Friday, March 09, 2007

Jonathan C. Gibbs really, really hated William Purman

J.C. Gibbs is universally regarded as the most admirable figure of Florida's reconstruction era. Born free in Philadelphia, Gibbs attended Dartmouth and became the first black to hold a state-wide office in Florida. Gibbs was appointed Secretary of State by Gov. Reed after Purman declined appointment in favor of various other posts [See my posting below on Gibbs dated May 1, 2006]. Gibbs made sure to appear in Jackson County in August 1870 to challenge Hamilton's campaign for re-election to Congress. At the subsequent convention, Gibbs in fact was himself a candidate contesting Hamilton's renomination. According to Gibbs, the ostensible reason for the speeches in Marianna was the dedication of a school house. Gibbs, Hamilton and Purman all spoke before a large, tense, armed audience. Gibbs spoke without incident and had no problems during his visit but Hamilton and Purman barely escaped with their lives for fear of assassination by local whites. The conservative Tallahassee Weekly Floridian gleefully reported that Gibbs had stated that Hamilton and Purman were to blame for the violence in Jackson County. With no copies of the speeches available, I had always assumed that, as usual, the Floridian was exaggerating to exploit the divisions in the Republican Party. To my surprise, the Floridian was reporting Gibbs' position accurately. On March 8 and 18, 1872, Gibbs was examined as a witness in the contest by S.L. Niblack of Josiah T. Walls' victory in the 1870 Congressional election (Walls had defeated Hamilton for the Republican nomination). Walls had called several witnesses to show that the Republican vote in Jackson County on Nov. 8, 1870 had been supressed because of threats of violence, primarily by James P. Coker.

Asked about the "state of society" in Jackson County around the 1870 election, Gibbs testified that "I know that a highly disturbed state of affairs existed in Jackson County. I was there in the month of August, preceeding the election with the member of Congress, Mr. C. M. Hamilton." This of course was literally true, except that Gibbs traveled to Marianna with the intention of undermining Hamilton by challenging his hold on his most reliable base of voters just prior to the Republican state convention. Gibbs then confirmed most "deliberately" the questioner's statement that during his Aug. 1870 speech Gibbs had charged Purman "with being responsible for the bloodshed and disorder that existed in Jackson County." Purman, according to Gibbs, had given "advice and counsel contrary to the peace and welfare of all parties; he was wild and erratic in his course." Gibbs testified that "There is no friendly feeling toward [Purman] from me, because he has acted unjustly toward me; still, I want justice accorded him, and my prejudice is not sufficient to cause him injustice; but I don't think Major W.J. Purman is anxious for justice in his case." When asked if Gibbs believed himself to be in "danger of being poisoned by Major Purman or any any other Federal office-holder," Gibbs replied that he "honestly and truthfully believe that Major W.J. Purman is so treacherous that no one can tell exactly what he will do."

What are the reasons for this animosity against Purman - a Republican stalwart who retained the loyalty of Jackson County blacks, who had survived an actual assassination attempt, and whose decline of the post Secretary of State had made Gibbs' appointment possible? First of all, Purman was a leading figure in the organization of the "moderate" faction of the Florida Republican Party and was instrumental in their seizure, using underhanded tactics, of the 1868 convention from the "radical" faction. Gibbs, a delegate to the convention, initially voted with the radicals. Whatever Purman's personal sympathies, the moderates were correctly seen by Gibbs and many Florida black Republicans as exploiting black votes to gain power while promoting black rights but simultaneously denying Florida blacks real influence in Florida's government. In 1870, Purman was also the prime backer for Hamilton's re-nomination for Congress, a post that Gibbs was determined should go to a black (See Gibbs' letter to Charles Sumner, Aug. 24, 1870). Gibbs also alludes to having been "violently attacked" during a debate in Florida's senate by Purman.

[AMENDED 7/3/08: This "attack" probably refers to Purman's leading an investigation by the Senate in January 1872 into Gibbs' conduct regarding financial matters while Sec'y of State. Apparently Gibbs was absolved of Purman's charges of misapporpriation of funds. An anonymous correspondent to the Republican Jacksonville Courier alleged in early 1872 that Purman's attempt to remove Gibbs from office stemmed from Gibbs' blocking Purman from running for state Senate from Jackson Co. (presumably the letter writer meant the 1872 fall election) as part of a deal to support Osborn's renomination for U.S. Senate. This correspondent alleged that Gibbs had received several warning in late 1871/early 1872 to "be careful of his water bucket lest poison be put inside it by some of his dear carpetbagger friends." The veracity of this letter is uncertain and it is not out of the realm of possibility that it was written by some mischief-making Democrat.]

Perhaps to a unique degree, Purman endured the bitter animosity of Florida's Democratic whites and black radicals. Despite Gibbs' opposition, Purman went on to be elected to Congress from Florida in 1872. In 1874, Gibbs challenged Purman's reelection by seeking nomination to Congress for himself (Brown, 30). Purman prevailed over Robert Meacham in a bitterly contested nomation process. Gibbs died on August 14, 1874 in the middle the contentious nomination fight.

New addition (7/8/07): Some additional information that may provide an another reason Gibbs was so intent on seeing Hamilton defeated for renomination for Congress in August 1870. According to Canter Brown, Jr.'s Florida's Black Public Officials, 1867-1924, Gibbs had been the radical "mule team's" nominee for Congress in 1868 after the debacle of the Constitutional Convention in Jan.-Feb. 1868 (p.11). Hamilton prevailed at the subsequent election. In light of Gibbs' receiving votes for the nomination at the 1870 convention, it is clear that Gibbs aspired to - or was at least willing to be supported for - attaining the Congressional seat held by Hamilton. This personal defeat in 1868 as a result of the triumph of the Osborn-Purman moderate Republicans at the bitterly contested convention might have added more fuel to the fire of Gibbs' resentment toward Purman and his close associate Hamilton.

Addendum [2/4/08]: The flattering comment of Purman's biographers that he had given up the position of Secretary of State in 1868 so that a black might receive that post and thereby preserve party comity may be exaggerated. The initial sec'y of state upon readmission was a white man, George Alden. Gibbs only received the job later in the year.

No comments: