqueror, the crown of civic law, that, in a blending of pain and pleasure, I bind this blessed hour upon the queenly brow of Mississippi.”

The governor in his inaugural seeks to strengthen his influence with the new political elements by condemning the past. The ideas mainly advanced follow: The patriarchal groupings of the former days confined the workings of political organization mainly to the heads of what were called “families.” But after the change, the State government had to treat with each individual of that man’s “family,” twenty or five hundred. The system overthrown was one of duties limited, in a great degree, to 25,000 slaveholders, while the new system that day begun, would extend the full play of its powers to an additional population of 40,000 adult whites and 80,000 people of color, adopting the voting basis. The poor were not formerly given the same consideration as the rich. The poor white children of the State, permitted in the past to grow up like wild flowers, were now to be educated in public schools, also the children of the colored race. There should be a return for the burden of taxation of a full equivalent to every taxpayer, whereas there had been formerly but a partial return to two-thirds of the whites. He promised to use “the most conscientious care in his appointments to office.” “Our taxation will be, after the employment of the most zealous economy, extraordinarily large. Its application will, however, tend not to impoverish us, but to enrich us; for it will be directed to develop the productive powers of the State. . . . The world has adopted the industrial college and the public school, in concession of the principle that the highest production of wealth follows the combination of muscle and intelligence.” His attitude regarding the negroes was that “they must be protected in all their rights of persons and property, and, being placed not only in theory but in fact on exactly the same footing in the courts as all other citizens, shall be left free to pursue the race of life under a code which shall throw open all the rewards of success, intellectual or industrial, to be won regardless of the previous condition of the winner. The colored people are an infant nation, struggling to maintain themselves in the presence of intelligences more advanced than their own. And the first duty of a wise and paternal government is to protect the weak against the strong. . . . The most profound anxiety with which I enter my office as governor of the State is that of making the colored man the equal, before the law, of any other man – the equal, not in dead letter, but in living fact. . . . The poor and the weak of the whites are in need of our fostering help. In the neglect of their education, and the defenselessness of their industry, they must command the tender solicitude of the political system which is planted this day in Mississippi. . . . Our legislation in the interests of the poorer classes will be confronted, in traditions of centuries, by a great force of virtual nullification. . . . Wealth, intelligence, social position, have been always, as I trust they ever shall be, great powers in the State. During the present moment of passion, these are arrayed in large masses against the spirit of our forthcoming laws. . . . Our judges must be men of a standing that society cannot presume to ignore. . . . The duty which the incoming authority of this State owes to the poor, is, in every instance, a duty also to the rich. . . . The State ought not to impose any incumbrances whatever that may prove in the least injurious to the productive energy of labor. Any flagging in the earnest application of that power of production involves a direct loss of the income of the wealthy. . . . The system of free labor which we have crowned with political supremacy today, demands, that our taxation shall be made to bear with the least possible burden on industry.” The surplus income which had formerly been absorbed in the purchase of labor would hereafter be invested in enterprises. “The restless activity which the public mind begins to develop in that direction, is a cause of apprehension, and suggests that in that direction the wisest and severest scrutiny be applied. … In fact a mania of speculation threatens us. . . . The new administration . . . will set its face against additions to the public debt.” When the State and the counties and cities had reached the point where they could meet their ordinary expenses with cash, and not with paper at 20 to 30 per cent discount, it would be time to borrow money.

Throughout the session of the legislature, which was occupied with framing new systems of administration under the new constitution, and continued in session until July 21, 1870, the governor frequently discussed, in special messages, and with great freedom of expression, the problems of the time.

Assuming good intentions, the great fault of the era thus begun was the attempt to introduce all at once, systems of education, a development of colleges and charitable institutions, and an elaboration of government that the State was incapable financially of assuming. The people could not afford to build so many school houses, for instance, and besides, in the nature of things the school officers elected or appointed from the revolutionary party in power were peculiarly susceptible to the “graft” of book and supply agents. The legislature was equally susceptible to the schemes of railroad financiers. A gross blunder was the appointment, at first, of county officers by the governor. The sheriffs, constables, magistrates, county treasurers, assessors, were appointed by the governor for each county. The board of supervisors, who levied the taxes, were appointed by the governor. The supervisors appointed the county directors of schools. The superintendents of schools were appointed by the State board of education. ”

Sometimes men who have been sent into a county with their commissions in their pockets were never in the county before; knew nothing about the people, and possibly were not known to anybody residing there. The people had a contempt for such men; it was natural; I had a great contempt for them myself.” (Attorney-General Morris, before Cong. Comm.)

