Rison et al. v. Farr

The Arkansas Supreme Court decision in Rison et al. v. Farr overturned the “Iron-Clad” oath that had been passed by the 1864 session of the Union legislature in order to prevent ex-Confederates from voting. Since the case precipitated Radical Reconstruction, probably the most controversial period in Arkansas history, Rison et al. v. Farr stands as one of the most important decisions ever made at the state Supreme Court level.

In 1864, Unionists, now in control of Little Rock (Pulaski County), wrote a new constitution for Arkansas. Section 2 of Article 4 provided that “every free white male citizen of the United States” aged twenty-one or over and a resident for six months “shall be deemed a qualified elector.” However, the legislature on May 31, 1864, passed an act that denied the right to vote to anyone who, after April 18, 1864, still supported the Confederacy. Among those affected was Zachariah P. H. Farr, a native of South Carolina, who had settled in Arkansas, first in Monroe County then in Pulaski County. A captain on General Thomas J. Churchill’s staff, he had been held prisoner by the Union army. However, he had taken the amnesty oath on May 29, 1865, and had then been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.

Enforcement of the law’s provisions came on October 9, 1865, when three election judges—John W. Rison, Richard Bragg, and Gilbert Knapp—refused to let Farr cast a ballot for Dr. Lorenzo Gibson, a long-time Little Rock resident, then running for Congress. The issue of the law’s constitutionality had already been discussed in the press, but Governor Isaac Murphy followed the letter of law in his proclamation scheduling the election.

All three of the election judges were prominent Arkansas figures. John W. Rison, an attorney who was said to have been the only truly educated man in Perry County for twenty years, became a prominent Little Rock lawyer. Richard Bragg was an English-born merchant in Little Rock, and Gilbert Knapp was later an active Prohibition Alliance leader whose wife was instrumental in the founding of the Aesthetic Club.

Denied the ex-Confederate vote, Gibson narrowly carried Little Rock but lost the race to Gayle H. Kyle. Meanwhile, Farr sued the three election judges. The case was heard in the Pulaski County Circuit Court by Judge Liberty Bartlett, who sided with Farr and awarded the plaintiff one cent in damages. That set the stage for the appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. As set out in the 1864 state constitution, the court had only three justices: Elisha Baxter, who was then chosen as a United States senator and thus never sat on the court; Charles Augustus Harper, a Dartmouth College graduate and Unionist from Van Buren (Crawford County); and Chief Justice Thomas Daniel Webster (T. D. W.) Yonley, a Virginia-born Little Rock lawyer who had defended David O. Dodd, the boy hanged for spying for the Confederacy.

Yonley and Harper heard the case in December, and, on December 13, Yonley, in a long and eloquent opinion, overturned the law as exceeding the legislature’s power. Noting that “the constitution is the sun around which all legislative, executive and judicial bodies must revolve,” he explained that the requirements for voting had been fixed in the constitution and could not be changed by the legislature. Yonley also advanced the notion that “the framers of the present constitution of this state had in view, and represented all the people thereof, men, women and children, white, colored and Indians.” Besides the strong defense of judicial review and of the power of the U.S. president to grant pardons, Yonley observed that while ex-rebels could be denied the right to vote if they were convicted of treason against the state, they could not lose any of their rights by a legislative forfeiture.

The ruling set the stage for the return of the ex-Confederates to power. Had the Unionists remained in power and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as Tennessee had, Arkansas might have escaped Radical Reconstruction. Instead, an alarmed Congress took up the reins of Reconstruction, impeaching President Andrew Johnson and putting Arkansas under military rule. The Constitution of 1868 reversed Yonley’s ruling, and the disfranchisement of ex-Confederates kept the Republicans in power until the ratification of the constitution of 1874 soon after the Brooks-Baxter War. In 2014, the Arkansas Supreme Court cited Rison v. Farr in overturning a state law requiring all voters to show some form of picture identification before voting.

For additional information:
DeBlack, Thomas A. With Fire and Sword; Arkansas, 1861–1874. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.

Mulhollan, Paige E. “Arkansas General Assembly of 1866 and Its Effects on Reconstruction.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Winter 1961): 331–343.

Rison et al. vs. Farr, 24 Ark. 161, 1865.

Staples, Thomas S. Reconstruction in Arkansas, 1862–1874. New York: Columbia University Press, 1923.

Michael B. Dougan
Jonesboro, Arkansas


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