Antebellum Politics and Newspapers

Dr. Timothy D. Hudson

General Andrew Jackson’s election as president in December 1828 ushered in the Second Party System and the emergence of the Jacksonian Democrats as a major party in American politics. Jackson’s heavy-handed policies during his first term caused his opponents, led by Senator Henry Clay, to coalesce into the Whig Party during Jackson’s second term from 1832-1836. The Whigs lost to Van Buren in 1836 but by transforming their popular perception as a party of the rich and privileged, in the 1840 election they staged a conservative revolution that stunned the Jacksonian Democrats: Whig candidate William Henry Harrison won the presidency in December 1840.

Politics during the nineteenth century polarized the populace just as it does in modern times, and the philosophical divide between the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs became massive and unbridgeable. As settlers began moving from the eastern states into what is now Union Parish in the 1830s and early 1840s, they brought their staunch political beliefs with them. This Democrat vs. Whig battle resulted in the first known act of violence in the newly-created Union Parish between two of the parish’s founding fathers, Col. Matthew Wood and Peter J. Harvey. The pair had grown up near each other in Georgia, but Wood was a fervent Whig who celebrated the election of William Henry Harrison to the Presidency in 1841, whereas Harvey was a staunch Jacksonian Democrat. Witnesses who knew them described Wood as “a straightforward high minded gentleman” who “always weighed things well before he took hold of it.” Harvey was “a quick, fractious, high tempered man.” Both men had two sons, Willis and Thompson Wood and James and Kindred Harvey, “all nice and fine looking young men.” At one of the earliest sessions of court in Farmerville held at the house of Sheriff William C. Carr, Kindred Harvey and Thompson Wood had a serious disagreement. Both “stout, able bodied men,” their argument led to the longest and hardest fistfights ever “fought in or about Farmerville.” As their sons duked it out, Peter Harvey made a comment that enraged Col. Wood, and Wood threw a rock at Harvey, striking him in the head and knocking him to the ground. Harvey’s other son, Jim, then began making comments against Col. Wood, so Willis Wood began fighting Jim Harvey at the same time, turning the situation into a general scrimmage.

In the events leading up to the 1840 Presidential election, tensions ran high, with big barbeques and stump speeches in Farmerville that attracted citizens from across the parish. Harrison campaigned as a man who lived in a log cabin in the wilderness, so Union Parish Whigs such as Col. Matthew Wood, Parish Judge John Taylor, and Sheriff Carr would hang a coonskin at the gate in front of their log cabins, and their wives would hang a long string of red peppers on their door in Harrison’s honor. Jacksonian Democrats such as William W. Farmer would hoist exceedingly long poles in front of their cabins, with a large American flag on top to distinguish their homes from the Whig cabins. The Whig euphoria over winning the Presidency did not last long, for after giving an exceedingly long inaugural address on a very cold and wet day, President William H. Harrison died of pneumonia after only one month as chief executive, on 4 April 1841. As a sign of mourning, Col. Wood tied a strip of black crepe around his arm. One day soon afterwards, Harvey walked into Farmerville’s make-shift saloon to find Wood seated at the counter. Wood said, “Good morning, Peter.” Harvey replied, “I will speak to no man that wears mourning for as grand an old rascal as old Harrison.” Incensed, Col. Wood drew out an old-fashioned percussion lock pistol and shot Harvey, who happened to have donned a lizard-tail coat with metal buttons when he left home that morning. A button over Harvey’s heart deflected the bullet, saving his life. Harvey jumped on Wood, grabbed the pistol from his hand, knocked him to the ground, and then began beating him with the pistol’s butt. Bystanders pulled Harvey off, and then the men saw blood running down Harvey’s pants. They all thought Harvey would momentarily expire, and Willis Wood rushed his father off into the woods before returning to check on Harvey, who only had a minor flesh wound. Shortly thereafter, Col. Wood sold, his vast farm near Farmerville to his sons and moved to Texas, apparently never standing trial for shooting Harvey. A few months later, Harvey also sold his farm near Farmerville, moving east to Mississippi.

