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Akerman, Amos Tappan


Amos Tappan Akerman, born in 1819 in New Hampshire, served as attorney general of the United States from 1870 to 1872 under President ulysses s. grant.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Akerman was admitted to the bar in 1841. He opened his first practice at Elberton, Georgia, in 1850. He was a well-established attorney by the outbreak of the Civil War. Akerman supported Georgia's decision to secede from the Union in 1861, and he served the Confederate government in the quartermaster's department during the war. (A quartermaster is charged with procuring and dispensing uniforms, weapons, and other supplies for the troops.) After the war, Akerman developed ties with the republican party and the Reconstructionists. He was appointed district attorney for Georgia in 1866. Four years later, he was named attorney general of the United States.

Akerman's tenure as attorney general coincided with the Grant administration's early attempts to enforce civil rights laws in the South during reconstruction. Initially, Akerman believed prosecutions for violations of criminal civil rights acts should be left to state and local authorities. However, he soon changed his mind and advocated a more aggressive federal role in the prosecution of crimes related to civil rights.

His change of mind can be attributed to the growth of the ku klux klan in the South, and the results of a congressional investigation. Investigators found that state and local legal systems in the South were inadequate to protect the rights of free blacks or to prosecute the increasingly violent actions of the Klan.

Akerman agreed that the federal government should step in, and he wrote extensively on the subject. In his opinion, some Southerners would never acknowledge the rights of free blacks and government attempts to "conciliate by kindness" were a waste of time. He noted that Southern klansmen and other malcontents "take all kindness … as evidence of timidity, and hence are emboldened to lawlessness by it." He concluded that the federal government should "command their respect by the exercise of its powers."

With Akerman's leadership—and his successful effort to obtain a financial commitment from Congress—attorneys from the newly created department of justice worked with local U.S. attorneys to bring hundreds of indictments under the Enforcement Act of 1870 (16 Stat. 140 [codified as amended at 42 U.S.C.A. § 1981 et seq.]) and the ku klux klan act of 1871 (§ 2, 17 Stat. 13 [current version at 42 U.S.C.A. § 1985(3) (Supp. V 1976)]).

Together, these government officials prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned hundreds of Klan members from 1870 to 1872, and, for a short time, criminal civil rights acts were successfully enforced in the South. Though he "rejoiced" at the suppression of the Klan, Akerman wrote, "I feel greatly saddened by this business. It has revealed a perversion of moral sentiment among the Southern whites, which bodes ill to that part of the country for this generation."

Akerman was also saddened—and frustrated—by fiscal circumstances that combined to slow his efforts. Concerned by the growing financial burden of the actions, and pressured to allocate funds for other priorities, Congress and the Grant administration eventually brought Akerman's prosecutions to a standstill. The violence resumed, and Akerman resigned.

Akerman's resignation as attorney general can also be attributed to his discouragement with the pace of federal civil rights enforcement, and to political issues as well. Akerman had angered President Grant by refusing to execute a deed conveying western lands to the railroads, and he had antagonized many congressional Republicans with his lack of support for other business and railroad projects.

"It concerns us more to ascertain what is the constitutional rule than to learn whether that rule has always been observed. Nineteen violations of the Constitution do not justify a twentieth."
—Amos Tappan Akerman

After his resignation, Akerman returned to private life and the practice of law. He died in 1880.

further readings

Baker, Nancy V. 1992. Conflicting Loyalties: Law and Politics in the Attorney General's Office, 1789–1990. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.


Civil Rights Acts; Grant, Ulysses Simpson; Ku Klux Klan Act; Railroad.

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