- Sowing the Wind: The Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890 by Dorothy Overstreet Pratt
Dorothy Overstreet Pratt's Sowing the Wind: The Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890 offers a compelling portrait of an understudied episode in American constitutional and political history. At the 1890 constitutional convention, Mississippi's delegates (white men, with one prominent exception) rewrote the state's constitution in order to secure black disenfranchisement. But they ran up against the strictures of the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which precluded the states from abridging the right to vote on the basis of race. Instantiating white supremacy by rewriting the previous state constitution, adopted in 1868 during Reconstruction, might have provoked a reaction from the federal government. After discussing several options, including a literacy requirement and the extension of the vote to propertied white women, the delegates hit on two solutions: the poll tax and a literacy test with a so-called understanding clause, which allowed a man to interpret, rather than read, a section of the state constitution to the satisfaction of a state official.
The convention's delegates were united about the desirability of denying African Americans the right to vote, but Pratt argues that they wrangled over issues of class. She divides the state into "black counties" (those with a majority of black residents) and "white counties" (where white residents predominated) (p. 4). The black counties were rich counties where the wealthy slave owners had held sway in antebellum Mississippi. If black Mississippians were precluded from voting but were still counted to allocate political representation in the state, the white elites from black counties would wield inordinate power over their poorer white counterparts. And so elites from the black counties of the state offered to compromise on issues of reapportionment and tax revenue for progressive aims (education, levee construction, road modernization) in exchange for their retention of outsized political power.
Two episodes in the book warrant further mention. First, Pratt spends some time discussing Isaiah Montgomery, the sole African American delegate at the convention. Montgomery is a fascinating figure: a former slave of Jefferson Davis's brother Joseph, Montgomery was ahighly educated and wealthy leader and the founder of a self-sufficient black town in the Mississippi Delta, Mound Bayou. At the convention, Montgomery largely acquiesced to his fellow delegates' efforts to restrict the black vote. Pratt is conflicted about Montgomery, who clearly identified more with the white elite than with other black Mississippians. Pratt acknowledges that there was little Montgomery could do at the convention to combat the disenfranchisement efforts, but she finds [End Page 476] unforgivable his willingness to praise the actions of the convention in public twenty years after the fact.
Second, chapter 9 chronicles the U.S. Congress's response to the new state constitution. The convention's delegates were candid about their hostility to black voting and about their attempt to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment. The Force Bill of 1890, championed by some Senate Republicans, would have invalidated the new constitution on the grounds that it ran afoul of the Fifteenth Amendment and the guarantee clause, or that it violated the terms of Mississippi's readmission to the Union in 1870. This insightful chapter details the congressional debate over the commitment to formal legal equality on the basis of race, the authority of the federal government over the states, and the bitter legacy of the Civil War in the late nineteenth century.
Sowing the Wind is uniformly meticulous and analytically rigorous, and Pratt has a talent for wringing astute observations about class, race, and the structure of late-nineteenth-century society from a careful presentation of facts. Pratt's book reveals Mississippi at the crossroads of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrating how modern populist and progressive reforms were linked to the antebellum legacy of white supremacy. This book is recommended reading for all who are interested in southern politics and constitutionalism in the late nineteenth century.