The Tennessee legislature in 1879: Secret meetings, prison outsourcing, political rivalries

Taking a page from sports broadcasters showing archived games to make up for the lack of live programming during the COVID-19 pandemic, the TNJ: On the Hill blog is engaging in our own throwback legislative coverage. Today’s offering, a report by the editor of the old Daily Memphis Avalanche, a precursor of today’s Commercial Appeal, about legislative happenings on Feb. 9, 1879.

The author touches on some familiar themes at the General Assembly: legislative secrecy, the need for the Shelby County delegation to stick together, efforts to reduce incarceration costs through outsourcing, rivalries between local officials, and “the doings of lobbyists.”

Here’s the dispatch:

Our Legislative Solons : A Good Word from Them by an Occasional Correspondent

Retrenchment and Reform – A Desire to Do Something

NASHVILLE, February 9, 1879 – Notwithstanding the terrible legislative abortions and the rip-pell-mell style of action of the present General Assembly, it may well be characterized as one of economy, retrenchment and reform. Men of observation concede the fact that more business has been consummated so far during the present session than in some entire sessions of General Assemblies.

The bills passed with special reference to Memphis seem to be necessities and will probably be followed with good results. It is said that additional legislation will be required in order to perfect, if possible, the changed conditions of affairs. The necessary legislation will be enacted without trouble, if the Shelby delegation remains united on the various propositions in the future as in the past.

Committees during recess are working earnestly and sedulously, and if credit and be accorded rumor their labors will produce desirable and satisfactory results. Two committees are at work investigation all the alleged frauds subsequent to the war – by the issuance of bonds, the funding scheme, the Torbett or new issue of the Bank of Tennessee, the leasing of the penitentiary, the doings of the lobbyists, the trading of offices; in fact, their investigation apparently has no limit. But as they sit with closed doors and their proceedings secret nothing will be known until they report.

The State debt will be thoroughly examined, so that holders of the State bonds are likely to learn what class of bonds the State will good and what fraudulent. If any are classed as fraudulent, the people will be warned. The funding scheme and the practice resorted to impair the created of the State, will receive attention. […]

Happily for the State Government there is enough money to in the treasury to pay the current expenses for nearly a year to come; therefore the frauds, if any, in leasing the penitentiary will be thoroughly sifted and the guilty, if any, exposed.

I have had the opportunity to witness the workings of several Legislatures of several States, but never before have I been so impressed with the earnestness of lawmakers to ferret out corruption with view of punishing the guilty. For many years prior to 1871, the State managed the penitentiary at an annual outlay of about $100,000. Now the State gets from the lessees about $75,000 per annum, the prisoners are humanely treated, and yet the State is not satisfied.

Major Tom O’Connor, one of the lessees, resides here every winter. He is here at the present, and his attendance on the committee would cause one to think that he must be undergoing a rigid investigation. He has been heard to say, “Let the investigation be thorough, leave nothing undone to get the facts.” But if the countenance exteriorizes a man’s feelings, he certainly must be happy, for his face bespeaks an easy conscience.

The Shelby delegation will not deserve “well done” of their constituents if they not procure some sort of an asylum for the unfortunate insane now at the County Poorhouse, of whom there are, I am informed, some 65 under the charge of Dr. Duncan.

A visit to the Asylum, some seven miles from this city, would cause a just pride in our State, that is so regardful of the unfortunate citizens who are bereft of reason. It is said that the Asylum is full but were there ten times the number there, I question if they would be as crowded as the Shelby County Poorhouse. Treat all alike; let style cease until they are all provided for.

I am told that a committee will soon be actively at work to redistrict the State into chancery and judicial circuits. It is supposed that the 20 circuits may be reduced, without injury to the public welfare, to the number of 12, and it is estimate that such a change would probably be a saving of some $60,00 per annum to the State.

If the postponement of taxes is construed to apply to the taxing districts, it will afford the people of Shelby an opportunity o pay up the taxes they just levied for the taxing district, and thereby provide against yellow fever and other epidemics.

The misunderstanding between the Judge and Attorney General of the Bartlett Court is attracting notice in Nashville. Some seem to think the Attorney General desires to have certified more costs than the Judge can approve. Peace and harmony should mark their relation, as they are both elected on the reform ticket. A bill was introduced to abolish their court and attach the territory to the 14th Judicial Circuit. The measure is strongly championed, and nothing can prevent its passage, except the fact that it is a political move to displace officers who were elected on the National ticket.

The great expense of criminal prosecutions from Shelby County is the subject of much comment. Two plans are spoken of to lessen the cost of criminal prosecutions. One is to have each county pay the cost of its prosecution; the other, to have County Courts each April term to the let out to the lowest bidder the deeding of the prisoners, the law to apply only to counties having an average of 50 prisoners.

It is supposed that the state now pays 40 cents for what can be had to 18 cents. A bill to this effect will, I am informed, be introduced immediately after the recess. It is said that the measure will be a saving of a least $15,000 the State from Shelby County, without impairing the public usefulness of jails

The Sheriffs have escaped the retrenchment broom so far, but a bill will, I am told, be immediately introduced to give the Sheriffs a starve out. Anyone who would offer prepared bill so that a tax title would stick, would be remembered with gratitude. Whoever undertakes it must be sure that when completed, he has not proven himself an ass.

3 Responses to The Tennessee legislature in 1879: Secret meetings, prison outsourcing, political rivalries

  • Avatar
    Helen Lewis says:

    What is the cost of a pure capitalist government…As we stand,today….How many citizens do not fit the mold of our current government structure…There is a rush to educate and reform, but is working….our whole system need to be revamped….At some point in time, we must realize that we dealing with human beings..and the nature of human beings….

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    Beatrice Shaw says:

    History is so magnificent. I have taught American history many years. I love the micro details from macro events you continue to learn your whole life. So many stories….

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    Georgiana Vines says:

    Thank you for this piece of history. Enjoyed the writing style. Reminds me of a class I took in college on classical mythology.

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