I guess the lesson should have been obvious even before John Milton (above), the uncompromising Confederate Governor of Florida, decided that “death would be preferable to reunion” and shot himself on April Fools Day, 1865. The date was appropriate. But what actually drove the old slave master to suicide was not the approach of a vengeful Union Army, or even a slave uprising, but a desperate band Confederate deserters seeking to exchange the Governor for ransom. Milton took advantage of the crises to make a theatrical exit. In his dramatic wake, he left a state flat broke, its treasury filled with worthless bonds issued by other bankrupt rebel states, and reduced to paying its employees with play money. And the guy who got stuck with Milton's unpaid bills was a newspaper man from Wisconsin who eventually showed greater political savvy than a whole room full of secessionist thespians like Governor Milton.
When Harrison Reed (above) took the oath as Governor on 8 June 1868, Florida was so broke it tried to sell the port of Pensacola to Georgia. But Georgia was too broke to meet the price. As if things were not bad enough, Governor Reed was facing the additional annoyance of his Lieutenant Governor, William Henry Gleason. Gleason was a businessman who, like Reed, had entered politics because there was a sudden shortage of professional politicians in Florida. This was because the 1867 Military Reconstruction Act had disenfranchised everyone who had served in the rebel governments. This reduced Florida Democratic legislators to just 23. And that left control of the legislature to the 38 Republicans - 13 recently liberated slaves which the Freedman Bureau had registered as Republicans, and the white carpetbagger do-gooders (like Reed) who were on a moral mission to assist the Freedmen, and the rapacious white Republican carpetbagging businessmen (like Gleason) who were in Florida to feast on the destitute south. And this fractured ruling party functioned in a leadership role for only five months, until Tuesday, 3 November, 1868, when all 76 members of the legislature met in special session to vote the Federal Presidential election.
In the midst of the Republican victory, the inexperienced politicians presented the Governor with a bill authorizing reimbursement for their travel expenses to make the vote. Reed responded by informing the members that while he was happy to pay their travel costs to Tallahassee, he could not authorize a per Diem payment for lodging and food. So he vetoed the bill. It was a rookie mistake, and it convinced the rapacious Republicans like Gleason, and the man in charge of the Freedman's bureau, Thomas Ward Osborn, that Reed was a naive fool who could be quickly eliminated.
Reed was vulnerable. Osborn pointed out to “his” Freedmen that Governor Reed had no blacks in his administration. Clearly, the Governor was not their true friend. That made it easy to convince enough Freedmen in the Florida house of Representatives to impeach Governor Reed on trumped up charges. The house Democrats were, of course, happy to depose any Republican governor, for whatever reason. But when the case was then transferred for trial to the Senate, presided over by Lt. Governor Gleason, things got really interesting.
Senate Democrats chose this moment to throw a tantrum and were refusing to take their seats. Without a quorum, Gleason simply graveled the senate adjourned. And then, since Governor Reed was under a charge of impeachment, Gleason declared himself Governor. It seemed a perfectly obvious solution, at least to Mr. Gleason and Mr. Osborn, and to Secretary of State George Alden, who slipped into the Governor's offices in the state capital (above) and stole the official Florida state seal. Gleason could now issue proclamations and instructions to state employees with the official stamp of approval.
But now Governor Reed and his ideological Republicans finally woke up to his perilous situation and took bold action. On 6 November, 1868, he fired Alden. The Secretary of State was an appointed office, and the Governor could do that. Better yet, Reed replaced his disloyal man with John C. Gibbs (above), a carpetbagging African-American, and well qualified for the post. Reed now had an African-American in this cabinet. Alden was so stunned he actually showed up at his old office in the state house, to watch his replacement being sworn in. When Freedmen blocked his way, Alden whined that “All of us are true Republicans, my colored friends.” But this time the Freedmen were not buying it, and Alden slunk away. Now with Freedman support, on Saturday, 7 November, Reed issued a new memo addressed to Gleason. “I am, under the Constitution and laws of this State, the rightful Governor thereof, and shall continue to exercise the power and authority, and discharge all of the duties belonging to the office of the executive Department until the Judicial tribunals of the State shall determine otherwise.” Seal or no official seal, that sounded like a real Governor talking.
Observed a local newspaper, “Thus the matter stands...Governor Reed occupying the executive chamber, and Johnathan C. Gibbs, occupying the Secretary of State's apartment in the state house, and Governor Gleason and Secretary Alden preforming their official duties at the city hotel.” Then, on Monday, 9 November, the Attorney General filed a writ pro warranto with the State Supreme Court, alleging that Gleason had not been a resident of Florida for the two years required under the Florida constitution, and was thus ineligible for public office. This was true, but then everybody had known that before he was elected. But because of a shortage of qualified Republican politicians, nobody had brought it up before. But Gleason had now made it worth the effort for Reed. Gleason felt required to respond, but he waited a week. On Monday, 16 November 1868, he issued yet another proclamation declaring Governor Reed was “Under arrest and disqualified” from preforming any official duties. Nobody but Gleason's business allies paid much attention to him or his memo.
