Negro Suffrage as a Political Necessity
It was with troubled minds that Republican leaders faced the presidential election of 1868. Negro suffrage had already been temporarily imposed upon the South by the Military Reconstruction Act which also stipulated that the seceding States must include Negro male suffrage in their new constitutions. These acts were in operation and must be defended. Of all the referenda on Negro suffrage in the North, none had been won.* Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts had warned his party in January that the insistence upon Negro suffrage had cost a quarter of a million votes. Similar expressions of doubt were common. The Fourteenth Amendment was still pending, waiting for five more ratifications. These were certain to be supplied and were in fact supplied by the States reconstructed under military supervision.
On July 28 the Legislatures of Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia having ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, it was proclaimed. (Mississippi and Texas ratified later.) While the Military Reconstruction Act had declared that military governments should continue in control of the South until those States had adopted a constitution with Negro suffrage in them, the Fourteenth Amendment seemed to speak in a softer tone and to say to the South: take your choice, grant suffrage to your male Negroes or lose a portion of your representation in Congress. The harmonizing of these two acts required explanation not easy to make.
Speaking of the general sentiment concerning Negro suffrage at this period, James G. Blaine commented as follows:
“Political leaders with few exceptions shunned the issue (suffrage) preferring to wait until public sentiment should become more pronounced in favor of so radical a movement. But a large number of thinking people who gave more heed to the absolute right of the question than to its political expediency could not see how with consistency, or even with good conscience and common sense, the Republican party could refrain from calling to its aid the only large mass of persons in the South whose loyalty could be implicitly trusted. To their apprehension it seemed little less than an absurdity to proceed with a plan of reconstruction which would practically leave the State Governments of the South under the control of the same men that brought on the Civil War.”
The Republican Convention, meeting in Chicago in May, 1868, had unanimously nominated General Ulysses S. Grant. The platform included a plank dealing with the question of suffrage. “The guarantee of Congress of equal suffrage to all loyal men of the South (meaning Negroes) was demanded by every consideration of public safety, of gratitude, and of justice, and must be maintained; while the question of suffrage in all the loyal States properly belongs to the people of those States.”
The Democratic Convention meeting in New York in July, 1868, had declared that “The privilege and trust of suffrage belong to the several States.” The real difference in these platforms hinged on the fact that Republicans were regarding the seceding States as conquered provinces and as such subject to a federal control of suffrage not imposed on loyal States.
In an old diary kept by Miss Anthony one finds this entry under date of January 1, 1868: “All the old friends, with scarce an exception, are sure we are wrong. Only time can tell, but I believe we are right.”*
There were two reasons for this expression of doubt and anxiety. First, many of the friends with whom the suffragists had worked side by side before and during the war, with no differences of opinion as to policy, had now not only deserted the ranks of woman suffrage workers but were also engaged in bitterly denouncing the women for not repudiating their own cause. Second, the suffragists now had a paper of their own, the Revolution, and it was causing a new outbreak of hostility from old friends.
George Francis Train, a wealthy and eccentric Democrat, had volunteered as a helper in the Kansas campaign and had stirred up much irritation among Republicans by his witty and pungent comparisons of the relative qualifications for the vote of white women and black men. One day he had asked Miss Anthony what would give the woman's cause most aid, and she had answered —a paper. That night he announced upon the platform, without further consultation with her, that when the Kansas campaign was over there would be a woman suffrage paper with Miss Anthony as manager, Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Parker Pillsbury as editors. Its name would be the Revolution; its motto “Men, their rights, nothing more; women, their rights, nothing less.”
With Mr. Train and David M. Mellis, financial editor of the New York World, as financial backers, the paper appeared on January 8, 1868. It was the first paper of national scope the movement had had. Challenging the sincerity of both political parties in their attitude on suffrage and advocating Negro suffrage when and if included with woman suffrage in the extension of universal suffrage in many a brilliant editorial, it became at once a power in the political field. In the words of Mrs. Stanton: “Some denounced it, some ridiculed it, but all read it.”
