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A TALE OF RECONSTRUCTION Of the turbulent career of Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, adventurer, operator, and first black governor of Louisiana. He reminds one powerfully, says the author, of the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
The one certainty is that Pinchback was now submitted to an ordeal of humiliation. Both the House and Senate deferred action on the question of seating him. The reason was simply that to recognize his election was also to recognize the legality of the Kellogg government—and with a Democratic tide rising in the country (they were to win a majority in the House of Representatives in 1874 and the popular election in 1876) even loyal Republicans were backing away from the support of carpetbag regimes.
The House did not decide its part of the question until 1875—and then decided that Pinchback’s congressional opponent had the greater number of honest votes and should get the seat. Meanwhile the Senate took its time. The matter was put over to the 18731874 session, then again to the succeeding year, and it was not ultimately decided until the spring of 1876. Pinchback did not pass the time entirely unpleasantly. In the summer of 1873 Governor Kellogg appointed him the state’s representative to an international fair in Vienna. He spent several delectable weeks in that cosmopolitan capital, where his color was merely a curiosity. But eventually he had to return to the United States, there to hear every charge ever made against him raked up and debated, for his opponents denied not only the validity of his election but also his moral fitness to hold the office. In letters to various senators Pinchback pleaded with them to separate the issues—to seat him, in order to give Louisiana its proper representation in the Senate, and thereafter to let him defend his reputation.
Worse than having the dirty laundry of past politics tumbled out in the press was listening to the taunts of southern senators and representatives who were blatant in their attacks on Pinchback, whom they would have styled “an uppity nigger.” When he appeared in Washington now and then, and in the galleries of Congress, he struck observers as struggling for self-containment. One newspaperman observed that, politics aside, his presence in the Senate was “not open to the smallest objection, except the old Bourbon warwhoops of color.” But the war whoops were raised, and Pinchback had to mask “the scorn which must rage within him at sight of the dirty ignorant men from the South who affect to look down upon him on account of his color.…” He was, said the writer, “a model indeed of good breeding to those Texas and Louisiana yahoos who shout ‘nigger, nigger, nigger,’ in default of common sense or logic.” In the face of such assaults he had to find a middle ground between defense of his full civil rights and reassurance to edgy whites that he would not try to mingle. “It is possible,” he wrote in a newspaper article in February of 1875, “that there may be Senators … supposing that I might desire to take advantage of my official position to force myself unasked on their social life. Such a supposition would not only proceed upon an unjust estimate of the purposes of my race, but would be in opposition to my own personal respect and manliness, which would prompt me as sacredly to respect the social sanctity of others as it would to protect my own.” The English of that was “I do not go where I am not wanted.”
But it was in vain. Pinchback was fighting a combination of anti-Grantism, of genuine concern about his suspicious wealth and its possible corrupt sources, and of racial distaste. On March 8, 1876, by a vote of 32 to 29, the Senate adopted a motion not to recognize him as entitled to the seat from Louisiana. Perhaps that quality of energy and freedom noted by his enemies had frightened away an extra vote or two (a shift of only two would have reversed the result). And perhaps the senators were somewhat abashed at what they had done, or at least did not find Pinchback entirely unworthy, since they awarded him $16,666 in pay and mileage for all the time, from March of 1873 until the final decision, during which he would have held office.
Pinchback was not through in politics—nor in disappointment. In 1876 the Louisiana Republican convention once more endorsed him as “our unanimous choice and only candidate for United States Senator.” But the election was almost a replay of 1872. Once more there were two governments in the state—one under the Republican, Stephen B. Packard, the other under the Democrat, Francis T. Nicholls—each claiming legitimacy, with most of the white establishment on Nicholls’ side and with federal troops protecting Packard’s legislature. Pinchback felt that Packard’s lawmakers should elect him once more to the Senate seat he had so long fought for. Instead they chose Kellogg. It was said that nineteen thousand dollars in bribes procured the result. Stung and feeling double-crossed, Pinchback now changed sides as he had done in 1872, when he had joined his old enemies the Custom House Republicans. He announced his support of Nicholls and took his following with him. In March of 1877, after a deal at the national level, federal troops were withdrawn from Louisiana, and the Packard “government” collapsed. Reconstruction was over.