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Powell Clayton, the Governor of Arkansas Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Powell Clayton was born on August 7, 1833 and died on August 25, 1914. He was a great father of five children; however, it was not his greatest accomplishment. Powell Clayton served as a governor in Arkansas in the period July 2, 1868 – March 17, 1871. During the Civil War, he entered the Union army and managed to rise to the rank of brigadier general. After the end of Civil War, he relocated to Arkansas and promoted the adoption of the state constitution. According to this constitution, Arkansas was readmitted to the Union. The period of his service was marked with the severe violence escalating due to the active operations of the Ku Klux Klan. The major accomplishment of Powell Clayton was the proclamation of martial law in 11 counties and organization of black militia to catch member of Ku Klux Klan and to restore peace and order in the state. However, Powell Clayton has many enemies in politics who tried to impugn his reputation. Even after he resigned, he continued working on improvement of living conditions in the state. He became the director of North Arkansas Railroad. For the years to come, the achievements of Powell Clayton will be remembered.

The start of Clayton’s career can be traced to the year when he joined the Union army. When he came to Arkansas in 1863, he got involved into speculating in cotton and purchased a plantation (Donovan, p. 68). He was interested in democratic movements, however, being repeatedly rebuffed he decided to found the Republican Party. His military connections empowered him to gain influence over the soldiers and sutlers. These two groups became the main electorate for his party in Arkansas. In addition, Clayton was in close relations with Alexander McDonald and Benjamin Rice who were the richest people in the state (Donovan, p. 69) and provided significant financial support to his campaigns.

Clayton’s political activities are referred to as radical because of militant approach to reconstruction of the state after the war. Moreover, Clayton contributed to the isolation of abolitionists and blacks within his party. Despite of criticism, Clayton passed the civil rights acts in July 1868. While the rest of the party member allied themselves away from blacks, Clayton viewed alliance with African Americans as beneficial and he was right (Donovan, p. 70). He managed to gain the loyalty and trust of blacks within a short period of time. Clayton was a wise politician and even though he was elected in March, he did not assume office until July when the state has been already readmitted to the Union and martial law was limited.

At the time Clayton assumed the office of governor, the state was in the middle of violence – people were openly assaulted, deputes were forced to resign to save their lives, blacks were beaten and threatened to be killed, and numerous people were murdered. Most of the crimes were organized by Ku Klux Klan members and were targeting black population. The political and social violence was very widespread, and Clayton has become the person who managed to restore the stability and security. As William Shea has noted, Powell Clayton deserves respect for creating education system in the state, founding the University of Arkansas, and social stabilization.

It is worth to add that more than a half of all state counties voted against the proposed reconstruction constitution. This meant that the majority of local governments were in the hands of Conservatives who opposed any social changes. Only due to the efforts of Powell Clayton the constitution was passed. As Burnside wrote, Clayton faced a unique situation because one fourth of the state population consisted of freed slaves; the region was very poor and attracted fewer skillful immigrants. Population distrusted the authority of local and state governments and it was almost impossible to enforce the laws. However, it was not impossible for Powell Clayton.

Powell Clayton was among the first to promote the idea of looking into the future, the idea of new law, new society, and new life for all. He opposed the innate beliefs of Conservations who failed to ensure peace and prosperity in the state. People wanted to have a better life and Clayton devoted himself to economic progress. He understood that economic reforms were the only mean to isolate old elite from authority. The first step in his plan was to remake the image of Arkansas in the North though railroads and public education. His program was titled “New Era” and he spent huge funds on it. In the year 1871, for example, he awarded almost one million dollars to construction of eight railroads (Burnside, p. 65). Clayton assumed control over the schools and created the institutions for blind and deaf individuals.

The most far reaching accomplishment was the establishment of free public schools and significant increase of taxes supporting education. As the result, within only one year more than 2,000 schools were in operation (Donovan, p. 72). The high expenditures pushed the Clayton government into deficit. However, the increasing debt did not pose a problem for Powell. He used a three-fold strategy to cover the deficit: increased the tax rate, revised the assessed value of property, and renegotiated the state’s debt (Donovan, p. 73). The strategy developed by Clayton brought positive results and the state successfully refinanced the debt.

In conclusion, Powell Clayton assumed the office of state governor at very turbulent time. Nevertheless, he has successfully restored the social and political stability, contributed to the establishment of the education systems and ensured free public education to all. Clayton is justifiably regarded to as one of the wisest politicians of all times because he managed to find solutions to far reaching problems in political, social, and economic fields. The reforms he initiated proved to be viable and significantly improved the wellbeing of people in the state of Arkansas.


Burnside, William H. The Honorable Powell Clayton. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1991.

Donovan, Timothy P., and Willard B. Gatewood, Jr.. The Governors of Arkansas, Essays in Political Biography. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1981.

Shea, William L. “With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874.” Journal of Southern History 72, no. 2 (2006): 475+.

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