Since the two men who had become its financial sponsors were Democrats, Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony were charged with deserting the slave and enlisting with “copperheads and traitors.” The Revolution took the position held by the great leaders of the Republican party in 1865, but from which they had later receded. Its editorials were based upon the impregnable principles of human rights and its pleas were set forth in terms no logician could challenge. It proved terribly embarrassing to the peace of mind of those who admitted the justice and logic of woman suffrage, and who being unable to deny the accusations of inconsistency, retreated behind the defense, universal under similar circumstances, of attacking the accusers. In the tone of derision with which naughty boys had once screamed “Geography girl,” former comrades in reform now inconsistently hurled at these two consistent leaders the word Democrat, a term of opprobrium to all loyal citizens at that time.
The Revolution held fast to the position it had assumed. Upon one occasion it said: “Charles Sumner, Horace Greeley, Gerrit Smith and Wendell Phillips with one consent bid the women of the nation stand aside and behold the salvation of the Negro. Wendell Phillips says: ‘One idea for a generation, to come up in the order of their importance. First, Negro suffrage, then temperance, then the eight-hour movement, then woman suffrage.’ Three generations hence, woman suffrage will be in order. What an insult to the women who have labored thirty years for the emancipation of the slave now, when he is their political equal, to propose to lift him over their heads.”
Upon another date it said:
“Because we make a higher demand than either Republicans or Abolitionists, they in self-defense revenged themselves by calling us Democrats; just as the church at the time of its apathy on the slavery question revenged the goading of Abolitionists by calling them infidels. If claiming the right of suffrage for every citizen, male and female, black and white, a platform far above that occupied by Republicans or Abolitionists today, is to be a Democrat then we glory in the name, but we have not so understood the policy of modern Democracy.”
The American Equal Rights Association held its annual meeting in New York in May, 1868. Lucretia Mott, its president, was detained at home by illness in her family; Elizabeth Cady Stanton was vice-president. So vindictive had the feeling of Abolitionists become toward Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony, that Thomas Wentworth Higginson attempted to persuade them that Mrs. Stanton, whose official duty it was to call the meeting to order, should give way to another. Miss Anthony would not yield this point and Mrs. Stanton presided over the convention. The public meetings of the convention were as crowded as ever, the speeches as eloquent, but a spirit of dissension never before present prevailed, owing to the determination of the men advocates of woman suffrage to compel the women to admit the wisdom of all working for Negro suffrage at that time, let woman suffrage come when and if it would. The slightest hint that the Fourteenth Amendment was not a perfect solution of reconstruction problems brought forth hisses.
The convention, however, did not surrender to these attacks but made plans to bombard Congress with more petitions, this time for a woman suffrage constitutional amendment and for the inclusion of woman suffrage in the proposed revision of government in the District of Columbia.
A group of the more radical members organized a special committee which sent a memorial to the National Republican Convention, urging it to include a woman suffrage plank in its platform. Apparently it found its way into the mysterious oblivion which received so many similar pleas in after years.
During the convention, Theodore Tilton presented a resolution half jocularly requesting Miss Anthony to attend the Democratic convention as a delegate appointed by the American Equal Rights Association, and to secure in the Democratic platform a recognition of woman's rights to the elective franchise. The resolution was intended as a gentle gibe at the alleged Democratic leanings of women who would not postpone work for woman suffrage. Miss Anthony accepted the instruction as sincere and with Mrs. Stanton prepared a memorial to the Democratic convention.
