Political corruption in the past

Johnston Sun Rise ·

To the Editor:

Many of my writings have praised Rhode Island for its primacy in such positive spheres as religious liberty, political independence, and industrialization. However, the current controversy regarding the sexual misconduct of Minnesota senator Al Franken brings to my mind a less laudatory Rhode Island “first.” Our U.S. Senator James Fowler Simmons was the first United States senator to be forced from office for political corruption.

The United States Senate is the judge of the conduct of its members. It can expel a senator for bad conduct by a two-thirds vote of the entire body. That drastic action, authorized by Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution, was employed 14 times just after the outbreak of the Civil War to expel pro-Confederate Democratic senators. Expulsion has not occurred since 1862, so the chance of expelling comedian Al Franken for his clownish, yet inexcusable and indefensible, behavior towards women is negligible (and unjustifiable). A censure is sufficient.

However, because he has become the political poster boy in the emergent and long overdue campaign by activist women to end our culture of male dominance and chauvinism, Franken may be under pressure to resign.

Resignation was the path of least resistance chosen by Rhode Island senator Simmons. Like the dominant figures of mid-19th century Rhode Island, he was a wealthy industrialist who sought and gained high political office. In some respects Rhode Island in that era was a plutocracy - a government by the rich.

In the 1830s, Simmons, a successful manufacturer of yarn, became a Whig because it was the party of business. In 1841, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by a Whig-controlled General Assembly and served one six-year term. During his tenure Simmons formed a close association with Whig leader Henry Clay and vigorously supported a high tariff to protect American industry. Locally he opposed the reform movement led by Thomas Wilson Dorr but supported Dorr’s liberation from prison in 1845. That humane position angered the Law and Order legislature and cost him reelection in 1847.

In the mid-1850s the Whigs were absorbed by the newly-emergent Republican Party, and the Republican-dominated General Assembly elected Simmons to serve again as U.S. Senator. After the outbreak of Civil War in 1861, Simmons abused the position of trust by engaging in war profiteering. Specifically he took a huge (for the time) $50,000 kickback to obtain arms contracts for two Rhode Island rifle manufacturers. When this scheme came to light, the Senate, with 14 Confederate expulsions under its belt, investigated Simmons for political corruption. He boldly justified his action on the ground that he was expediting the Union army’s military effort by alleviating its shortage of arms.

Obviously, this rationalization was not persuasive, but Congress adjourned before the Senate could take a vote on expulsion. To avoid the inevitable, Simmons resigned on September 5, 1862. This time the legislature (because U.S. senators were not popularly elected until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913) chose an admirable individual to replace him – Lt. Governor and noted historian of colonial Rhode Island, Samuel Greene Arnold. When in doubt, choose a historian!

After his reluctant retirement, Simmons returned to his manufacturing pursuits until his death two years later at the age of 68.

Though born in Little Compton, Simmons main business activity was conducted in the Town of Johnston. The area around his mill in the south central part of town became known as the village of Simmonsville. Today, a lake, a brook, a street, and a major road also bear the Simmons name, and the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Facility is nearby. Perhaps that could also be named for Simmons since the U.S. Senate had decided to dump him!

Conversely, I suspect the opposite might happen. Those statue and monument removers and defacers who wish to sanitize our history might petition the town for a name change. Following the lead of the noted mattress maker, perhaps they can designate Simmonsville as “Beauty Rest” and make it a safe space.

(Dr.) Patrick T. Conley

Historian Laureate of Rhode Island