By Ken Bridges
In December 1851, few suspected that the birth of Thomas Chipman McRae in Mount Holly would change the direction of Arkansas forever. As the oldest of five children, he led his family through difficult times and later led the South Arkansas region through its times of frustration. In time, he would rise to the state's governorship, embarking on an ambitious program that would give all Arkansans hope for a brighter future.
His father, Duncan McRae, helped found the Mount Holly community after his arrival in Arkansas in 1843 (Baird 152). Like most families in the region, the McRae family engaged in farming. The Ouachita River Valley was renowned for its rich soil and had established itself as an important cotton-producing area. According to census records, the elder McRae owned some thirteen slaves in 1860 (Ledbetter 3). Fearful of what the impending war between the states meant for his position, the elder McRae volunteered for the Confederate army when the war erupted, but officials felt that at 45, his best years were behind him.
The Civil War years produced intense hardship for many families. The McRae family would not be an exception. Tragedy befell the family two years later, when in July 1863, Duncan McRae died. This forced Thomas McRae, as the eldest son, to care for his family. He worked hard, briefly serving as a courier for Confederate forces operating in the South Arkansas area. His mother remarried in 1868, allowing the future governor to actively consider furthering his education.
Thomas McRae attended a series of private schools in the area, particularly in Mt. Holly, Shady Grove, and the co-educational Masonic Academy in Falcon where he met his future wife, Amelia Ann White. The school was run by the Masons, a private civic organization. Public schools were exceedingly rare in Arkansas in the nineteenth century. Nearly half of all school-aged children in the state did not attend school at all. This left a powerful impression on McRae, prompting him to work for improvements in education in his later years. After graduation from the Masonic Academy, he found work at a retail store in Shreveport and soon went to New Orleans to attend the Soule Business College. He briefly returned to Arkansas before enrolling at Washington and Lee Law School in Lexington, Virginia, for the 1871 term. Astoundingly, he completed the two-year course of study in one year.
McRae quickly returned to Arkansas and passed the bar exams. In 1873, he set up a law practice in Rosston in the newly-created Nevada County in the southwestern part of the state. The next year, he married his sweetheart from the Masonic Academy. Amelia White, the daughter of the county clerk, was a native of the area. The two would have nine children in their long marriage together.
In 1874, he received an appointment as election commissioner for Nevada County, a county formed just three years earlier. Two years later, he won the nomination of Nevada County Democrats to the Arkansas House of Representatives. He won the election as Arkansans continued to recoil against the excesses of Reconstruction. Radical Republicans had run up a $14 million bond debt in their zeal to build a slew of levees and railroads. A faction of Democrats angry with the debts and a number of other debts dating back to the 1840s, tried to cancel the bonds, arguing that the bonds were issued illegally. McRae warned against repudiating the debt which he believed would ruin the state's credit and imperil the success of any other bond project in the future. McRae noted, "By repudiating, we lose both our credit and our honor." (Ledbetter 5). The repudiation amendments failed in both 1877 and 1880, but passed in 1884, and the state's credit rating collapsed as a result. McRae decided not to seek re-election in 1884, but he kept his eye on political developments.
The election of Grover Cleveland as president in 1884 presented an incredible opportunity for McRae, albeit indirectly. Arkansas's Senator Augustus H. Garland won appointment as attorney general in the new Cleveland administration. Garland resigned and was replaced in the Senate by U. S. Rep. Jesse K. Jones, now leaving a vacancy in his congressional district, covering the western and southern parts of the state. McRae leapt at the chance and announced his candidacy for the special election to fill the remainder of Jones's term. He announced a platform friendly to the concerns of farmers throughout the rural district in the 1880s: free coinage of silver to promote higher commodity prices, ensuring that more public lands doled out by the federal government actually went to the settlers instead of the railroads, and the forfeiture of railroad land grants when they to meet the conditions of the grant. In addition to the call for more land and stable crop prices, he also called for improvements in the public education system.