The effect of this news upon the country was to harass the Republicans and disturb the Democrats. The Republicans were in absolute control of the political situation in the nation, yet many leaders feared for the permanency of this control, since the Republican attitude toward Negro and woman suffrage could not stand the test of reason. For the first time since 1860, Southern Democrats would sit with Northern Democrats in the coming convention. Many Northern Democrats had taken the attitude that if suffrage was to be given to illiterate Negro men, it should not be denied to educated white women. Would Southern Democrats support this position? Would the voters insist upon logic instead of expediency? Alarm that “abolition women should associate with copperhead enemies of the nation” to the extent of presenting them with a memorial was common. The Democrats, unwilling to extend suffrage to any class, asked themselves equally disturbing questions, and the press found the incident a call for a surprising amount of editorial comment. The New York Herald said (July, 1868):
“The Democrats have a splendid opportunity to take the wind out of the Republican sails on womanhood suffrage against manhood suffrage and for white women especially as better qualified for an intelligent exercise of the suffrage than the thousands of black men just rescued from the ignorance of Negro slavery. The Democratic convention can turn the radical party out of doors upon this issue alone if only bold enough to take strong ground upon it.”
The Republicans were greatly relieved when the Democratic delegates, after hearing the memorial read by the Secretary,—with Miss Anthony seated upon the platform,—far from showing any sign of comprehending the opportunity pointed out by the Herald, received the petition with “yells, shrieks and demoniacal, deafening howls.”
Whether silent contempt, as shown by the Republicans, or audible contempt, as shown by the Democrats, is more damaging to a cause was a question women discussed through the next generation. They had numerous after experiences with both varieties of treatment.
Meanwhile the presidential campaign moved onward.
Francis Newton Thorpe* emphasizes the extension of the suffrage to the Negro as the great political issue of the campaign. Braxton † says that “Negro suffrage for the South was a paramount issue.” While John Mabry Matthews in his history of the Fifteenth Amendment takes the position that Negro suffrage, as the subject of a possible Fifteenth Amendment, was not recognized as a campaign issue at all.*
James G. Blaine throws a strong light upon these three contradictory statements.† “The evasive and discreditable position in regard to suffrage taken by the National Republican Convention was keenly felt and appreciated by the members of the party when subjected to popular discussion. There was something so obviously unfair and unmanly in the proposition to impose Negro suffrage on the Southern States by national power, and at the same time to leave the Northern States free to decide the question for themselves, that the Republicans became heartily ashamed of it long before the political canvass had closed.”
Even when there is no deliberate intent to deceive, it is inevitable, owing to the enormous size of the United States and its division into States each of which has its own political point of view, that party policy, interpreted by a great number of campaign speeches, be expounded with varying meaning. The campaign of 1868 was no exception to this rule.
Speakers pressed the view in the East that the Negro needed and must have the vote for his own protection; in the Middle West, that those States, having very small colored populations, should enfranchise the Negro by referenda in order to support the policy of insistence upon Negro suffrage in the South; and assured the far West, where fear of Chinese domination was professed, that Negro suffrage was intended only for the South. In all parts of the country campaigners took the ground phrased by Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri, “For Negroes, suffrage is of right, for rebels of grace.”
Throughout the campaign, the term “impartial suffrage” was employed to denote Negro suffrage. “Universal suffrage” could not be used as that would include women, and the frank words, “Negro suffrage” were offensive to many. “Impartial suffrage” had come into use to express the delicate discriminations intended, the inclusion in the electorate of Negroes and the exclusion of Northern white women and Southern white traitors. The word “impartial” could scarcely be construed by any known definition as explanatory of this unique political policy, and it therefore served to confuse rather than clarify the general understanding.
The fact that the Southern States had accepted the Fourteenth Amendment was announced, however, with a heartening assurance that political turmoil would now end, and this had more effect than any other point in the discussion. “The stoical submission of the South to the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment” was seized upon by its northern advocates as confirmation of the justice and wisdom of the measure,”* and the election closed in victory for the Republicans, with the national tension much relieved.
The Republican Congress, triumphantly re-elected, returned to Washington determined to forget all inconsistencies and to make Negro suffrage secure in the South by further action. Many proposals were made and debated and the entire subject of suffrage became again a consideration of Congress.
