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By legislation enacted on March 2, 1819, Congress created Arkansas Territory out of the southern portion of Missouri Territory and declared its political life to begin on July 4 of that year. Seventeen years later, on June 15, 1836, Arkansas became a state.
The government of Arkansas Territory was modeled on that of Missouri Territory as defined in an act of June 4, 1812. Executive authority was in the hands of a governor appointed by the president for a term of three years and a secretary appointed for four years who would serve in the absence of the governor. The governor and the three appointed members of the territorial superior court were empowered to make laws until a majority of the freeholders indicated that they wished to have a representative government. After that there would be a General Assembly consisting of a House of Representatives elected by free, white, male citizens twenty-one years of age or older who had been residents for at least a year and paid county or territorial taxes. Nine members of the House of Representatives were to be elected for two-year terms, and the number could increase only after there were 5,000 eligible voters in the territory. Under the act of 1812, nine members of a legislative council were appointed by the president out of a group of eighteen nominated by the House of Representatives, but this provision was modified by an 1816 amendment that allowed Missouri voters to elect one member of the council from each county. Any eligible voter could be elected to the House of Representatives, but members of the legislative council were required to own 200 acres of land. Arkansas could also elect a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress under the same conditions as other territories.
For most of the first decade, the political leaders of the territory were newcomers who came with political offices or in the hope of gaining them. The first governor, James Miller of New Hampshire, was a hero of the War of 1812, and the first secretary, Robert Crittenden of Kentucky, was a brother of the senator John J. Crittenden. The first delegate to Congress, James Woodson Bates, was a brother of Frederick Bates, secretary of Missouri Territory, and the second, Henry W. Conway, originally from Tennessee, came to the territory from Missouri with an appointment as receiver of public monies and was related to William Rector, surveyor general of Missouri, who sent a number of his family members to Arkansas as deputy surveyors.
Secretary Crittenden was the political leader of Arkansas in this early period. Governor Miller did not arrive in the territory until December 1819, and by that time Crittenden had created and filled a number of offices, moved Arkansas into the second stage of territorial government, and held elections. Miller was a capable executive, but he took little interest in politics and was out of Arkansas during the four years before he resigned. His successor, George Izard of South Carolina, a general in the War of 1812, was more involved in local affairs, but Crittenden continued to exert great influence.
Crittenden appears to have supported Bates in the election of 1819, and he won a plurality of the votes. Stephen F. Austin, who was in Arkansas only temporarily and did not campaign, came in second, and four other candidates, including several long-term settlers, were well back. In 1821 Matthew Lyon, who, as a Jeffersonian Democrat member of the U.S. House of Representatives several decades earlier, had been a bitter opponent of the Federalists and was convicted under the Sedition Act, ran against Bates and lost by 61 of the 2,101 votes cast. Bates did not run in 1823, and Henry W. Conway won 59 percent of the vote against Major William Bradford, who had commanded the Army post at Fort Smith from 1817 to 1822. Bates tried again in 1825, but now without the support of Crittenden, and was trounced by Conway, who took 80 percent of the vote.
The election of 1827 was a turning point in Arkansas politics. Crittenden turned against Conway, who by this time was the leader of his own political faction made of relatives and friends, and backed Robert Oden. During the campaign Oden's supporters claimed that Conway had misused public funds, and Crittenden publicly attested to the validity of the charge. Conway won the election but then challenged Crittenden to a duel and received a mortal wound in the encounter. Ambrose H. Sevier, Conway's cousin and a grandnephew of John Sevier, the famous Indian fighter and Tennessee politician, won a special election that followed Conway's death.
That same year Sevier married the daughter of Benjamin Johnson, a member of the superior court of the territory and the brother of Richard M. Johnson, later Van Buren's vice president. Under the leadership of Sevier, William Woodruff (the editor of the Arkansas Gazette), and Chester Ashley (a highly successful lawyer and land speculator), the Conways, the Rectors, and the Johnsons dominated Arkansas politics down to the 1850s, functioning as the Arkansas wing of the Jacksonian Democratic Party but known locally as "The Family." Among its leaders (in addition to Sevier, who served several terms in the U.S. Senate) were Governor James Sevier Conway, Governor Elias Nelson Conway, and Senator Robert Ward Johnson. A Whig Party emerged and ran spirited campaigns, but Arkansas remained solidly Democratic down to the Civil War.
- Bolton, Charles S.
Territorial Ambition: Land and Society in Arkansas, 1800—1840.Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
- McNeilly, Donald.
The Old South Frontier: Cotton Plantations and the Formation of Arkansas Society, 1819—1861.Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
- Smith, Margaret Ross.
Arkansas Gazette: The Early Years, 1819—1866.Little Rock: Arkansas Gazette Foundation, 1969.
- White, Lonnie J..
Politics on the Southwestern Frontier: Arkansas Territory.Memphis, TN: Memphis State University Press, 1964.