The legislature of 1870 was persuaded to pass a preposterous general railroad bill, which would turn the State bound hand and foot into the power of corporations. Governor Alcorn vetoed the bill, saying, “This is a government of the people. . . . These great aggregations of wealth are, I warn you, aggressive adversaries to the rights of the people.”

In view of the fact that a million dollars was leaving the State annually in payment of insurance premiums, though the warrants of the State auditor were selling at a considerable discount, he recommended that the companies be required to make deposits with the State treasury as security, and buy State warrants for that purpose. Such deposits were required, and made to the amount of over $200,000.

The balance in the State treasury, January, 1, 1870, was $546 and $795,000 in worthless paper.

The receipts in 1870 were $436,000; the disbursements, $1,061,-294. To provide for the deficit temporary use was made of the common school fund, $210,610; engraved notes of small denomination, known as certificates of indebtedness, were issued to the amount of $418,000. One of the main items of receipts was the cotton tax, $140,000. The main items of expenditure were, for legislature of 1870, $241,191. This and the printing bill for $52,000 were the most startling increases in expenditure, as compared with former years. The expenditures for courts was $220,399, but this was not a serious increase over 1861, considering that the new system relieved the counties of the expense of probate courts, and provided more terms of circuit court. Another large expenditure, was $120,000 for the repair of the public buildings, and for the State hospital, normal school, and revised code. The constitutional convention also required $41,494 out of the general revenues. Governor Alcorn figured that after the necessary extraordinary expenses were deducted, in each case, a comparison with 1861 did not warrant alarm.

One of the greatest problems of the administration was the establishment of an equable system of taxation. Theretofore the system had been for the protection and promotion of the planters, and the effort to equalize had a tendency to go to the other extreme. Governor Alcorn reported, in 1871 that political influences naturally colored the assessments and the work of the several boards of equalization. In some counties lands were valued too low and in others too high, according to the political predominance.

There was great extravagance in the building of new school houses, and in salaries of teachers, as well as in introducing French and music into the curriculum. In Issaquena county the county board had levied general taxes to the amount of nine times the State tax. “Contracts for courthouses, bridges, roads, are being let out in all parts of the State to an extent that threatens the people with grievous burdens. This state of things will go on, if not checked, to the full extent of a power that knows no limit within that of the avarice of men by whom it is wielded. . . . Washington is, I fear, not the only county in which the assessment may be supposed to be tainted by improper purposes. Issaquena is, I have every reason to suspect, not the only county in which the local taxation is fixed at a rate amounting to oppression.” (Journal Appendix, 1871, 422.)

Notwithstanding the great increase of expenditures, the expedient of certificates of indebtedness, for use as money, enabled the governor to say, “Thus does the close of the first year of the operation of the new order of things witness an advance of the State credit from 60 cents on the dollar to a value which is virtually par.” Many railroad companies, navigation companies and various enterprises were incorporated by the legislatures of 1870 and 1871. To ensure the completion of the New Orleans road to Aberdeen, as required in the original charter, the State surrendered, by act of 1871, what remained of the railroad stock (in four companies) it had bought with the Chickasaw school fund. Most of the stock had been lost in 1863-64 by allowing the companies to redeem it with Confederate money.

As required by the constitution the legislature (q. v.) met in regular session January 3, 1871.

