Sunday, June 2, 2024

John M. Clayton Murdered For Challenging A Rigged Election 1888

Elections have a way of bringing out the worst in people. Of course, the worst in people comes out especially bad when their candidate loses. If you think I'm talking about all of the riots that started when Hillary Clinton was defeated in 2016, you're wrong. And no, I'm not talking about how Democrats reacted when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 Presidential Election by starting a Civil War.

Democrats in the South protested and rioted after the election of Republican President Abe Lincoln in 1860. His election was the reason Democrats threw our nation into a Civil War. They saw Lincoln as the man who would end the Democrats' precious institution of slavery and they would do everything in their power to keep slavery in place. And no, there's really no debate when it comes to Democrats inspiring John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Lincoln. It's well-known that that was the case.

I want to talk about a little-known incident in Arkansas that happened as the result of people not being happy with a candidate challenging a rigged election's results. It's a story of a candidate questioning the results of a rigged election and ending up being assassinated.

John Middleton Clayton was born on October 13, 1840, on a farm in Bethel Township, Pennsylvania, to John and Ann Glover Clayton. The Clayton family was descended from Quakers. During the Civil War, John Middleton Clayton served as a Colonel in the Army of the Potomac.

In 1867, he and his family moved to Arkansas where he managed a plantation owned by his older brother, Powell. His brother would go on to become the Governor of Arkansas in 1868. Besides being the brother of the Arkansas Governor, his twin brother William H.H. Clayton was the U.S. Attorney for the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. William H.H. Clayton was the chief prosecutor in the court of "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker for 14 years before becoming a federal judge in the Central District of the Indian Territory that became the State of Oklahoma.

In 1871, John Middleton Clayton was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives representing Jefferson County. In 1873, he served in the Arkansas Senate representing Jefferson, Bradley, Grant and Lincoln Counties. During that time, a part of his term was spent serving as Speaker of the Senate pro tempore.

He served on the first board of trustees of Arkansas Industrial University which we know today as the University of Arkansas when it was chartered in 1871. Two years later in 1873, John Middleton Clayton helped Pine Bluff, Arkansas, secure the Branch Normal College which is today the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

So yes, he served as a Republican member of the Arkansas House of Representatives for Jefferson County from 1871 to 1873 and the Arkansas State Senate for Jefferson County. And yes, he was heavily involved in the Brooks-Baxter War of 1874. 

The Brooks-Baxter War of 1874 was fought over the disputed election for the Arkansas governor's office. The contest was between Republican Joseph Brooks and Republican Elisha Baxter. John Clayton supported Brooks. He supported Brooks so much that he raised troops in Jefferson County and marched them to Little Rock, Arkansas, in support of Brooks. Once there, they fought Baxter's supporters. 

The Brooks-Baxter War lasted from April 15th to May 15th, 1874. During that time, large militias engaged each other and in the end over 200 men were killed in the conflict. The conflict was followed by a complete restructuring of the state of Arkansas government under the Arkansas Constitution of 1874. It marked the end of the Reconstruction Era in Arkansas, and it resulted in the Democrats taking power and controlling the governorship for the next 90 years.

As for John Middleton Clayton, he is said to have remained loyal to Brooks to the end of the conflict even after President Ulysses S. Grant declared Baxter the rightful governor of Arkansas. 

Interestingly, John Clayton remained involved in Arkansas politics in the years after Reconstruction. Because in those days black freedmen who still understood how Democrats fought so hard to keep slavery alive and them in chains, Black Americans were staunchly Republicans. So with the support of Black Republican voters, John Clayton became sheriff of Jefferson County in 1876. After that, he was reelected to five successive two-year terms.

Then in 1888, John Clayton ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives but lost to Democrat Clifton R. Breckinridge. Unhappy with the results of the election because most at the time saw it as being extremely fraudulent because of obvious voting irregularities, John Clayton challenged the results.

The 1888 election became one of the most fraudulent in Arkansas's history. John Middleton Clayton lost the election by a narrow margin of 846 out of over 34,000 votes cast. But, with voting irregularities such as a county having more votes than there were residents, and in the case of Conway County when four masked and armed white men stormed into a predominantly black voting precinct and stole their ballot box. Yes, at gunpoint, armed men stole the ballot box that contained a large majority of votes for John Middleton Clayton. 

Losing under such circumstances only made him want to seek justice for himself and the voters who were robbed of their votes. So John Clayton decided to contest the election. To do so, he went to Plumerville, Arkansas, to start an investigation on the matter. 

His efforts were short-lived since on the evening of January 29, 1889, an unknown assailant fired a shot through the window to the room that he was staying in at a local boardinghouse. The bullet that struck him is said to have killed him instantly.

After a Congressional investigation, believe it or not, John M. Clayton was declared the winner. The occupant, Democrat Clifton Breckinridge was made to vacate the seat. Because of John Clayton's assassination, the seat was declared vacant. 

As for Democrat Clifton Breckinridge, the Congressional investigation found him not guilty of any wrongdoing in the rigged 1888 election or in John Clayton's assassination. Clifton Breckinridge was elected to fill the vacant seat in 1890.

So though John Clayton was assassinated in 1889 during the challenge to the election, believe it or not, he was later declared the winner of the election posthumously. At the age of 48, he left behind his wife Sarah Ann and their six children. And no. I haven't been able to find out whatever happened to them. My hope is that their family took them in.
As for who ordered his assassination and who fired the shot that killed him? The person who arranged his assassination was never revealed. His assassin was also never found. The identities of both his assassin and those who conspired to murder John M. Clayton for challenging an election remain unknown to this day.

Tom Correa

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