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Just Can’t Get Any Respect

Old State House Museum - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

When visitors grace the stately first home of Arkansas’s state government, the story of Speaker of the House John Wilson fatally stabbing Representative Joseph J. Anthony after a debate in the House Chamber is one of the historical snippets of the building’s life that is prominently told to visitors.

Photo from: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/13113452/volney-voltaire-smith#view-photo=28559601Yet the solemn dignity of the structure that is almost immediately admired by the museum’s guest comes in contrast to events there that, well, let’s just say were a bit less dignified.

One such event was a side tale that worked itself out in the saga of the Brooks-Baxter War, which was the struggle that sought to settle the disputed 1872 gubernatorial election between Elisha Baxter and Joseph Brooks. The side tale involved Volney V. Smith, the state’s last lieutenant governor until Harvey Parnell in 1927. Smith was prominent in state politics during Reconstruction, and just a bit conniving. He was a New York transplant who settled in Lafayette County. He was wounded while serving in the First New York Mounted Rifles and later worked with the Freedman’s Bureau. After the war, he became prominent in the “Minstrels,” the Republican Party faction under the control of Governor Powell Clayton, and was elected lieutenant governor on a ticket with Baxter in 1872.

However, during the Brooks-Baxter War, Smith figured into a third scenario outside merely deciding between Baxter and Brooks. After Baxter was reinstated and a constitutional convention was called, the result was the election of Democrat Augustus Garland as Governor. After refusing to sign the new constitution, Smith contended in court that, as there was two years remaining on his and Baxter’s terms, Baxter had abandoned his office and Smith was the rightful Governor. He even appointed his own secretary of state and sold copies of the proclamation of his claim for a nickel each. Smith got out of the state just ahead of Garland’s militia, showed up in Washington to defend his claim to the office, described as “dirty, footsore, with cotton seed in his tangled beard.”He was nicknamed, among other names, “Vae Victis Smith” (“Woe to the Vanquished”). Others would call him “Vice Versa Smith” (due to his switching sides during the Brooks-Baxter War), and the moniker adopted by the national press, “Wee-Wee Smith.”

Photo from: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/13113452/volney-voltaire-smith#view-photo=25935615After being rewarded by President Grant with an appointment as Consul to St. Thomas Island, Smith landed back in Lafayette County in 1888, where he practiced law and dabbled in local politics. Years later, he was committed to the state insane asylum suffering from what was called “acute mania,” and was described as the cause of his death in 1897. Smith was remembered as one of the “carpetbaggers” who made his home and commitment to Arkansas for the rest of his life in spite of the notoriety of the events that he was caught up in. Of course, having lived through and for a time at the center of those tumultuous years, it’s a wonder that more politicos from that time didn’t go just a little batty.