Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Politician decries political corruption in Arkansas in the late 19th century

This etching of Rube CarlLee came from History of the
Wheel and Alliance, and the Impending Revolution
published by W.S. Morgan, a member of the Wheel, in
1889. Photo from the Arkansas State Archives collection.
By Brian Irby, archival assistant

The years following the Civil War in Arkansas were a turbulent time. Political assassinations, electoral fraud and economic hardship led to constant instability. After Reconstruction, such difficulties continued. One of the most vocal critics of the political corruption that marred Arkansas politics in the 1880s was Rube CarlLee.

Reuben Bates CarlLee was born in Virginia in 1841, moved to Kentucky when he was a child, then to St. Louis and Arkansas in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. He never attended any school and appears to be solely self-educated. He joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the war, CarlLee dabbled in real estate, insurance, and farming to support his family.

In 1868, he ran for office for the first time, choosing to run for the state Senate. Although he won a majority of the vote in the election, he was denied his seat when it was proven that he had served in the Confederate Army. Under the 1868 constitution, few ex-Confederates were allowed to vote or hold office. Dejected, CarlLee returned to private life.

Meanwhile, Arkansas farmers were having difficulty in the post Reconstruction years. Many of them felt that corrupt politicians, allied with business interests, were squeezing small farmers through the use of high interest credit, farm tenancy and low crop prices. In 1882, a group of farmers joined together to form what became known as the Agricultural Wheel in order to protect the interests of farmers. The Wheel was avowedly non-partisan, early on refusing to endorse any candidates for office.

With the end of Reconstruction, ex-Confederates were no longer barred from holding office. CarlLee re-entered politics and won a seat in the Arkansas legislature in 1882 representing Prairie County. He joined the Wheel in 1883 since many of the Wheel’s policy positions reflected his own. In 1886, after rising through the ranks in the Wheel, Carlee decided to run again for office, this time looking to become a representative in the United States House of Representatives from the 2nd District. His opponent was Clifton Breckenridge, who had held the seat since 1883.

CarlLee was the first candidate of the newly organized Union Labor Party, a party formed by Wheel members and other farm workers. CarlLee’s campaign message was that he would fight against business interests, the “money kings of the east,” who were exploiting Arkansas’s laborers. He argued against private ownership of railroads and telegraph equipment. He also called for an end to state debt through the issuance of bonds and the creation of a graduated income tax.

Despite the fact that the Union Labor Party had difficulty electing candidates on its own without crossing over to join in coalition with the Democrats or Republicans, the Wheel was divided. Should they issue a straight ticket of Wheel candidates or support a fusion ticket with agrarian-friendly candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties? CarlLee supported a straight Wheel ticket, with him as candidate for Congress. Of course, this did not sit well with “Wheelers” who remained loyal to the Democratic or Republican parties. As the campaign was beginning to heat up, Carl Lee told the press that those Wheel members who did not support a straight Wheel ticket were “Judases.”

CarlLee’s candidacy was further hampered by the fact that the state newspaper of the Wheel, the Wheel Enterprise, declined to endorse his candidacy. Upholding its previous nonpartisan stance, the Wheel Enterprise editor wrote, “We see no need of exchanging a man in office for one who is incompetent to fill the seat acceptably to the people.” Consequently, Breckenridge easily defeated CarlLee.

After his defeat, he went to work full time for the Wheel, becoming state purchasing agent, a position that paid him a whopping $1,500 a year. In the 1888 election, CarlLee decided not to seek office. Instead he campaigned on behalf of John Clayton, the Republican candidate seeking to unseat Breckenridge. During the campaign, there were numerous allegations of fraud. The state-wide elections, held in September, were marred by stories of fraud, intimidation and ballot box stealing.
Among the reports of irregularities came a report from Republicans in Pulaski County, alleging that poll books listing the names of Republicans registered to vote had been stolen by “unknown persons.” The allegations in Pulaski County were especially worrisome for those denying the fraud accusations, because the allegations were being made even by the Arkansas Gazette which tended to be friendly towards Democrats. Critics of the Gazette begged the paper to take back the allegations, arguing, “It gives the enemy a club to cudgel democrats with in national politics.”

Worried that these practices would continue in November’s federal election, CarlLee wrote to the New York Press exposing the electoral fraud. Included among the charges he leveled in the letter to the New York paper was the claim that 1,000 votes had been stolen in Jackson County. He declared that the administration of Arkansas’s Democratic Governor Simon P. Hughes had armed members of Union County’s Democratic clubs with Winchester rifles as a means to intimidate Republican and Union Labor voters.  These men, CarlLee alleged, “shot and killed seven white union labor men and wounded over 20 more, and at El Dorado, the county seat, they took the poll books away from the judges and burned them before the eyes of the people, and then held a new election, at which no union labor man was permitted to vote.” He also charged that there was fraud and intimidation in Conway County. This was especially important, as it was the disturbing omen of fraud that might prevent Clayton from defeating Breckenridge.

Instead of investigating the claims, Democrats denounced CarlLee for “slandering the state” with his allegations. Governor Hughes issued a statement refuting CarlLee’s charge of the events in Union County, “I have been informed that there were no such occurrences in Union county, and that no man was prevented from voting at the election, and I have the assurance of good, upright, honorable citizens that these things did not occur; that one man only was killed in Union county on the day of the election, and that was an accidentally killed [sic].”

The editor of the Arkansas Democrat urged the Agricultural Wheel to cut ties with CarlLee, “You can’t afford to keep Rube CarlLee in your employment. A man who will malign the people of his own State as CarlLee has done ought not to occupy a responsible and lucrative position in any respectable organization. Bounce him!”

J.H. Trigg, commander of the state militia, described CarlLee’s letter as the “braying of an untethered ass.”

Many Wheel members took exception to CarlLee’s letter and called on him to resign. Reflecting on CarlLee’s political fate, the editor of the Helena World wrote, “It looks like Rube CarlLee’s head is to come off.”

Despite the controversy, CarlLee was not forced out of the Wheel. He remained a member until the organization collapsed around 1890.

That he was correct about election fraud, and its effect on the federal election in November 1888, was borne out when Breckenridge defeated Clayton. After the election, Clayton went to Conway County, the site of much of the fraud allegations. While there, he was shot in the back. The murder was never solved. Later, an investigation into the election by the United States House of Representatives declared that Clayton won the election and overturned the results. Since Clayton was dead, the seat was declared vacant. Breckenridge won the election of 1890 and returned to his seat in Congress.

By the 1890s, CarlLee latched onto the Populist Party as the replacement for the Union Labor Party, endorsing Democrat Dan Jones for governor. He tried to entice other prominent politicians to join the Populist Party, even going as far as printing rumors in the England Times, a paper he owned and edited, that certain politicians were going to join the party. One prominent citizen of Pine Bluff who had been the subject of such rumors, N.T. Roberts, wrote to the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, “I do not know from what source you get your information, but it is false.” It seemed that CarlLee’s political career was at an end. Finished with politics, CarlLee retired to his farm and died in 1915.