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Alcorn's Great Insult

March 5, 1875

Black and white photograph of James Alcorn seated.

It was a dramatic moment in Senate history! On March 5, 1875, a hushed anticipation filled the Senate Chamber, as Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, the second African American to serve in the Senate and the first to serve a full term, rose from his desk to take the oath of office. He stood alone. It is customary for a state’s senior senator to escort a new colleague to the presiding officer’s desk, but Mississippi’s senior senator, James Alcorn, refused. Instead, he sat resolutely at his desk, his face buried in a newspaper.

After a moment of awkward hesitation, Bruce began his solitary walk down the aisle. Fortunately, as he reached the halfway mark, New York senator Roscoe Conkling appeared. Linking his arm through that of the grateful Bruce, Conkling stood by as the new senator took the oath of office. Conkling saved the moment, Bruce’s historic career began, and James Alcorn's refusal became a part of Senate lore—one of the great insults of Senate history. But what motivated that insult?

James Alcorn was born in Illinois in 1816, but spent much of his childhood and young adulthood in Kentucky before settling in the Mississippi Delta region. Trained in the law, but a planter by occupation, he served as a Whig in the Mississippi legislature, where he vigorously opposed calls for secession. He helped organize the state's Union Party and supported its presidential candidate, John Bell, in 1860. In 1861 Alcorn attended the state secession convention as a Union delegate, but when the convention voted to secede, he reluctantly followed.

During post-war Reconstruction, Alcorn publicly supported civil rights. "I propose to vote with [the black man]," he declared in 1867, "to discuss political affairs with him, to sit…in political counsel with him, and from a platform acceptable [to all citizens] to pluck our common liberty and our common prosperity" out of the ruins of war. It was James Alcorn who led the way in establishing the state’s Republican Party, and in 1869 he was elected governor with the support of Mississippi's newly enfranchised black voters—including Blanche K. Bruce, who was appointed to his first political office by Governor James Alcorn.

In 1871 Mississippi sent Alcorn to the Senate, where he joined Adelbert Ames, who had become senator the previous year. Although both were Republicans, Alcorn was a so-called Regular Republican while Ames was a Radical Republican. The two men immediately clashed on a number of issues, particularly federal intervention in state elections. They came to represent a growing division in the southern Republican Party, a division that would ultimately undermine its strength and allow for a Democratic resurgence by the mid-1870s.

The feud between the two senators peaked in 1873, when they opposed each other in that year's gubernatorial election. The dominant Radical Republicans nominated Ames. In response, Alcorn bolted the party and challenged him as an independent candidate, further splitting the party into competing factions. Adelbert Ames won the election, and he did it with the support of a young black politician named Blanche K. Bruce—the same man whose political career had been launched by James Alcorn. And therein lay the motive for the "Great Insult," when an embittered James Alcorn resolutely refused to leave his seat on March 5, 1875.