Look Back 250; Missouri Frees Slaves in 1865 as Radicals Ascend, but Postwar Politics Are Tangled

By Tim O'Neil | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 29, 2014 | Go to article overview

Look Back 250; Missouri Frees Slaves in 1865 as Radicals Ascend, but Postwar Politics Are Tangled


Tim O'Neil, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


ST. LOUIS * Happy crowds jammed the streets. Cannon thundered, fireworks crackled. The most joyous in the jostling mix were black people.

Slavery in Missouri was no more.

Delegates to a special state convention, meeting in the Mercantile Library at 510 Locust Street, emancipated Missouri's slaves on Jan. 11, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln's famous proclamation hadn't applied to loyal slave states, such as Missouri.

Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson created the first special state convention in 1861 hoping that its delegates would take Missouri into the Confederacy. They didn't. After Union troops chased Jackson from Jefferson City, he and like-minded refugee legislators declared for Dixie. It didn't matter.

The special convention, with changing membership, continued through the war as a parallel state government of sorts. In Jackson's absence, it made Hamilton Gamble of St. Louis, a Virginia- born lawyer, provisional governor. Gamble was a Unionist who backed slavery, as did many leading citizens in 1861.

But the nasty guerrilla war raging across Missouri hardened many Unionists and filled St. Louis with refugees. The military, headquartered in St. Louis, enforced loyalty oaths and martial law. The convention recommended a plan for gradual emancipation.

By 1864, when Gov. Gamble died, political power had shifted to the state's "Radical" Republicans, so named for their loathing of slavery, secession and secessionists. Their leader was Charles Drake, another St. Louis lawyer who once had supported slavery. They dominated the 1865 session of the special convention.

After declaring immediate emancipation, the delegates expanded the state's loyalty test into the "Ironclad Oath," requiring voters and anyone in public office or several professions including law and the ministry to assert they had always been pure of the slightest Confederate inclinations. The Radicals enshrined their oath in a proposed new state constitution and ousted hundreds of officeholders, including two Supreme Court judges.

The constitution was called Drake's in honor of its lead author. Opponents derided it as "Draconian."

The proposal split Unionists. Prominent among opponents in St. Louis were Edward Bates, Lincoln's first attorney general, and Francis Blair, who helped save St. Louis for the Union in 1861.

The much-reduced pool of eligible voters narrowly ratified the constitution on June 6, 1865. St. Louis voters rejected it 2-to-1, but there was strong support in areas laid waste by Rebels.

The constitution guaranteed public education for black children but didn't grant the vote to blacks or women.

The Legislature rewarded Drake with a U.S. Senate seat. But the return of Confederate veterans and infighting among Radicals reduced support for the Ironclad Oath, which voters overwhelmingly repealed in 1870. …

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