The first move toward insuring suffrage to the Negro by means of another federal amendment was made by Senator Pomeroy of Kansas in December, 1868. His proposal based the suffrage on citizenship, thus including women. George W. Julian of Indiana introduced a similar amendment in the House; also three other bills, one to give the vote to women in the District of Columbia, another to grant it to women in the territories, and later one to give it to the women of Utah. The first two of these bills followed the precise lines taken by the Congress relative to the Negro.
While Congress was making ready to submit a 15th amendment, the first suffrage convention held in Washington took place in January, 1869. A new feature at women's rights conventions was the attendance of several colored men who were given the opportunity of free speech. All denounced the women for jeopardizing the black man's chances for the vote and one, standing by the side of that saintly superwoman, Lucretia Mott, presiding officer, declared that “God intended the male should dominate the female everywhere.” Abolitionists too were there to defend the black man's prior claim and the spirited debate ran on for many hours, the women contending that it was never expedient to deny justice, and white and black men uniting in the declaration that justice in this particular case must yield to expediency.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton made another masterly speech which incidentally expressed the sentiments of suffragists in regard to the proposed Fifteenth Amendment. Said she:—
“While poets and philosophers, statesmen and men of science are all alike pointing to women as the new hope for the redemption of the race, shall the freest Government on the earth be the first to establish an aristocracy based on sex alone? to exalt ignorance above education, vice above virtue, brutality and barbarism above refinement and religion? Not since God first called light out of darkness and order out of chaos, was there ever made so base a proposition as ‘manhood suffrage’ in this American Republic, after all the discussions on human rights in the last century. . . . In our Southern States women were not humiliated in seeing their coachmen, gardeners, and waiters go to the polls to legislate for them; but here in this boasted Northern civilization women of wealth and education who pay taxes and obey the laws, who in morals and intelligence are the peers of their proudest rulers, are thrust outside the pale of political consideration with minors, paupers, lunatics, traitors and idiots, with those guilty of bribery, larceny and infamous crimes.”
The first Congressional Hearing ever secured for suffrage followed this convention. Mrs. Stanton addressed the District Committee of the Senate with women representatives of nineteen States at her back in a powerful plea to save the women of the District from being debarred from the exercise of their right of suffrage.
In and out of the Congress the debate concerning the further extension of suffrage continued at white heat. President Grant recommended the ratification of the Negro suffrage amendment in his inaugural address, in March, 1869, saying: “The question of suffrage is one which is likely to agitate the public so long as a portion of the citizens of the nation are excluded from its privileges in any State. It seems to me very desirable that this question should be settled now.” Commenting privately upon the political situation he said, however: * “I could never have believed that I should favor giving Negroes the right to vote but that seems to be the only solution of our difficulties.” Petitions poured in from many States to refer the question to referendum or to submit it to conventions called for the purpose.
Throughout the angry contentions over Negro suffrage, the women quoted often the well-known suffrage letter of the martyred Lincoln. His influence lay over the country like the spirit of a benediction, but although the letter helped the women's cause, it rasped the Republicans. Lincoln's letter read as follows:
“New Salem, June 13, 1836.
“To the Editor of the ‘Journal’:
“In your paper of last Saturday I see a communication over the signature of ‘Many Voters,’ in which the candidates who are announced in the ‘Journal’ are called upon to ‘show their hands.’ Agreed. Here's mine. . . .
“I go for all sharing the privileges of the Government who assist in bearing its burdens. Consequently, I go for admitting all whites to the right of suffrage who pay taxes or bear arms, by no means excluding females.
The Fifteenth Amendment was submitted on February 27, 1869.* Whereupon the phrase “The Negro's Hour,” on all tongues from 1865 to 1868, was cast aside and immediately forgotten. In its place there came a new slogan, “A Political Necessity,” which served as effectively to explain the inexplicable as its predecessor; under its suggestion loyal voters were cautiously led to overlook the fact that the amendment was not only in direct contradiction to the suffrage plank in the platform by which the Republicans had been charged with national power, but also to the solemn pledges made by campaigners in the West. As has been shown above, the Republican platform had firmly relegated all authority for Negro suffrage to the States, with the exception of those recently in rebellion, and had not mentioned women at all. Yet out of the maze of politics, with no emphatic change of public opinion, the proposed Fifteenth Amendment had emerged as a “political necessity” with a united party behind it. And so carefully had the preparations been made that eleven States ratified the amendment within the first month.