The Democrats decided to rally behind a single candidate, and at a special convention, McRae won over his fellow partisans to secure the nomination on the second ballot. The people liked the young attorney and he won election to the United States House of Representatives, capturing seventeen of the district's nineteen counties. He would serve the third district in Congress for the next eighteen years.
He labored for more land and more credit for farmers while serving on the Public Lands Committee. The congressman managed to cancel most of the state's debts to the federal government, which alleviated some of the fiscal problems in Arkansas. By 1893, his years of long work had earned him the chairmanship of the committee. Concerned with over-harvesting of trees and the future of the nation's forests and lumber reserves, he fought to create forest reserves throughout the country. He defeated many attempts by lumber interests and western congressmen to derail his forest reserve program, triumphing by 1897.
In 1903, satisfied with his accomplishments in Congress, he returned to Prescott to practice law once again. In 1905, he bought the Bank of Prescott. The state's other bankers became so impressed with his skill, they elected him president of the Arkansas Bankers Association in 1909. He maintained an active civic life, serving on the State Board of Charities, the Board of Trustees of Arkansas College in Batesville, and the Arkansas Tuberculosis Association (Ledbetter 9).
In October 1915, McRae decided to return to politics and announced his candidacy for governor. In front of an excited crowd of 5,000 in Prescott, McRae called for improvements to the state's education system and for Prohibition. Two months before the March 1916 primary, he withdrew, citing concerns that the balloting was rigged. He also served as a delegate to the state constitutional convention of 1917-18, a document which was handily defeated by Arkansas voters in 1918. Undeterred, McRae prepared to run for governor once again.
Women could now vote in Arkansas and the state had pushed the primary to August, essentially the election in the absence of a significant Republican opposition in the state, making the 1920 primary an entirely different kind of election than McRae had ever participated. McRae called for streamlining government by eliminating many state commissions and boards, a new highway system, support for public education, and in deference to the powerful new voting bloc, promised to put women on state commissions. "Make Arkansas the equal of the best state in this blessed Union!" he cried at his announcement in Searcy.
The other major candidate in the race, Camden attorney Smead Powell, initially had the backing of the railroad interests and the incumbent governor, Charles Brough. Powell, however, alienated Brough by criticizing his highway programs, leading the governor to withdraw his support. McRae's opponents criticized his banking connections (an unpopular profession to many Arkansans in 1920) and his advancing age, 68, but voters ignored these concerns and gave him the nomination with a plurality of 10,000 votes (Ledbetter 14). McRae won the general election easily, capturing 65 percent of the vote.
Chaos engulfed the state in the postwar years. Unnerved by the pace of change and reform, the rise of socialism, and the war, many in the state longed to escape into a mythic past. The Ku Klux Klan rose from the ashes of its Reconstruction past to embark on a self-appointed rampage across the state to erase the vestiges of reform, women's suffrage, civil rights, and any trace of modernity. The power of the Klan swept across the state, sparking a civil war in the Arkansas Democratic Party, the only viable political organization in the state at the time. Many officials tried to fight the Klan, only to be thrown out of office by Klan-sponsored candidates.
McRae was caught in the middle of the fight as the new governor tried to fight the lynchings and mob violence engulfing the state. Shortly after McRae assumed office in January 1921, white mobs in Mississippi County swarmed around the county jail, zeroing in on a local African-American man as the target of their bloodlust. McRae, hearing of the rising tensions, prepared to send a detachment of the Arkansas National Guard to bring the man to the state penitentiary in protective custody. The Mississippi County sheriff, however, persuaded the new governor that he had the situation under control and no harm would come to the suspect. On January 27, the sheriff allowed the mobs to kill the man (Ledbetter 17). McRae angrily lectured the legislature about the vicious injustices perpetrated by lynch mobs and demanded a law that removed any official who failed to protect prisoners from lynchings. The legislature refused the request. McRae's personal secretary, however, was an active member in the Klan (Moneyhon 143). In 1922, the Klan endorsed McRae in his re-election bid, apparently in support of McRae's programs to stop crime and support for Prohibition. According to all reports, he did not seek the endorsement. Nevertheless, this became an indelible blot on McRae's record.
