TOM DILLARD: Inflicting harm upon ourselves
The recent efforts among some legislators to defend large confined hog production facilities near the Buffalo National River remind me that we Arkansans have long had a propensity for shooting ourselves in the feet.
All too often during the past 200 years our elected public officials have made decisions which have held back our state, decisions which have put short-term gain over the long-term needs of the citizens.
It all started quite early in our history. Arkansas became a state in 1836 under a constitution which authorized state officials to develop a public school system. However, when the U.S. government set aside every 16th section of land in every township in the state to sell to benefit education, state leaders deferred to local officials in selling the land, overseeing the income, and running the schools. While the lands were sold, the funds were flitted away, and only a handful of communities actually established schools.
Likewise, the state failed to establish a college despite the federal government again setting aside public land to be sold to benefit a "seminary of learning." The state reacted slowly and without resolve, so Arkansans had to send their children to small private colleges or, as many planters did, to out-of-state institutions.
The great historian Samuel Eliot Morison, writing in his 1950 majestic history of the United States The Growth of the American Republic, made a startling comparison of the sister states of Michigan and Arkansas: "The first Michigan legislature created a university at Ann Arbor. The first Arkansas legislature was remembered for a fatal brawl, when the Speaker of the House came down from his chair and slew a member with his bowie-knife."
Morison could have gone on to note that Arkansas did not create a state university until Reconstruction, when newly arrived out-of-state politicians brought many reforms to the state.
Arkansas historian and educator John Hugh Reynolds has noted that the failure of the early leaders of Arkansas to take advantage of the seminary lands set the state back many years. "How heavily Arkansas lost in her failure to regard the university fund as a sacred trust is beyond estimate."
State officials brought the same lackadaisical attitude to setting up a banking system for the new state. As with education, the 1836 state constitution authorized the creation of banks. The state set up the Real Estate Bank, which was intended to provide credit to farmers and planters, and the State Bank, to meet the needs of the business community.
The State Bank was the first to be launched. By the autumn of 1837, some $300,000 in state bonds had been sold to the U.S. War Department. The bank officials loaned money with abandon and with little oversight. The State Bank branch in Arkansas Post loaned $60,000 on its opening day alone.
The Real Estate Bank was created in 1838 when the state managed to sell $1.5 million in state bonds. U.S. Senator Ambrose H. Sevier of Arkansas browbeat the newly-endowed Smithsonian Institution into buying $500,000 in bonds. The Real Estate Bank was, as historian Michael B. Dougan has written, "a planter-run bank." Land provided the security for loans, and often at inflated prices. Oversight was minimal. Sen. Sevier himself got a $15,000 loan backed by 1,080 acres of land.
Both banks failed quickly. The Real Estate Bank declared bankruptcy in 1841, and the State Bank closed two years later.
It was at this point that Arkansas voters compounded the damage by adopting the first amendment to the state constitution, a provision outlawing banking in the state altogether. And, still later, state voters repudiated the state debt, an action which meant that Arkansas was denied much needed capital for decades.
Without a doubt, the most painful and devastating self-inflicted wound in Arkansas history was the decision in 1861 to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. In addition to the thousands of Arkansans who died during the rebellion, we paid a huge human and monetary price for our short-sighted alignment with the other slave states.
Arkansans made the situation worse in 1874 when, in the aftermath of Reconstruction, state voters adopted an extremely reactionary state constitution--the same constitution we have today, though it has been amended many times.
The disfranchisement of poor and minority voters in the 1890s was another case where Arkansans borrowed trouble. Almost seven decades would pass, for example, before the poll tax was repealed in 1964. Eventually, it took the federal government to ensure that black Arkansans could vote.
I was in elementary school in 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus engineered a national emergency by mobilizing the National Guard to prevent integration of Central High School in Little Rock. The state endured years of condemnation over the 1957 crisis, and economic development was hamstrung.
With this sad backstory, we should not be surprised that some legislators have threatened to turn their backs on the Buffalo National River, our nation's first national river. Indeed, that magnificent free-flowing river came close to being dammed before Congress granted the Buffalo protected status in 1972.
In addition to preserving 135 miles of the river, the Buffalo has had a profound economic impact on a part of the state which has traditionally been economically depressed. More than 800,000 people visit the river annually, many from out of state.
Given its popularity and economic impact, many people were surprised when the administration of Gov. Mike Beebe authorized the construction of a large hog farm near Mount Judea in Newton County.
As Suzie Rogers, author of the entry on the Buffalo National River in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, has written, "Since the installation of the hog farm the Buffalo River has experienced several algal blooms; significant algae growth in the summer of 2018 included toxic blue-green algae." She further noted that "in July 2018, a 14.3 mile segment of the river and Big Creek, a tributary, was listed as impaired . . ."
We do not yet know if residents of the Natural State are willing to sacrifice one of our most important cultural, recreational, and economic resources. Based on our history, we cannot rule out that possibility.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com.
Editorial on 03/31/2019
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