In the lower Mississippi River Valley, the arrival of journalism to a new town typically coincided with the advent of regular steamboat service, because New Orleans merchants proved eager to advertise in any potential new market with convenient access to the Crescent City. As the State prepared to complete the clearing of Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney during the dry season of 1848, George A. Hammond moved from New Orleans to Farmerville and installed the town’s first printing press. During the last week in January 1848, he rented office space near the New Orleans wharf and solicited advertisement from steamboat owners and others with business in the Ouachita region for a newspaper he planned to establish in Farmerville. Hammond proclaimed himself the paper’s editor and described the “extensive circulation” of the “Union Expositor” before it even debuted. He published the first issue of the “Union Expositor” in Farmerville the first week of March and received a warm reception from the state press. The New Orleans “Daily Picayune” described it as “a fine looking sheet, which promises to be useful to its parish, ” while “The Daily Crescent” pronounced it “a handsome sheet” that “indicates ability and judgment in its editorials and selections.” Vidalia’s “Concordia Intelligencer” received the ninth edition of the “Union Expositor” the second week of May, describing to its readers that Hammond’s paper “…is published in the pleasant and prosperous town of Farmerville….is well printed, industriously and able edited and is worthy of an enviable place among its contemporaries…one of the best newspapers that we know of…”

Hammond chose to not espouse a particular political philosophy in his “Union Expositor” editorials for his contemporaries described it as “neutral in politics.” This undoubtedly helped his paper’s appeal across Union Parish, which remained somewhat evenly divided between Democrats and Whigs during this period. Rather than merely reprint the opinions of other editors as some country weeklies of the period, Hammond wrote detailed and insightful editorials on the leading local and statewide political issues of the day, including public school funding for north Louisiana residents, issues with District Court ligation for residents living north of the Red River, the State Engineer’s work on the state’s rivers and bayous, and multiple articles on the Whig and Democratic candidates for the upcoming election. Hammond published the “Union Expositor” through June 1849. By the end of the year, the “Farmerville Enquirer” had replaced the “Expositor” as Farmerville’s voice in print. Hammond undoubtedly ended his run as newspaper editor so he could assume the position of Assistant U.S. Marshal, charged with enumerating the 1850 Union Parish Federal Census. In 1850, he gave his occupation as printer, and he lived in one of Farmerville’s hotels. After completing his work on the census, Hammond moved back to New Orleans. The “Farmerville Enquirer” had already begun regular publication by 12 December 1849, presumably debuting a few months earlier, with attorney Francis Marion Levison as editor. Born in South Carolina in 1821, Levison grew up in Georgia, received his law degree from Princeton College (the forerunner of Princeton University) and was admitted to the Georgia bar before serving as Adjutant in the Georgia Infantry during the Mexican War. After conducting himself with “marked bravery and heroism” during that conflict, he moved to Farmerville with his parents, Abraham and Jane Levison, natives of Holland and Belgium, who opened a mercantile establishment in the thriving little town. Francis M. Levison was admitted to the Louisiana bar, and operated a law practice in Farmerville in addition to his editorial duties with the “Farmerville Enquirer.”

In stark contrast to the political neutrality Hammond maintained with his “Union Expositor’. Levison’s editorials staunchly advocated Democratic political philosophies, and newspapers across the nation reprinted his insightful political commentaries. While the furor over the Compromise of 1850 raged in Georgia and South Carolina, Francis M. Levison published calming editorials that urged restraint from the “hot brained advocates of violent and revolutionary remedies for political evils, which would readily yield to gentler treatment”. He expressed the widespread approval of the Farmerville and north Louisiana citizens with the compromise advocated by local resident and Louisiana Senator, Solomon W. Downs. In addition to having his political editorials regularly published, Levison gave the keynote address at a political rally in support of Senator Downs and the Compromise at the courthouse in Farmerville on 16 October 1850. This national attention Levison’s editorials attracted caught the eye of the owners of the Baton Rouge “The Daily Advocate,” and they offered him the position of editor in early September. He resigned from the “Farmerville Enquirer” to take advantage of this opportunity, and promptly moved to Baton Rouge. After writing his first editorial for the “Advocate,” Levison made a quick trip to New Orleans. On the Saturday night, 27 September 1851, Levison boarded the steamer “Brilliant” at the New Orleans levees to return to Baton Rouge. By 8:00 a.m. the next morning, as she steamed past the mouth of Bayou Goula about six miles south of Plaquemine, the “Brilliant’s” starboard boiler exploded, showering the crew and passengers with boiling water and destroying the steamer. Levison suffered severe burns over much of his body, and he lingered in agony until his death on October 7th.

