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A Portrait (Or Lack Thereof) Paints a Thousand Words

Old State House Museum - Monday, July 02, 2018

To say that Powell Clayton was not one of Arkansas’s most popular governors in his day would indeed be the grossest form of understatement. In the chaos and dislocation that gripped Arkansas after the Civil War, Reconstruction would for the most part be led by a carpetbagger who had gained his discipline and focus, and with it, his success as a military commander and planter. As governor, Clayton would use executive power more expansively (and as some claimed, heavy-handedly) than any of his predecessors. His defenders claimed that his approach was necessary in the violence and tumult of the years that he governed, while his critics charged that he left a legacy of corruption and near-dictatorship from which Arkansas would long struggle to recover.

Pennsylvania-born Clayton attended the Partridge Military Academy in Bristol, Pennsylvania, studied civil engineering and moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, to work as a surveyor during the first period of the territory’s growth, as well as engage in land speculation. While his family engaged in Whig, and later, Republican politics in Pennsylvania, there are accounts that on the eve of the Civil War, Clayton identified as a Democrat. He first entered politics in 1860 when he was elected as Leavenworth City Engineer. Enlisting in the Union Army at the start of the Civil War, Clayton, as a company commander in the First Kansas, showed early leadership qualities when his unit saw action in support of Lieutenant Colonel James Totten’s (commander of the Little Rock Arsenal during the crisis of 1861) Battery in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, in August 1861. His unit suffered severe casualties, and his company lost 49 of its 74 men. Cited for leadership, Clayton’s men fought with distinction at the Battle of Helena and accompanied Gen. Frederick Steele’s forces when Steele occupied Little Rock. As commander in Pine Bluff in 1863, he fought back numerous Confederate attacks and fought with Steele’s Camden Expedition in 1864, winning promotion to Brigadier General. Clayton was often said to be the best Union cavalry commander west of the Mississippi.

After the war, he acquired a Jefferson County plantation, married Adeline McGraw of Helena and ultimately owned 40,000 acres of land. Intending to be apolitical during Reconstruction, Clayton entered Arkansas politics due in part to confrontations with ex-Confederates on his plantation that convinced him that Unionists like himself needed greater protection. He became involved in the fledgling Republican Party and quickly became its leader. Elected governor in 1868, Clayton immediately faced opposition from the state’s traditional pre-war political leaders who labeled him a “Radical Republican,” along with an orgy of violence targeting newly freed African Americans and Republicans, led by the Ku Klux Klan during the 1868 presidential election. A Republican congressman was assassinated, and Clayton survived an assassination attempt as well. The governor responded to the Klan threat more decisively than other Southern governors, organizing the militia and used it throughout the state to suppress violence, declaring martial law in fourteen counties.

Clayton and legislative Republicans accomplished much during the governor’s tenure, including bonds for the construction of railroads, the state’s first free public school system, the creation of what would become the University of Arkansas, the Arkansas School for the Deaf and relocation of the Arkansas School for the Blind from Arkadelphia to Little Rock. Increasingly, the governor’s rivals within the Republican Party accused him of corruption in the issuing of railroad bonds and a misuse of power in his attempts to suppress Klan-related violence. In the midst of this split, Clayton was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1871 after the installation of a successor loyal to his faction. Party cohesion fell apart in Clayton’s absence, culminating in the Brooks-Baxter War and the return of the Democrats to power in 1874. As a result, the Democrat-dominated legislature refused to return Clayton to the Senate after his term ended in 1877.

Clayton remained committed to his adopted home state for the rest of his life. He returned to Little Rock to practice law and was a passionate advocate for economic development, as he was as governor. He later moved to Eureka Springs where he formed the Eureka Improvement Company, which spearheaded the construction of a railroad into the city and the construction of the Crescent Hotel, which is still one of the city’s showplaces. Clayton was also a key figure in the construction of the town’s street railway and would serve on the city board, where as its head, he successfully developed the sewer and water system. In the absence of Republican officeholders at the federal level, Clayton would control federal patronage during Republican presidencies until his death. He culminated his career with an appointment by President William McKinley as Ambassador to Mexico.

In spite of these accomplishments, Clayton’s memory would serve for decades as political cannon fodder for Democratic candidates. When President Theodore Roosevelt visited Little Rock in 1905, Governor Jeff Davis refused to attend a lunch in the President’s honor as it meant having to share a table with Clayton, who he claimed was responsible for his aunt’s death in the Pope County Militia Wars. Clayton’s portrait was conspicuously absent from the Old State House in the years when it was the seat of government, and it was not hung in the present day Capitol until 1978, sixty-four years after the former Governor’s death and burial in Arlington National Cemetery, the only Arkansas chief executive to be buried there. A copy also now hangs in the capitol where he served. This was a huge contrast to the disrespect that had been shown to Clayton and his memory for years even after his death by many people in his adopted home state.