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Powell Clayton:
Martial Law and Machiavelli

The truth was that in Arkansas Clayton faced a situation unique among the Reconstruction states. Because half of Arkansas was mountainous and slavery had flourished late west of the Mississippi River, freedmen made up only a fourth of the population. Similarly, because of the poverty of the region, Arkansas had attracted fewer Northern immigrants after the war than other Southern states. The Gazette estimated the figure at 1,500. This figure is probably conservative, but even if you double it and factor in the freedmen and the native Unionists, the Republicans still found themselves outnumbered by their Conservative opponents by better than two to one. In order to govern Clayton had to disenfranchise a portion of the electorate larger than that which supported him. The political violence gave him a convenient rationale for doing so.

The measured and calculated manner Clayton went about the imposition of martial law supports this notion of its Machiavellian motivation. Although he was sworn in on July 4, 1868, he made no move to form a militia until after the General Assembly departed at the end of the month, assuring that there would be no objections by the Arkansas Unionists. Then on October 27, 1868, Clayton announced that due to lawlessness no elections would be held in Ashley, Bradley, Columbia, Craighead, Greene, Lafayette, Mississippi, Sevier, Sharp, and Woodruff Counties. The effect of this was to deliver Arkansas for Grant on November 3rd. The day after the election, Clayton vowed that "the state government must be sustained at the point of a bayonet if necessary" and declared martial law in Ashley, Bradley, Columbia, Craighead, Greene, Lafayette, Little River, Mississippi, Sevier, and Woodruff Counties.

Ironically the list did not include the scenes of some of the most infamous of the cited atrocities. Monroe County where Hinds was assassinated was conspicuously absent; as was Crittenden County where six men had been killed in ten days. Fulton County, where Simpson Mason died, was not on the list; nor was White County, where Wheeler was assaulted; nor Drew County, where a deputy was tied to a freedman and both killed. Conway County, where Clayton and Garland had brokered peace together, gained no mention. Clayton was similarly mute regarding Pope County, the most notorious killing field of Reconstruction Arkansas. Clayton had selected the counties with extreme care. As historian John I. Smith has pointed, the counties all shared four traits: all had largely white populations; all had voted heavily against the Reconstruction constitution; "their leading towns lacked influential newspapers like those of Little Rock, Fort Smith, Helena, Fayetteville and Pine Bluff;" and none had a prominent Arkansas Unionist legislator to plead their case. The implication is that they were chosen because they were vulnerable.

Three years later, in a speech given in January of 1871, Clayton would in fact cite political expediency as his justification for martial law:

"…It was an indisputable fact that at the time mentioned, there was throughout the state a widespread disposition to disregard the authority of the state government, and to throw obstacles in the way of enforcement the enforcement of its laws. In some localities this disposition seemed to pervade the minds of a majority of the people. It was apparent to the party in power that in these localities the election of local officers would result in the selection of men who would labor more earnestly to obstruct and render negatory the laws they considered to be oppressive and of no binding validity, than for their enforcement, and the friends of the state government would be subjected to persecution without means of redress…."
Clayton defended the suspension of the democratic process, then, on the grounds that it might have led to the election of those who disagreed with and actively opposed the program of his party. He goes on to excuse this on the grounds that Reconstruction had to be given a chance to succeed:
"It was, moreover, thought to be necessary, in order to give the Reconstruction experiment a fair test, that all of the officers, as far as possible, both state and local, should be thoroughly in harmony with the state government."
At first glance this might seem extremely cynical. Closer examination, however, reveals the unmistakable naiveté of the true believer. Clayton was willing to bend the rules, even break them if necessary, because of his absolute certainty in his notion of Reconstruction.

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