Monday, July 2, 2018

“Ironclad Oath” Loyalty Provision and Idaho Political Infighting [otd 07/02]

On July 2, 1862, the U. S. Congress passed what was called the “Ironclad Oath” law. The law required Federal officials and employees to swear, not just that they would not, but that they had never supported the Confederacy. This “test oath” led to bitter political turmoil in Idaho.
President Lincoln. Library of Congress.

The Civil War was in full swing when Congress passed the law. Lincoln’s “coat tails” had carried many Republicans to victory in the previous elections. When members from the seceded states withdrew, Republicans ended up with substantial majorities in both Congressional branches.

Many members were so-called “Radical Republicans,” who were vehemently anti-slavery. They sought not just to abolish slavery, but to impose the most severe possible punishments on slave-holders and their supporters. Expansive interpretations of the Ironclad Oath provided one means for them to retain power and punish their enemies.

The full extent of the Radical’s impact on post-war southern Reconstruction is confusing, and beyond the scope of this blog. They did bring educational opportunities, land ownership, and (temporary) political power to the the Freedmen. However, some Radicals also used it to promote their personal financial interests and “power trips.”

Radical politics in general, and the Ironclad Oath in particular, inflamed matters in Idaho Territory.  As noted in various other blog articles [Oct 31, for example], Territorial voters have no direct say in the executive or judicial branches of their government. The U. S. President, with approval by the Senate, appoints the Governor, judges, and other officials.

Mid-way through the Civil War, and thereafter, many Democrats fled the South to escape the War’s destruction, and then the excesses of Reconstruction. They controlled Territorial legislative elections in Idaho for over a decade after 1864. The test oath became the focus of one of their earliest disputes with governors appointed by Radical politicians in Washington. Radicals wanted to apply the Oath to exclude ex-Confederates and Southern sympathizers from all elective offices.

Idaho’s Democrats would have none of that. In 1866, both legislative houses passed a law that said elected Territorial legislators – “civil officers” – need only take the oath specified in the Organic Act that created Idaho Territory. That is, they had to swear “to support the Constitution of the United States, and faithfully to discharge the duties of their respective offices.” They argued that the national Ironclad Oath law applied only to Federal (or Federally-appointed) officials.

Governor Caleb Lyon, who knew where his (Radical) bread was buttered, did his best to ignore the bill. He did not veto it, but he didn’t sign it either. Technically, the Act then became Territorial law “by default.” But then the original document, still unsigned, disappeared, leaving the matter somewhat in limbo.
Governor Ballard. Library of Congress.

The next legislature wanted to leave no doubt. They passed the same act again. A new Governor, David W. Ballard, vetoed it, but the legislature easily overrode him. The Ironclad Oath generally receded in importance in Idaho politics after that. Of course, other divisive issues would still cause rancorous disputes between the legislature and the Governor’s office.

In 1867, the U. S. Supreme Court had ruled that some narrow applications of the Ironclad Oath were unconstitutional. Even so, the national law remained a suppressive tool in many jurisdictions until Radical Reconstruction began to ease in about 1877. Test oath opponents tried to repeal the law numerous times over the next several years. They finally succeeded in 1884.
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
“The Fight Over the Iron Clad Oath, 1865-1867,” Reference Series No. 381, Idaho State Historical Society (July 18, 1966).
John Hope Franklin, Reconstruction After the Civil War, University of Chicago Press (1994).
Michael A. Ross, “Loyalty Oaths,”  Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler (eds.), W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York (2000).

1 comment:

  1. I have been told by Southerners that they still remember that Idaho was the only state that expressed support for them against the Ironclad Oath and that to this day they appreciate it. Quite a compliment, as far as I'm concerned. It was something that was wrong and was actually opposed by President Lincoln himself. One more example of Idaho being and "individualist" state where people think for themselves instead of automatically "going along with the herd." It points out the essentially fair nature of the Idaho attitude. I'm glad my state opposed the oath - because it went too far, was unfair, and prevented healing of the nation after the Civil War.