Poland Committee

aka: Select Committee to Inquire into Conditions of the Affairs in the State of Arkansas

The Poland Committee was a congressional committee established by the U.S. House of Representatives to investigate the situation in Arkansas in the aftermath of the Brooks-Baxter War of 1874. It was chaired by Representative Luke P. Poland of Vermont. The group’s findings were ultimately submitted by President Ulysses S. Grant to his attorney general, George H. Williams, for further action, but Congress overrode the administration’s response to the report. The subsequent resolution is generally seen as marking the end of Reconstruction in Arkansas.

The Brooks-Baxter War had roots in the contested 1872 gubernatorial election. On the one side was Joseph Brooks, a “carpetbagger” and reputed radical leader who ran as the head of the Reform Republicans, the faction that supported the national Liberal Republicans and its presidential candidate, Horace Greeley. Promising to end the disfranchisement of former Confederates and reduce taxes and government spending, while also limiting the power of the governor, Brooks gained the support of the conservative Republicans and Democrats who saw him and his programs as the best opportunity for them to return to power. In contrast, the Republican Party regulars backed Elisha Baxter, a “scalawag” who ran on a platform that in fact promised many of the same reforms. Brooks may well have won the election, but with Baxter partisans in control of the election machinery, Baxter was declared the victor—despite clear evidence of numerous electoral irregularities.

Brooks turned to the Arkansas General Assembly and the U.S. Congress to appeal the results, but those efforts fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, actions by Governor Baxter led to a growing disenchantment among the state’s Republican leaders, including senators Stephen Dorsey and Powell Clayton, who headed an effort aimed at removing Baxter from office. An armed conflict between the candidates’ supporters spread across the state in April and May 1874. President Grant had to order federal intervention, an action designed to end the violence—at least in the short term—and provide support for incumbent governor Baxter. However, in response to the obvious chaos, on May 27, 1874, the House of Representatives established the Select Committee to Inquire into Conditions of the Affairs in the State of Arkansas, which was headed by Vermont Congressman Luke P. Poland, thus the committee’s name. The committee consisted of three Republicans (Poland, Henry Scudder of New York, and Jasper D. Ward of Illinois) and two Democrats (Representatives Milton Sayler of Ohio and Joseph Sloss of Alabama), who, under the resolution creating the committee, were charged with investigating matters in Arkansas so as to “ascertain whether there was such a republican form of government there as the United States should recognize.”

Over the course of its investigation, the committee held two hearings in Washington DC. In addition, selected members of the committee twice visited Little Rock (Pulaski County). All of this was followed by spirited and extended debates on their findings, and in the end, the majority report representing the views of four of the five committee members was submitted to Congress on February 6, 1875. The report acknowledged that Brooks had been elected in 1872 but essentially said that it was too late to do anything. This conclusion was the logical result of the committee’s finding that although the process of writing and adopting the 1874 state constitution had its share of irregularities, it was nevertheless republican in its form and supported by a majority of the state’s citizens, the basic criteria by which the federal government was empowered to judge the legitimacy of a state government. Consequently, the committee determined that federal intervention was not necessary nor justified given that the incumbent governor, Augustus Garland, was elected under the 1874 constitution, which superseded any term to which Brooks might have been entitled. Indeed, the committee’s report further acknowledged that while neither the state nor the region’s population was enthusiastic when it came to full citizenship rights for African Americans, it still was unlikely that their status would be challenged by the white citizenry, and thus there was no need for the federal government to take action.

However, despite these findings as well as his original support of the Baxter government, President Grant accepted the minority report authored by Congressman Ward of Illinois, who had made a separate visit to the state, accompanied by Brooks booster Senator Stephen Dorsey, at whose home Ward stayed and who made sure that most of those with whom Ward met were Brooks supporters. Ward’s report asserted that Brooks, having been elected governor, should be restored to his office by the federal government. Too, in contrast to the majority’s findings, Ward argued that the 1868 Arkansas Constitution had never been overthrown legally and that it served as the basis for allowing Brooks to be seated.

Two days after the committee report was submitted to the House, Grant, in a special message, expressed his belief that Brooks was the legal governor and that the state’s constitution represented an overextension of the state’s authority at a time when such lines were still being reestablished. However, in a vote soon afterward, the House adopted a resolution in support of the committee’s report. While Grant disagreed with what was a clear challenge to his own efforts, if not his authority, he in fact had limited options. Consequently, with Democrat Augustus Garland, who had been elected in 1874, firmly ensconced in the governor’s chair, the president refrained from any further efforts, and by that inaction effectively ended Reconstruction in Arkansas.

For additional information:
“Arkansas: Disposition of the Senate Committee on Elections and of Members of Congress—The Poland Report and the President’s Proclamation, New York Times, February 9, 1875, p. 1.

Lowry, Sharon K. “Portrait of an Age: The Political Career of Stephen W. Dorsey, 1868–1889.” PhD diss., North Texas State University, 1980. Online at https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc332211/m2/1/high_res_d/1002783254-Lowry.pdf (accessed May 23, 2019).

Stafford, Logan Scott. “Judicial Coup D’état: Mandamus, Quo Warranto and the Original Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Arkansas.” University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 20, no. 4 (1998): 891–984. Online at https://lawrepository.ualr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1629&context=lawreview (accessed May 23, 2019).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 05/23/2019