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Progress...and poverty

Old State House Museum - Friday, August 03, 2018

Much has been written about the wretched condition of the Old State House throughout much of the history it served as Arkansas’s seat of government. But often overlooked is that many of the people that Arkansans elected to serve them in the people’s house were as hard up financially as their government was, and it was reflected in the condition of both.

A grand building occupying an impoverished seat of government in a poor state was a physical manifestation of the state’s economic condition in its early days. As the Old State House suffered from a dearth of funding for both construction and maintenance, several of its occupants fared no better in their personal finances. The governor’s salary started at $2,000 a year ($54,191 in 2018 dollars), which was later cut to $1,800. Only the better-heeled of Arkansas’s early political elite, such as members of “The Family” (a powerful group of Democrats who dominated Arkansas politics in the years between statehood and the Civil War), could afford the financial sacrifice that came with public service in the still-underdeveloped capital city. Not only were the salaries a pittance, but unlike today’s first family, there was no official residence, nor even an allowance for living in the capital.

Old State House - 1864Thomas S. Drew, Arkansas’s third governor, was the kind of officeholder suited by neither background nor income for high public service in those days. A Tennessee native like his predecessors, he made his living variously as a peddler, schoolteacher, farmer and railroad speculator, all of which produced for Drew unstable financial prospects even into his days in politics. Drew faced the same dilemma as his forerunners: the damage to the state’s credit in the banking crisis, a need for internal improvements and vanishing revenue. While an increase in the base and rate of the property tax was passed at Drew’s urging, Arkansas still teetered on bankruptcy. It was apparent that the state’s fiscal condition mirrored that of its chief executive. In spite of friction with The Family after supporting an anti-Family candidate for the Senate in 1848, he reluctantly ran and was reelected with almost no opposition. However, he only did so in return for a pledge by his supporters to raise the governor’s salary, then, as previously mentioned, $1,800 a year. When the legislature reneged, Drew abruptly resigned, nearly broke from losses in land and railroad speculation, and would later die in near-poverty.

House of Reps. assembly hall c. 1909This condition did not improve after the Civil War and Reconstruction with the adoption of the 1874 Constitution. The governor’s salary was slashed to $3,500 a year (from the $10,000 a year under the Radical Reconstruction government beginning in 1868, but more than before the Civil War), all the way down to legislative salaries of $6 per day. Further, those salaries could only be changed by means of a constitutional amendment approved by the voters, which did not happen often. The neglect of the well-being of the state’s elected officials and their families continued to mirror that of the seat of government where they served; routinely, the General Assembly cut the funding requests of succeeding Secretaries of State for both maintenance and improvements to the building by half, placing the emphasis on quick cosmetic repairs rather than the structural issues that increasingly imperiled the old landmark. While independently well-to-do men increasingly occupied that office in the last years at the Old State House, it masked the fact that subsequent governors often had to subsidize the costs of their service from their own personal nest eggs. James P. Eagle, who served as governor from 1889 to 1893, was probably the exception to that rule, having been a minister who had headed the Southern Baptist press in Arkansas before entering politics.

Old State House circa 1906Yet, while falling ceilings and structural decay, among other maladies, took its toll on the stately seat of government and brought about the construction of a new State Capitol, the process of providing for renewal of the old structure as well as the proper compensation of elected public servants would take much longer to accomplish. Even after the first restoration of the Old State House, Arkansas’s chief executives often dealt with financial struggles: Harvey Parnell, who served from 1928 to 1933, declined reelection and entered the more lucrative federal service; Orval Faubus, despite his record tenure and power, left office in debt, which grew through the years (He even worked for a time as a bank teller), and would not be paid off until he was almost 80; and David Pryor, with a young family when he entered office, was forced to take out a personal loan early in his term. Fortunately, his salary was raised in his second term, and in time, both this stately old house and the occupants of the new seat of government would be maintained by the people in a manner more appropriate to the station in our state’s life both now hold.