Sunday, March 15, 2015

Isaac Murphy. Arkansas's lone vote against secession

Isaac Murphy, the lone vote for sanity in Arkansas.
     The election of Abraham Lincoln brought the secession of seven southern states before Lincoln took office. On the day of Lincoln's inauguration, March 4, 1861, delegates in Arkansas convened to vote on secession. They declined. Among them was Isaac Murphy, a lawyer from Madison County.
     But when Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Governor Henry Rector reconvened the secession convention. This time the vote was 65-5 in favor of joining the Confederacy. Isaac Murphy. When the chairman of the convention asked to make the vote unanimous, only Isaac Murphy refused, making the vote 69-1.
     This made the 61-year-old Murphy a target of secessionists. He fled his home and moved to Springfield, Missouri. His wife had died the previous year. In the meantime, vandals ransacked his house, forcing his family to flee to join him. Two daughters and a grandson did not survive the ordeal. Despite this inconvenience, his lone vote no had a positive long-term impact on his life and on his state.
     Born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 16, 1799, Murphy grew up in affluence. His father owned a paper mill. But upon his father's death, the executor of his estate squandered the money, and then committed suicide. But Murphy did receive a college education. The Pennsylvania Bar admitted him on April 29, 1825.
     However, Murphy became primarily a schoolteacher, and moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, where he married Angelina Lockert, 16 on July 31, 1830. Murphy was her senior by 14 years. Her father disowned her, not because of the difference in age, but  because Murphy opposed slavery. In 1834, shortly after the birth of their first daughter, the Murphys moved west to Fayetteville, Arkansas.
     There, he surveyed land, practiced law, and taught school. He became chairman of the board of visitors to the Far West Seminary, which Cephas Washburn, a former missionary and teacher to Indians, promoted. Area Democrats fought against granting the school a charter, voting against it in the legislature.
     “As they wish to keep their party in ascendancy, it is a principle with them never to encourage institutions of learning,” the Arkansas Gazette reported.
     Besides opposing education, Indians, and missionaries who friends oppose slavery, the local politicians also did not like Presbyterians, who were financing the project. The Democrats rejoiced when fire led to the project’s abandonment.
     Murphy's life in Arkansas was not continuous. He got caught up in the California Gold Rush only to return without gold three years later to a farm that was in peril. His oldest daughters set up a school for young women. He entered politics, which led to his famous dissent in 1861, which led to his moving for safety's sake.
     Little Rock fell to the union in September 1863, after the Confederate state government fled to Washington, Arkansas. Under Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, a constitutional convention met and elected Murphy as the provisional governor.
     His term was difficult. Northwestern Arkansas experienced constant upheaval due to all the raiding, south Arkansas was still controlled by the Confederates, and the central part of the state was basically controlled by the Union Army. After the war, voters elected Murphy governor. The political situation had not improved much, however, as Confederates outnumbered Unionists in the state legislature.
     The Arkansas legislature rejected the Fourteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and guaranteed equal rights for former slaves. Instead, they passed the first Jim Crow laws. After other Southern states did the same thing, a Republican Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, placing those states under military control. Murphy worked closely with General Edward Otho Cresap Ord, whose command included Arkansas. Ord was a friend of General William Tecumseh Sherman, Ord later was the Ord in Fort Ord, California. Upon Ord's death in Cuba on July 22, 1883, General Sherman said, "As his intimate associate since boyhood, the general here bears testimony of him that a more unselfish, manly, and patriotic person never lived."
     Ord like Murphy had compassion for both sides. At an exchange of prisoners in March 1865, Ord and Confederate General Longstreet tried to get Grant and Lee to sit down and end the war. A month later, Ord was at the surrender at Appomattox, purchasing the table Lee sat at for $45; it is now in a museum in Chicago.
     As governor, Murphy showed fiscal restraint and a conciliatory attitude toward the soon-to-be defeated Confederates. Sadly, Murphy's successor as governor of Arkansas was General Powell Clayton, a typical corrupt and petty Reconstructionist.
     With the end of his nearly four years as governor in 1868, the nearly 70-year-old Murphy returned home, retired from politics and died at home on September 8, 1882, at 82. Blessed are the peacemakers. Isaac Murphy surely was one.


  1. Another good man ignored by history books.

  2. Thanks so much for writing this! I just read that there was only one vote against secession in Arkansas and came across your article while searching for this man.

    What a shame that I wasn't taught about him growing up in Arkansas. This was one courageous and good man. I'll be sure to teach my kids about him.