Akerman, Amos T. (1821-1880)
Amos T. Akerman (1821-1880)
Southern by Choice. Amos T. Akerman typified the Northerners who adopted the South as their home long before such cross-sectional transplants became stigmatized as “carpetbaggers.” Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1842. He took his first job as a teacher near Augusta, Georgia, and soon moved to Savannah as a tutor for the children of Judge John McPherson Berrien, who had been Andrew Jackson’s attorney general and was now a prominent Whig politician. After preparing under Berrien for admission to the bar, Akerman practiced briefly in Peoria, Illinois, where his sister lived, before returning to Georgia, where he established himself in the combined roles of lawyer, farmer, and ultimately, owner of eleven slaves. A Whig in politics, he opposed secession as an unwise strategy but followed his adopted home into the Confederacy. For much of the war he served in the Georgia state militia, and he joined in the mobilization of these troops upon Sherman’s invasion in 1864.
Politics of a Scalawag. “Some of us who had adhered to the Confederacy felt it to be our duty when we were to participate in the politics of the Union, to let Confederate ideas rule us no longer…,” Akerman once observed. “In the great conflict, one party had contended for nationality and liberty, the other for state rights and slavery. We thought that our surrender implied the giving up of all that had been in controversy.” Akerman expressed this policy as a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1867–1868, where he supported the extension of suffrage to African Americans. He protested when the Georgia legislature expelled the blacks who had been elected to office under the state constitution. At the same time, he demonstrated the economic conservatism that often accompanied progressive political views. He did not endorse redistribution of land to blacks, and he strenuously opposed repudiation of the state debt accumulated during the war. In short, he spoke for the group of white Southerners on whom rested much of the hope for rebuilding the region through the Republican Party. As a result President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him U.S. district attorney for Georgia in 1869.
Enforcing Civil Rights. After distinguishing himself in enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 while serving as the local representative of federal law, Akerman made the leap from district attorney to U.S. attorney general in 1870. His sudden elevation reflected his strategic importance in Washington politics. President Grant, embroiled in a feud with Sen. Charles Sumner over the senator’s opposition to a proposal to annex Haiti, dismissed Sumner’s ally Rockwood Hoar from his post as attorney general. By appointing Akerman to head the new Justice Department, Grant continued to favor the growth of the Republican Party in the South, courted potential allies of his Caribbean initiative, and sought to prevent the faction coalescing around Sumner from monopolizing the leadership in civil rights. Passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act in April 1871 provided Akerman with legal tools that matched his political mandate. Recently returned from a trip home that had provided firsthand reports of Southern recalcitrance and violence, he initiated systematic criminal prosecution of Klan members. U.S. attorneys in North Carolina and Mississippi obtained hundreds of indictments; convictions for federal civil rights violations jumped from thirty-two in 1870 to 128 in 1871.
Law and Order. The vigor of the Justice Department underscored the important point that the federal government could assert authority in the South without sustaining a prolonged military occupation. In South Carolina, however, Akerman recognized that the Ku Klux Klan was too powerful for his office to suppress without assistance. On his recommendation, Grant declared a “condition of lawlessness” in nine South Carolina counties in October 1871 and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Federal troops made arrests for civil rights violations, and as many as two thousand other Klansmen fled the state. Klan violence declined significantly after the early 1870s, an accomplishment for which Akerman and his fellow Justice Department attorneys deserved much credit, even though white Southerners were resorting less frequently to violence in part because political and economic factors were establishing white domination.
Dismissal. Akerman’s tenure as attorney general was as brief as it was spectacular, and the circumstances of his dismissal revealed some of the forces that undermined Reconstruction. His fixation on the civil rights crisis was not uniformly shared in Washington. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish recorded in his diary after one cabinet meeting that Akerman “tells a number of stories, one of a fellow being castrated, with terribly minute and tedious details in each case. It has got to be a bore to listen twice a week to this same thing.” In addition, although Akerman was far from an economic radical he had made enemies among the powerful railroad interests whose affairs he had affected in supervising compliance with contracts that promised vast land grants. In December 1871 Grant asked for his resignation and replaced him with a former senator from Oregon who continued the prosecutions initiated by Akerman but represented the hope for Southern reform less powerfully than his predecessor. Although Grant offered the outgoing attorney general a seat on the federal bench or a diplomatic mission, Akerman returned home to Cartersville, Georgia, and practiced law until his death in 1880.
William S. McFeely, “Amos T. Akerman: The Lawyer and Racial Justice,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of ? Vann Woodward, edited by J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 395–415.
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