White Supremacists Launch Tax Strike Against Louisiana Government

, I posted links to two short articles about a tax resistance campaign in Reconstruction-era Louisiana. I remember doing a little research on this campaign when I was assembling We Won’t Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader, but I also remember that the trail gave out after a while and I didn’t find anything particularly promising.

Today I tried to pick up the trail again. Here’s what I found.

To set the scene: Louisiana in is a little something like Iraq in . It’s been sacked by the enemy, which dissolved the local government and military (which then started to assemble into ethnic militia terrorist groups), and installed its own idea of a democratically-elected government — one that seems largely to be composed of outsiders and members of the formerly-marginalized ethnic group. There’s rampant corruption, and the invading army has to swoop back in from time to time to provide muscle to back up the weak central government’s dictates.

There’s an election. The governor, a former Union Army colonel and Republican carpetbagger named Henry C. Warmoth, allies himself with the Democratic challenger, a former Confederate Army colonel named John McEnery. He says the election’s in the bag because, after all, he’s the governor and he can fix it. (Why did this strange alliance take place? Two possible explanations. One, that Warmoth said he’d support McEnery if McEnery would then appoint him to be U.S. Senator. Two, that Warmoth was an ally of the more conservative Horace Greeley “Liberal Republican” faction of the Republican Party and the Republican candidate for governor was an ally of the Ulysses S. Grant “Radical Republican” wing.)

Anyway, so there’s an orgy of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and so forth, and at the end of it, whaddya know: McEnery’s “fusion ticket” loses. The “Returning Board” that is set up to certify the election results declares the Republican candidate, William P. Kellogg (another carpetbagger, originally from Vermont) the winner.

Warmoth dismisses the Returning Board and appoints another one. They come up with the answer he likes. For good measure, he appoints a third Returning Board and they too say McEnery is the real winner. The legislature, meanwhile, successfully impeaches Warmoth for all of this chicanery. (Thereupon the lieutenant governor took over for the remaining 34 days before Kellogg’s inauguration, becoming the first black governor in U.S. history.) The State Supreme Court eventually takes up the case and rules that the first Returning Board had every right to make its decision and the decision of the other two boards can be disregarded. Things don’t stop there, though. Eventually the U.S. Congress has to debate the whole thing, but they never quite get the gumption up to take a stand either way, which leaves everything up to President U.S. Grant, who, naturally, sees little reason to interfere with the governorship of his Republican ally.

But the McEnery crew aren’t quite ready to quit. They set up a parallel government — holding their own inauguration, raising their own militia, seating their own legislature, and insisting that the Kellogg crew are “usurpers” and not the legitimate government at all. As part of this, they insist that no demands for taxes coming from Kellogg’s government are legitimate. On , McEnery issued this proclamation:

Whereas, Information has reached me that certain persons, pretending to be tax-collectors in the City of New-Orleans and in parishes of the State, but having no legal authority therefor, are issuing circulars and notices to taxpayers to come forward within a certain time to pay their taxes and licenses, threatening certain penalties prescribed by law against all parties failing to comply with such notice,

Now, I, John McEnery, Governor of the State of Louisiana, do issue this my proclamation, warning all tax and license payers not to obey or regard such notice or demand, but to refuse and resist the same, and recognize as the only lawful persons charged with the collection and enforcement of taxes those who hold over as tax-collectors under the Government of the State as existing on , and those who have been appointed and commissioned by the undersigned. Full protection will be guaranteed by the Government to all citizens of the State against any penalties or violences which may be attempted by persons who may seek to enforce their illegal demands and acts and to exercise their usurped power and authority in the premises.

He formed a Central Committee to coordinate this tax resistance and urged his followers in each parish to create their own branches. He vowed, “If Kellogg’s crowd passes the Appropriation bill, they shall never collect the taxes. The people of the State will rise up in revolution, not in individual resistance, but in a concerted opposition to Kellogg, and the United States forces if they attempt to assist him. I shall see the people protected, and it will take more regulars than they have here to whip us.”

Black voters were essential to the Republican victory. The Republican/Democrat split in Louisiana politics was a black/white split, if you subtract out the white carpetbagger Republicans. And the McEnery faction resented the power of black voters. Its war on the Kellogg government and on Republican office-holders was in part a race war, and there was at least one ethnic-cleansing episode: The Colfax Massacre.

(The McEnery and Kellogg governments each appointed their own set of local officials in Grant Parish. When a white militia organized to try to take over the government buildings in Colfax, and started terrorizing black people in the parish, the blacks gathered in Colfax, hoping for safety in numbers. Dozens were butchered, some executed after having been taken prisoner.)

At the same time this terror campaign was ramping up, McEnery was trying to activate his tax resistance campaign. A group of dissenters issued an address that read, in part, “Public opinion throughout the Union is against the usurpation, and our only danger, if there be any, will come from ourselves. If the people of Louisiana will sanction, by obedience and acquiescence, this Government, they will give it the only validity it can ever acquire. It is only by our own submission that our cause can be defeated. We recommend the people of the several parishes, for the purpose of most effectual resistance to this usurpation, and of mutual aid and defense, to join the People’s League of Louisiana by the formation of Parish councils in correspondence with the Central Council at New-Orleans. We must remember that there can be no de facto government as against a de jure government in a State, and that the only way by which the Kellogg usurpation can become established as a government is by acquiescence of the people… The people of New-Orleans are not to pay taxes, can not, in fact, pay them, nor are they giving any recognition to the usurpers.”

Former Confederate military officers formed a militia designed to defend towns under McEnery-faction control, and even successfully raided New Orleans itself at one point — putting Kellogg’s own forces on the run. But McEnery’s militia folded when the federal government sent its own forces in to prop Kellogg up.

By May, McEnery gave up his pretense of being governor. The Kellogg administration lasted until . McEnery’s militia became the White League, and continued to rely on terrorist tactics to intimidate black voters and assassinate Republican office-holders. Over time, the federal government wearied of having to keep interfering. President Grant’s Attorney General noted that “The whole public are tired out with autumnal outbreaks in the South, and the great majority are now ready to condemn any interference on the part of the government.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government was powerless to prosecute members of terrorist mobs like the one that perpetrated the Colfax Massacre, and Louisiana itself never managed to bring anyone to justice for it. The White League eventually was successful in its terrorist campaign to bring an end to Republican rule.

In the presidential election of , Louisiana sent two sets of electors — one Republican set that Kellogg said represented the parishes in Louisiana where the White League hadn’t intimidated black voters, and one Democratic set that Louisiana whites insisted represented the real Louisiana electorate. The election was close enough that it made a big difference. Bush/Gore’s got nothing on this one. Samuel Tilden had more popular votes and more electoral votes — unless all the disputed electoral votes went Rutherford Hayes’s way. As part of a compromise, Hayes took the crown but said in return that he’d stop propping up Republican governments in the Confederate states and would end the occupation. In , the Democrats took over in Louisiana, Kellogg (as part of the compromise) took a seat in the U.S. Senate, the White League was absorbed into the state militia, and the political power (and civil rights) of black people was pretty much wiped out — in there were a total of 730 black people registered to vote in the whole state.

The tax resistance aspect to this story appears to be little more than a footnote. If you believe the brags of the Kellogg government, it had reduced corruption and increased efficiency in tax collection to the extent that even during the tax resistance campaign and the various armed struggles it was bringing in more revenue than the previous administration had the year before. But in any case, the tax resistance was not so much a tactic as a logical outgrowth of the argument that the Kellogg government was not legitimate.