A professional politician would have backed down, licked his wounds, apologized to Reed and hoped to fight again another day. Instead Gleason over-played his hand. He crossed Monroe street, and all alone, walked into Governor Reed's offices in the capital, removed his fancy beaver hat and sat down in the waiting room. He spoke to no one. He answered no questions. He made no statement. He delivered no ultimatum. He simply sat down on a chair in the waiting room, and...well, he just waited. It was a one man sit-in. Was he expecting Governor Reed and his staff to go home at five o'clock, leaving him to occupy the rooms? Was he expecting them to all retreat from the building with their tails between their legs? Was he expecting that one of the assistant Attorneys General, one George Carese, would try to strangle him? Well, probably not. But that is what happened. Carese, who was on his way to speak to the Governor, spotted Gleason in the waiting room, and blew a gasket. Now, when Carese attacked, he may or may not have had a pistol in his right hand, but there is no doubt about the intent of his left hand, grasping for Gleason's throat.
Gleason came to the spontaneous conclusion that Carese meant to kill him. The beaver hat went flying in one direction, and Gleason went flying in the other, out the door, down the stairs and across the red mud of Monroe Street. He did not stop until he was safely ensconced again in his rooms in the City Hotel (above). After that everything was over except for the court cases, which all went against Gleason. On Tuesday, 24 November Chief Justice Randall of the state Supreme Court, ruled that “without the actually-expressed consent of both houses, there has not been an effective impeachment and the suspension from official duties.” Gleason had been a little too anxious to adjourn the Senate. Oh, and Gleason was not qualified to be Lt. Governor, ruled Justice Randall. The amateur Gleason would appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but nobody was willing to help out yet another stupid politician who had cooked his own goose.
All of which left the ravenous Thomas Ward Osborn (above) hungry for revenge. And on 5 January, 1869, when the new session of the legislature convened, Osborn quickly reassembled his forces. The Freedmen could still be a dependable voting block, but as Osborn himself had recently assured friends the Freedmen were smart enough to recognize their own self interest, and their price to do Osborn's bidding had gone up. Also Osborn worked hard to cultivate the dozen or so white southern Democrats who willing to work with carpetbaggers - meaning to be bought. Osborn took several rooms at the City Hotel, and there entertained the pliable legislators. A Democrat observed the gathering and wrote, “The poorest and the most shabby carpetbagger could be seen drinking the sparkling champagne and wearing fine beavers” The House Democrats again voted with Osborn, and Reed was again impeached on trumped up charges, by a vote of 30 to 5. Representatives of Osborn warned the governor that if he did not resign within 24 hours the entire legislature would surely vote to convict him.
However, by the time the legislature started considering the trial, Reed's allies had spread details of the goings on at the City Hotel, and they were being reported in the local Florida newspapers. The Representatives started getting nasty telegrams and letters from the voters. The politicians responded by opening an official investigation of the bribery and vote buying. The Osborn faction suddenly had to start spending more time covering their own tracks. And on Tuesday, 26 January 1869, both house voted down Reed's second impeachment, 43 to 5.
The Republican Party was losing what little respect it had with white voters in Florida, and pressure from Washington convinced the rapacious Republican to publicly swear fidelity to Governor Reed. But in private Osborn plotted and planned. And two years later, in February of 1872, the Republicans did it all again. Reed was once again impeached by the house, and his Lt. Governor, now an opportunist named Samuel Day, waited until the impeachment trial had begun before adjourning the legislature, and declaring himself Governor.
Then, amazingly, Day left town along with the other conspirators. Quickly, Reed was back in Tallahassee, and announced that he was re-assuming the role of Governor. Once again the issue went before the state Supreme Court. But this time Chief Justice Randall sided with the opposition. The trial had started, said Randall, and Reed was out as governor, at least until it was completed. However, added Justice Randall, Lt. Governor Day was “in no sense” the new Governor. The weary Governor Reed (above) later wrote to a friend, “I have not suffered for four years, to now be willing to see my glorious work overthrown and freedom cheated of her triumphs”. It was debatable just how glorious Reed's work was, but that is another story.
As a disgusted Democrat observed, “This gypsy politics degrades the character of all who are concerned.” And it certainly degraded the Republican party. Public disgust drove the legislature back to work just a month later, and on 4 May, 1872, Justice Randall, who had presided over the trial, could inform Reed that he had been cleared of all charges, by a vote of 29 to 21. In January of 1873 Reed finished his 4 year term as Governor, during which he had been impeached 3 times and cleared 3 times. Reed The Carpetbagger stayed on in Florida, living outside of Jacksonville with his new wife, until his death in 1899.
The Jim Crow era in Florida began with the end of Reconstruction in 1877. In 1881 it became illegal in Florida for a white to marry a negro, in 1885 for white and "colored" children to be educated in the same building. Another African-American would not be elected to the Florida legislature until 1968 - Joe Lang Kershaw from Dade County. And still, the voters of Florida seem incapable of learning the lesson that refusal to compromise, about race, sex, language or religion, leads to nothing but drama. And not even good drama.
- 30 -