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Henry Morehart was a leader of the third-party agrarian political rebellion in Pulaski County during the late 1880s and early 1890s and served as an agrarian legislator in the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1889. His political career illustrates the fierce opposition that the agrarian insurgency engendered among Arkansas’s Democratic Party chieftains and conservative elites, who were willing to use fraudulent means when necessary to maintain their primacy.
Henry Morehart was born near Greencastle, Ohio, to Henry Morehart and Mary Plotner on October 30, 1841. He was the second of twelve children. After spending his youth on his parents’ farm, he left home to fight for the Union during the Civil War. He enlisted in Company C, 114th Ohio Volunteers, and, along with the rest of his regiment, saw action in General John McClernand’s successful attack on Arkansas Post (Arkansas County) on January 10–11, 1863, and, later that year, in General Ulysses S. Grant’s Mississippi campaign and siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. After the fall of Vicksburg, Morehart’s regiment was transferred to the Acadian country of south Louisiana and later to Alabama, where Morehart served at the end of the war. While in Alabama, he suffered a wound from a shell shot to his left leg at the Battle of Fort Blakely on April 8, 1865.
Morehart returned to Fairfield County, Ohio, and on October 18, 1866, he married Catharine Solt. They had nine children. Morehart and his family lived in Kalkaska County, Michigan, for a time after the war. In 1881, they traveled to Arkansas, making part of the journey by steamboat, and they homesteaded land on Sardis Road near the Mabelvale community in southwest Pulaski County.
Morehart is primarily remembered in Arkansas history for his campaign for the office of Pulaski County state representative in 1888 and for the role he played in the Twenty-seventh Session of the Arkansas General Assembly in 1889. As early as the late 1880s and early 1890s, faced with hard times in Southern agriculture and falling cotton prices and incomes, discontented white farmers threatened to leave the Democratic Party and join third-party agrarian movements such as the Union Labor and Populist parties. In 1888, Morehart was nominated as a Union Labor Party candidate for Pulaski County state representative, running on a joint Union Labor–Republican fusion ticket. As a Union army veteran from Ohio who had Republican antecedents, Morehart did not have the same emotional affinity for the Democratic Party as did some native white Southerners. Very likely, the same circumstances that drove many farmers in the late nineteenth century to join the third-party agrarian political insurrection affected him, too: deflationary Federal monetary policies that served to drive down crop prices and farmers’ incomes, high protective tariffs that worked to keep prices for farm equipment and supplies higher than would otherwise be the case, monopolistic practices and price-gouging by the railroads, and the increase in usurious crop mortgages or liens by rural merchants.
As far as is known, Morehart did not become active in agrarian politics before the late 1880s. He was a delegate at the Pulaski County Union Labor Party convention in 1888 and served as a delegate at the Union Labor Party state convention in 1888, where he was chosen as the state convention’s sergeant at arms.
Encountering their most formidable political challenge since the end of Reconstruction, some Democrats turned in panic to desperate measures. On the night following the state and local races in Pulaski County, burglars entered the courthouse in Little Rock (Pulaski County), broke open a safe, and made away with several ballot boxes from what unofficial tally sheets showed to be heavily Union Labor–Republican precincts. This sensational incident was highlighted in newspapers throughout the state and was universally denounced. John Gould Fletcher, president of the German National Bank and former mayor of Little Rock, expressed the general sentiment, saying, “My verdict in matters of this kind is that no condemnation can be too severe.”
The Union Labor–Republican claimants went before the county’s election board, but that body ruled that the unofficial tally sheets could not be used in computing the voting returns. The decision, complained the Arkansas Democrat, “was one of those cases where the law and justice part company.” The Arkansas Gazette urged the Democratic candidates in question to resign voluntarily, and their refusal to do so evoked much criticism. Encouraged by the public response, Union Labor–Republican nominees for state representative carried their appeal to the legislature. Spurred on by the popular indignation, the lawmakers were induced to act, and on February 18, 1889, Pulaski County’s Democratic representatives unwillingly surrendered their seats in the House, their places being taken by Morehart and his fellow contestants.
During Morehart’s term in the legislature, a bill was introduced to establish a state board of election commissioners with authority to appoint the election officials at each polling place in the state. In one stroke, the bill would have given the Democratic Party total control over the election machinery of Arkansas, even in those counties where Union Laborites or Republicans constituted a majority of the voters. Other features of the proposal would have discouraged voting by poor and illiterate persons, both white and African American. Morehart, however, joined with Speaker of the House B. B. Hudgins and other leaders to help create a coalition of Union Laborites, Republicans, and western Arkansas Democrats who managed to defeat the bill.
Morehart also was interested in measures to regulate the railroads, but his efforts appear to have been stymied by the House’s Democratic majority.
For unknown reasons, Morehart chose not to seek a second term. During the next session of the General Assembly in 1891, a similar centralized election bill was introduced and passed. Within four years, there was a one-third decline in voter participation, causing the collapse of the agrarian insurgency and an almost complete removal of black politicians from public office in the state. More than any other single measure, the bill established one-party rule and white supremacy as the central motifs of Arkansas politics for almost three-quarters of a century.
After completing his term in the legislature in 1889, Morehart appears to have largely withdrawn from major political involvements, but he and his family remained active in local community life. He sometimes served as a judge of election at Mabelvale (Pulaski County), and he also was instrumental in establishing the Good Hope School, located about five miles from his residence.
Morehart continued to live at his homestead on Sardis Road until his death on January 14, 1911. He is buried in the Martin Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in Pulaski County, located near the Mabelvale community in southwest Little Rock. Little Rock’s Morehart Park is named in honor of members of his family.
For additional information:Graves, John William. Town and Country: Race Relations in an Urban-Rural Context, Arkansas 1865–1905. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
Segraves, Joe T. “Arkansas Politics 1874–1918.” PhD diss., University of Kentucky, 1974.
John William GravesHenderson State University
Last Updated 9/24/2014
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