On March 15, 1869, Mr. Julian of Indiana introduced a Sixteenth Amendment which copied the phraseology of the Fifteenth Amendment and substituted “sex” for “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” The women, of course, were back of this amendment, which was a federal woman suffrage amendment; but though supported by a ceaseless succession of petitions and an unanswerable plea, it was utterly ignored. The congressional friends who had introduced the suffrage bills, Senators Pomeroy of Kansas and Wilson of Iowa, and Mr. Julian of the House, were all regarded as “irregular” by the party majority, which had decided that Negro suffrage, superseding all other considerations, had become an imperative “political necessity.”
The Fifteenth Amendment made the rounds of the Legislatures in a year and a month and was proclaimed as ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the States on March 30, 1870. The States of California, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon and Tennessee, having gone Democratic, rejected the amendment. The State of New Jersey ratified subsequent to the Proclamation by the Secretary of State. The ten reconstructed States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, where Negroes, carpet-baggers and a minority of loyal Southern men directed the government, are counted in the list of ratifying States.
New York ratified in a Republican Legislature April 14, 1869, and a Democratic Legislature the following year withdrew her consent, January 5, 1870. The Democratic Legislature of Ohio rejected the amendment, May 4, 1869, and a Republican Legislature ratified it, January 27, 1870. The federal Secretary of State ruled that a State once ratifying an amendment could not reverse its action and reject it, but that a State rejecting an amendment could reverse its decision and ratify it. The ratifications of both States were, therefore, counted in the total. These points were never reviewed by the Supreme Court.
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had been submitted by Congress and ratified by a strictly party vote, the Republicans voting solidly for them and the Democrats against them. With the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, the United States became the first country in the world to elevate all men to the sovereignty of voting citizenship. In all other countries there were certain classes of men excluded with the women. The discrimination had been advertised and emphasized by the Fourteenth Amendment and its triply reiterated adjective “male.” This political degradation put upon women would have been less humiliating had there been promise of relief, but the prediction of Mr. Beecher was completely realized; the public mind had indeed “shut up altogether.”
Appeals to party leaders who had faithfully pledged their help to women when the Negro's hour should have passed fell upon deaf ears and resisting minds. Many Republicans were disturbed by the realization that the reconstruction measures had violated logic, justice, consistency and common sense. They were irritated by the fact that these measures had not brought peace and stability, but it was too late to reconsider, too late to be logical, and, obeying a psychological rule, they began to hate woman suffrage and woman suffragists,—incidentally the occasion of the self-accusation of their own consciences. In the South, an antipathy toward the Negro race as the cause of the Southern humiliation, which was very different from the pre-war variety, was manifesting itself in a new and portentous form. The North had enfranchised the Negro the South had capitulated in form, but the sheeted Ku Klux Klan, riding by night, had established a reign of terror over the ignorant and superstitious freedmen compared to which their former slavery was comparative freedom. The political future looked dark and troubled. The moral courage of statesmen, but recently contending in exalted phrase for human liberty and equal rights for all, had utterly surrendered to the politician's eternal plea of expediency.
Once Mrs. Stanton, lecturing in California, met Senator Bingham of Ohio stumping the State on behalf of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which that State had declined to ratify. Mrs. Stanton gently charged him with insincerity, since every argument he was presenting applied equally to woman suffrage. “With a cynical smile he replied that he was not the puppet of logic but the slave of practical politics.”*
Victimized by “practical politics” and its slaves, the politicians, suffragists pushed forward, just the same, with their national and state programs.