Since I came to Arkansas almost 40 years ago, nearly every Republican election or appointment has been routinely described as the “first since Reconstruction,” generally without much further reference. Again today, the House was said in press accounts to have gone Republican for the first time since the 1874 election.
That caused me to wonder about the Reconstruction Republican days in Arkansas. It was easy to guess that the agenda then and the modern-day GOP’s platform are a bit different. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas provides its usual stellar background:
The Republican Party of Arkansas was officially formed in April 1867. Quickly, Powell Clayton—a Union officer during the Civil War who moved to Arkansas to begin life as a planter early in Reconstruction—became the key leader of the party. During Reconstruction, Republicans were elected to state offices at all levels—including governor. This Republican dominance ended with the enfranchisement of former Confederate loyalists as Reconstruction ended in the state in 1873. Even after Reconstruction, the Grand Old Party (GOP) remained visible, with newly enfranchised African Americans joining white Republican loyalists in support of the party. Still, as a political minority, the Republicans who succeeded politically after Reconstruction beyond the local level were those who joined in electoral unions with populist coalitions. Disenfranchisement of black citizens, in the form of “reforms” passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in the early 1890s, ended any Republican viability.
Could the father of Arkansas Republicanism, Powell Clayton, win a Republican primary in 2012? From the Encyclopedia:
As governor, Clayton faced strident opposition from the state’s conservative political leaders who labeled him a “Radical Republican,” along with a serious outbreak of violence, aimed at African Americans and members of the Republican Party, led by the Ku Klux Klan during the presidential election in the fall of 1868. In this period, one Republican congressman was assassinated, and Clayton himself survived an attempt on his life. The governor responded to the emergence of the Klan more decisively than did the governors of most Southern states. He organized the state militia and used it throughout the state to suppress violence. His declarations of martial law in fourteen counties in 1868, despite conservative criticism to his actions, successfully ended Klan activities within the state early in his administration.
Clayton and the Republicans in the legislature accomplished much during the governor’s three-year administration. State bonds financed the construction of several railroads. Arkansas created its first free public school system. The administration and its supporters also formed the Arkansas Industrial University, the basis for the future University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). What would become the Arkansas School for the Deaf was established, and the Arkansas School for the Blind was relocated from Arkadelphia (Clark County) to Little Rock (Pulaski County).
Things got messy, though, and factions developed:
Additional opposition emerged in 1869 when a faction led by Lieutenant Governor James M. Johnson charged the governor with corruption in the issuing of railroad bonds and a misuse of power his attempts to suppress violence. Johnson’s backers, mostly white Republicans from northwestern Arkansas, proclaimed themselves to be supporters of reform and called themselves Liberal Republicans.
Whatever kinship might span the intervening years, I don’t think you’ll find many Northwest Arkansas Republicans willing to call themselves liberal today, with the exception of Rockefeller Republican Bob Scott. I don’t believe Loy Mauch would have associated with them, that’s for sure.