After delivering his message, Governor Alcorn was notified, officially, of his election in January of the previous year, to the United States senate for the term beginning March 4, 1871. By accepting this election in the middle of his four years term as governor, he disappointed many of his supporters. In the senate he suffered the enmity of General Ames, who wrote to a colored member of the legislature March 30, 1871, that the governor had not protected the freedmen, but had allowed them to be killed by “tens and hundreds,” and had gained “power and favor from the Democracy at the price of blood and that the blood of his friends.” This accusation indicates the violence of faction within the party that was then in control, which made Alcorn’s presence as governor doubly desirable.

His recommendations of conservative expenditures were not effective. His administration found on the books as old State indebtedness, the Chickasaw school fund and interest, $966,439. This, with outstanding warrants, made the State indebtedness, January 1, 1870, $1,178,175. But the debt was increased in the same items, in 1871, to $1,796,230; and in 1872, to $2,377,342, mainly by the appropriation of the common school fund and the issue of bonds and certificate currency. Treasurer Vasser said these figures indicated either “profligacy in the management of the finances,” or inadequate revenues. The total disbursements of the treasury in 1871 were $1,326,161. The showing of receipts was $1,338,150, but $400,000 of this was school funds and certificates.

The State disbursements included $90,000 for the two universities, and smaller amounts for two State normal schools and two State hospitals, $111,000 to repair and maintain the Lunatic asylum, $163,000 for the educational funds, and $37,000 for the code. The judiciary expense was $377,000.

According to Governor Powers, (January, 1872), the increase of floating debt, with warrants selling at 65 to 85 cents on the dollar, ” presents a condition of affairs highly prejudicial to the present administration of the State finances. With only a nominal debt to contend against, with ample power and resources to meet every obligation at maturity, it is a profligate administration that permits the State to suffer an average discount of 35 per cent on every dollar expended. . . . The present treasurer has not, during his term of office, had at his disposal money enough to pay his own salary, much less to pay the hundreds of sight drafts that are monthly drawn upon the treasury. The office of State treasurer has become substantially an4 appendage to that of the auditor, and it may be abolished without any public inconvenience if the present management is to be continued. . . . It is an absurd attempt to conduct the finances of the State in utter disregard of commercial usage or justice, and will lead, if persisted in, to ultimate bankruptcy.” The same system ruled in the counties. “Irresponsible boards of police, now supervisors, have been invested with legislative powers, and been suffered, under shadow of law, to flood their respective counties with warrants upon the treasury until they have depreciated in value, in instances which have come under my own observation, to 25 cents on the dollar. When it is remembered that the counties are supposed to redeem finally in currency every dollar drawn upon the treasury, it is no wonder that the people groan under a burden of taxation which threatens to drive them into bankruptcy. A few brokers and speculators who are able to buy up and hold the depreciated paper in the counties, reap, it is true, a rich harvest, but it is spoils wrung from the hard earnings of the laboring masses; and the reckless use of county credit by the local boards, which enables heartless speculators to accumulate princely fortunes, sells at public outcry the tools of the mechanic and carries distress into the cabins of the poor.”

The Ku Klux operations continued into the administration of Governor Alcorn. The Meridian riot, March 6, 1871, (q. v.) was the subject of legislative investigation. Two months later, May 12th, there was a raid of armed men in Pontotoc. (See Ku Klux.) But in January, 1872, Governor Powers wrote, “The armed organizations of masked marauders which twelve months ago threatened to override law and paralyze industry in a few of the eastern counties, through the combined efforts of the few good citizens of those sections, aided by the officers of the general and State governments, have been entirely suppressed, and the people are now free to devote their entire attention and energies to bettering their material condition.”

It was the evident intention of the framers of the constitution of 1869 that the general elections should be biennial, and Federal and State officers should be elected at the same time. But the legislature began the elections in 1871, and as the Federal laws required the election of congressmen in even years, the State had annual elections, heavily increasing the burdensome expenses of government. A short time before the convening of congress, Governor Alcorn resigned, November 30, 1871, to take his seat in the senate.

He found that all his theories of good government based on negro suffrage were delusions, and failing in his efforts to control the ignorant hoard of his supporters, he abandoned the State House for the Senate. Public affairs were turned over to ignorant negroes, and dishonest carpet-baggers and scalawags.

Back to: Mississippi History

Source: Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, by Dunbar Rowland.

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