Despite these frustrations, McRae endeavored to live up to his campaign rallying cry to bring progress to the state. He appointed the first woman officeholder in the state in 1921, a notary public; and he also pushed the legislature to approve a law ensuring that women could hold office in Arkansas as well as vote. After oil was discovered in Union County, McRae quickly recognized the importance of this find and established the office of state geologist.
The state's attempts to build a system of highways for the increasing number of automobiles had turned into a disaster. Local highway districts charged with maintaining county and state roads had become riddled with fraud and the state's few federal highways were quickly falling into disrepair. The federal government threatened to eliminate the state's highway funding unless the problem was corrected and road construction was placed under a single government body. Thwarted by the legislature, McRae appointed an honorary 40-member commission to make recommendations to the legislature.
Education also became an issue of utmost importance to McRae. He had long been troubled by the limited access of many Arkansas children to schools. Those who did attend, usually attended only 130 days each year. After a federal study of the state's schools in 1922, the Arkansas Educational Commission delivered a series of recommendations (Johnson 110). McRae endorsed these recommendations in their entirety: a state equalization fund for the poorer districts, more high schools for rural areas, consolidation of the smaller school districts, and better-educated teachers. Schools of the 1920s remained largely unorganized, lacking a standard statewide curriculum, while poorer districts, small and fragmented, could provide only the most rudimentary education.
Attempts to improve funding for education to improve the facilities and improve the state's highways were defeated by the legislature. McRae won some small successes by cutting extraneous paid commissions from the state payroll, which provided only limited relief. The governor concluded that he had won roughly half of his recommendations from the legislature as he prepared for re-election (Ledbetter 15). He won reelection easily in 1922, trouncing Chicot County Judge E. P. Toney of Lake Village by 70,000 votes in the primary and winning the general election by an equally wide margin with 78 percent of the vote.
In his second term, McRae moved more aggressively to find sources of revenue for the state's highways and schools. The legislature passed an income tax of 1 percent on gross income designed to replace the state property tax and fund the schools. The state supreme court, however, found the enforcement and construction of the law unconstitutional. A 1924 special legislative session failed to produce any new forms of revenue for education (Johnson 111). A severance tax, of which all revenues would be directed to the schools, made advantage of the new oil wealth recently discovered in the southern parts of the state. Within three years, these taxes produced $3.5 million for the public schools, but resources were still limited.
He also won approval for the Harrelson Highway Act, which created a unified highway commission as well as a system of severance taxes, registration fees, and gasoline taxes to help fund highways. Local interests, however, pushed to divide the gasoline taxes between local roads and state highways, leaving the state's ability to build new roads seriously limited. Federal funding for Arkansas highways, however, was restored, and Arkansas began to slowly improve its highway system.
After his second term ended, he returned to Prescott to resume his law practice and his banking ventures until his death in 1929. He had risen from quiet obscurity. Through hard work and determination, McRae rose to the heights of Arkansas politics, leaving a legacy of reform, education, and transportation for the state. Today, a historical marker sits in the middle of this town of perhaps 400 souls, marking how one quiet man rose from this unassuming community to the heights of Arkansas politics.
Bridges teaches history at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado.
Baird, W. David. "Thomas Chipman McRae," The Governors of Arkansas: Essays in
Political Biography. Timothy P. Dorman and William B. Gatewood, eds. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1981.
"Biographical Directory of the United States Congress," http://bioguide.congress.gov.
Johnson, Ben F. "'All Thoughtful Citizens:' The Arkansas School Reform Movement,
1921-1930," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 46 (Summer 1987): 105-132.
Ledbetter, Calvin R."Thomas C. McRae: National Forests, Education, Highways, and
Brickhouse v. Hill," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 59 (Spring 2000): 1-29.
Moneyhon, Carl H. Arkansas and the New South, 1874-1929. Fayetteville: University
of Arkansas Press, 1997.
Whayne, Jeannie M., et al. Arkansas: A Narrative History. Fayetteville: University of
Arkansas Press, 2002.