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The last Reconstruction Republican lieutenant governor, known for attempting a coup d’état aimed at displacing a sitting governor, Volney Voltaire Smith was also the most distinguished nineteenth-century figure to have died in the state insane asylum.
V. V. Smith was born in 1842, apparently in Rochester, New York. His father was Delazon Smith, a noted Democratic newspaperman and politician. Delazon Smith attended Oberlin College and then wrote an exposé on it for its support of abolition, was lost for eleven months while on a diplomatic assignment in Ecuador (thus becoming known as “Tyler’s Lost Commission”), and served less than three weeks as one of Oregon’s first U.S. senators. V. V. Smith’s mother, Eliza Volk, died in 1846. Two years later, his father married Mary Shepherd, with whom he had five additional children. In November 1860, his father died under mysterious circumstances.
Smith apparently had a troubled youth, at one point reportedly being seen playing billiards and a lower-class card game called Seven-up while supposedly in college. Despite his father’s sudden death in 1860, he maintained a correspondence with his step-mother. At the onset of the Civil War, he enlisted in Rochester, most likely in the First Regiment New York Mounted Rifles. In 1864, he was shot through both legs. After he was able to walk again, he retrieved his wife, Mary Jane, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and then served as provost marshal at Camp Nelson in Kentucky, where he apparently joined the 114th U.S. Colored Infantry and accompanied it to Ringgold Barracks in Texas in 1865.
When and why the Smiths came to Arkansas is not known, but he was associated with newspaperman James Torrans of the Washington Post in Hempstead County, a Republican newspaper established in 1868. The Post later moved to Lewisville (Lafayette County), where, as the Red River Post, it expired in 1870. Smith found work with the Freedmen’s Bureau, being the third agent in the southwest region. Despite his military background, he was classified as a civilian. He served as Lafayette County clerk from 1868 to 1872. His house was opposite the courthouse, and, in 1870, he owned real estate valued at $1,600 and personal property at $3,000.
Smith was a prominent figure in Republican politics during Reconstruction. Determined to follow his father’s example, he sought election to Congress. However, in 1870, Oliver P. Snyder won the Republican nomination. Smith was closely associated with the “Minstrels,” the pro–Powell Clayton faction of the Republican Party and, in 1872, became that faction’s nominee for lieutenant governor on a ticket headed by Elisha Baxter. In a heavily disputed election, complete with allegations of fraud, Baxter and Smith were the declared winners over the “Brindletail” candidate, Joseph Brooks. However, Baxter’s policies provoked a sharp reaction in Clayton, who shifted his support for Brooks in 1874, thus prompting the onset of the Brooks-Baxter War.
Smith figured in the early plans to restructure the government. If Baxter alone were removed, Smith would have become governor. However, Clayton mended his fences with Brooks and sought the ousting of both Baxter and Smith from power. The resultant Brooks-Baxter War ended in Baxter’s victory but also marked the end of Reconstruction. Smith attended the constitutional convention of 1874 but, along with other Republicans, refused to sign the document. In the election that followed, Augustus Hill Garland was elected governor even though two years remained in Baxter's and Smith’s terms.
Smith then insisted he was governor, based on an opinion from former Arkansas Supreme Court chief justice Thomas D. W. Yonley that Baxter had abdicated and that Garland’s election was unconstitutional. Smith then appointed Edward Wheeler as secretary of state and issued a proclamation setting forth his claims, reportedly selling copies for five cents each.
Garland responded by calling out the militia under Thomas J. Churchill to defend the State House and securing from Judge John Joseph Clendenin of the Sixth Circuit Court arrest warrants for Edward Wheeler, Smith, and John G. Price, who as editor of the Republican had printed the proclamation. Clendenin discharged Price from the warrant, but Garland got the legislature to increase the reward to $1,000 for the still-missing Smith. Smith apparently expected intervention from President Ulysses S. Grant but, failing to receive that or local popular support, fled first to Daniel P. Upham’s home and then to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), where Sam Mallory spirited him out of the state.
By December, he was in Washington DC, pushing his claims. The New York Tribune described him as “dirty, footsore, with cotton seed in his tangled beard,” while a more sympathetic paper found him “strutting around the capital with as much pomposity as a full-fledged peacock.” During this time, he was variously nicknamed “Vice Versa Smith,” a reference to his conflicting roles in the Brooks-Baxter War; “Vae Victis Smith” (from the Latin for “Woe to the vanquished”), after his attempted coup was aborted; and most commonly “Wee Wee,” the nickname the national press adopted.
Meanwhile, the congressional committee headed by Luke P. Poland of Vermont was investigating affairs in Arkansas. Although it reached its conclusion in early 1875 that federal intervention was not warranted, President Grant took a different view but lacked any viable option.
Grant appointed Smith to the St. Thomas Island consulate, where he remained until the election of Grover Cleveland. Back in Lewisville by 1888, Smith reentered politics, running unsuccessfully for his old county clerk office, serving as an elector for William McKinley, and practicing law. In January 1897, he was brought to the state insane asylum, suffering from what was described as “acute mania.” He insisted that he could solve the nation’s monetary problems if given twenty minutes to speak to Congress. His mania increased, and his death on April 17, 1897, was due to “exhaustion.” He is buried in the Wilson Cemetery near Lewisville. His wife, who immediately received a post office appointment, reportedly remarried.
Smith’s return to Arkansas is another example of so-called “carpetbaggers” who made a life-long commitment to Arkansas. He had friends among the white community in Lafayette County and was remembered for assisting a Democrat to gain a post office position. He was long active in the Masons, who supplied his tombstone.
For additional information:Delazon Smith Family Papers. Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.
Donovan, Timothy P., Willard B. Gatewood Jr., and Jeannie M. Whayne, eds. The Governors of Arkansas: Essays in Political Biography. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995.
Knight, Wilda, ed. Lafayette County, Arkansas: Pieces of its Past and its People. N.p.: Lafayette County Historical Society in 2002.
“V. V. Smith Dead.” Arkansas Gazette, April 22, 1897, p. 5.
Michael B. DouganJonesboro, Arkansas
Last Updated 5/17/2017
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