The “Farmerville Enquirer” continued in publication for the next five years, with newspapers from across the country reprinting her articles and editorials. Between 1851 and 1852, the paper’s political identity morphed considerable from that advocated by Levison. As the Whig Party slowly disintegrated in the 1850s over the issue of expansion of slavery into the territories, its former adherents flocked to a new political movement, the American Party, more commonly known as the Know Nothing Party, which focused on nativism and advocated anti-Catholic sentiments. The “Farmerville Enquirer” became the leading proponent of the Know Nothing cause in Louisiana. Mr. Craig edited the “Enquirer” from 1853 until January 1855, when he turned the duties over to William C. Carr. A staunch Whig opposed to the Jacksonian Democratic Party principles, Carr now carried the Know Nothing banner for Union Parish, promising to conduct the paper upon “true American principles.” Although Carr’s anti-Catholic editorials caused hot debate statewide due to heavily Catholic South Louisiana, a majority of Union Parish residents supported the Know Nothing cause during the party’s brief existence.

The meteoric rise of the Know Nothing Party illustrated the deeply-felt political animosity between the old Whig and the Democrat Parties, mirroring the local political landscape that had long existed within Farmerville and Union Parish. Since its creation in 1839, the local citizens had elected both Whigs (Carr, Phillip May, Thomas van Hook) and Democrats (Solomon W. Downs, William W. Farmer, James Moore) to represent them in the State Legislature, a tug of war reminiscent of that played out across much of the country. Now the Know-Nothings carried Union Parish in the mid-1850s, with citizens electing Union Parish Sheriff Jordan Gray Taylor as their state representative in November 1857 over Democrat Jesse F. Fuller.

With the “Farmerville Enquirer” staunchly espousing the Know Nothing ideals, the Democrats needed a competing voice in print. Destined by fate to have only a brief run, the “Farmerville Era” debuted about 1855 or early 1856, founded by local Democrats to counter the Know Nothing influence of the “Enquirer”. The Know Nothing Party faltered in the statewide elections of 1856, and then quickly faded from the political scene as the nation continued on its inexorable pathway to war. The “Farmerville Era” and “Farmerville Enquirer” ceased publication soon after the election in November 1856.

After having weekly newspaper coverage for the previous nine years, beginning in 1857, no newspaper was printed in Farmerville, forcing the Union Parish sheriff or his deputy to post legal notices on the courthouse door in Farmerville and then ride horseback to Shiloh, Downsville, and Marion to post additional copies of public notices. In February 1859, John Mercer Rabun, a young man of merely twenty-four, founded the “Union Democrat” in Farmerville. As its name implies, this paper followed Rabun’s own political philosophy, that of the Democratic Party. Two young men living in Farmerville in 1860 undoubtedly worked in the “Union Democrat” office; 27 year old Savory B. Pernette, who worked as a printer, and 16 year old John H. Guice, who worked as a “printer’s devil”. Since Guice lived with District Court Clerk Thomas Charles Lewis, III, it appears that Lewis played some role in the operation of the “Union Democrat.” The “Democrat” remained in continual operation for the next several years, published weekly in Farmerville. The paper remained in publication at least until the disintegration of the United States in early 1861. After Louisiana voted to secede from the United States in January 1861, the title of Rabun’s paper gave a politically uncomfortable connotation, so he changed the name form the “Union Democrat” to “Swing South”. Publication continued until the fall of 1861, by which time most of the paper’s staff had left for service in the Confederate Army. Rabun shut down his paper that fall, leaving Farmerville without newspaper coverage for the duration of the war.

 

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Dr. Timothy D. Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana and an avid historian on Union Parish. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.

 

 

 

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