The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005
 

Arc v truth - a Mississippi tale


After the Swift Boat Veterans episode in the 2004 presidential campaign, no one reasonably wised up could doubt that received wisdom has no necessary connection with truth.

The vital thing is arc. Going right back to the Iliad and the Odyssey [1], what gives a story octanes is the journey [2] undertaken by a character we're made to care about [3].

And it's an easier sell when that journey is a variation on a familiar theme.

I'd be fairly certain that politicians back to the time of Homer have been employing the technique. It was certainly in vigour during the Middle Ages - for instance, Henry V's PNAC-style crusade to conquer France was full of it [4].

The arc works as much on defense as on offence, as much passively as actively. It simplifies as well as it dissembles; it glosses over facts that might contradict the message, or confuse voters about it.

It's a service to humanity, without which popular democracy would scarcely be possible.

(Really?

What do you think?)

Take the story of James Hill who, in the early 1880s, was internal revenue collector for Mississippi. Already, the reader may be sensing a tale of corruption (and quite possibly racial violence) in the offing: Good Old Boys doing what comes naturally, led by this fellow Hill.

Except that - Hill was a Negro. And a Republican.

There had been the takeover of state government by the Democrats in 1875/6, under what was discreetly known as the Mississippi Plan - coopting white Republicans under threat of pariahdom and dissuading Negroes from voting by violence or the threat of violence [5].

But that was far from the end for Negro voters in the Magnolia State: although whites abandoned the Republican party organisation in 1877, Negroes took it over [6], and (emphasis mine)
in some localities, notably in Jackson, where they maintained control until 1887, they were very strong.

So far as I'm aware, Negro control of Jackson ten years after the end of Radical Reconstruction is not part of the popular narrative of any group today!

And, with a Republican in the White House, Negro Republicans in the state got patronage jobs. Like James Hill.

Thus far, nothing too remarkable.

But then James Chalmers, a disappointed candidate for the Sixth Congressional District in the 1880 elections [7], balked by a gerrymander of the Sixth by the Democratic legislature, switched parties [8] and ran for the Second in 1882.

Chalmers and his confederates argued that the Negro Republicans were in league with the Democrats (led by the extravagantly initialled JQC Lamar): Negro leaders like Hill would be handed Federal patronage at the instance of the state's (Democratic) US Senate delegation in exchange for Negro voters being directing to split their tickets in favour of state and local Democratic candidates.

Hill also ran in 1882 - for the Seventh District. He lost - and Chalmers won, with the benefit of shenanigans in which Federal officials took part [9].

But Hill kept his Federal job and the patronage that went with it - and had the pleasure of seeing Chalmers lose in 1884:
Chalmers charged that [in 1884] Hill "manipulated the convention" in the third, fourth and fifth districts to secure the nomination of his henchmen for Congress.

No doubt, Chalmers was a sore loser; but to see a white man of his era whining about the superiority in chicanery of a Negro is in itself a little startling.

Later on, white Mississippians were able to legislate the Negro vote out of existence; but the period of Negro influence in the state in this interstitial period deserves not to be airbrushed from popular conceptions of history [10].

  1. That's pure name-dropping: to my shame, I've read neither. In English, let alone in the original.

  2. In some cases, literal as well as metaphorical.

  3. There is, of course, a vast tract of fiction to which this rule does not apply: neither Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple have arcs; nor do the Lone Ranger or Perry Mason. They are there to provide a familiar face to a mechanical plot frame.

    The non-recurrent characters in such stories have arcs of a sort; veneer on an otherwise rough and piece of furniture.

  4. I've mentioned before (October 19 2003) the Gesta Henrici Quinti, an account - probably from 1416 - of Henry's 1415 campaign in France (Harfleur and Agincourt) goosed up, it seems, for the purpose of exciting the fire-eating Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in supporting Henry's claims.

    Then, there was the assiduous correspondence of the king with his subjects (and creditors) in London; and the well-choreographed public rejoicing surrounding his return from France.

  5. The article on Mississippi from the 1899 Cyclopædia of Political Science has useful information. Grant even had to send Federal troops into Vicksburg to restore order. The whole work - index page - looks as if it contains nuggets.

  6. Albert Kirwan Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics 1876-1925 p 8.

  7. He was successfully barred from his seat on grounds of fraud in favour of his Negro Republican opponent, John Lynch (p9).

  8. Effectively, this was a new, lily-white, Republican Party, if I understand aright.

  9. The election officer at Byhalia, for instance, was arrested on polling day by a US marshal, so that voters in the town were disenfranchised.

  10. There is obviously no question that these details are in any way hidden; I'd suspect that there are plenty of studies of the topic in academic books and journals. And the copy of the Kirwan that I have is a 1964 reprint.

    But, as I've discovered over the last few years of following American politics relatively closely, the fact that information is publicly disseminated does not mean it is absorbed into the public consciousness. Even the consciousness of that small slice of the population actively engaging in political debate.


MORE

Hill has a high school named after him in Jackson; and died in 1901. (Quite when he was ejected from his Federal office, I'm not sure.)

He is namechecked in a bio of David Pierson, an Illinoisan who endowed the Longston school for freedmen at Holly Springs, MS; Hill was one of the students.

LQC Lamar - Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar - ended up in 1888 as a US Supreme Court justice - the article from the 1986 Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook runs to 13,000 words!

The first chapter of David Oshinsky's "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice describes the violent early years of Reconstruction in Mississippi.


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