Women's Suffrage: The Negro's Hour

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
That Adjective Male 1866
Negro Suffrage as a Political Necessity

The Negro's Hour

The elections of 1866 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Republicans. The two-thirds vote of both Houses needed to over-ride any veto of the President had been returned to Congress, and the Northern Legislatures had sufficient majorities to insure the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. There still remained the rasping inconsistency which had put the North in the position of thrusting Negro suffrage on the South while it had taken no action on Negro suffrage itself, but the majority in Congress had been rendered bolder by its size and the emphatic expression of public confidence. Moreover, it had been further aroused by the disturbing reports of Negro persecution in the South. So it determined upon radical action. A bill was promptly introduced to confer suffrage upon the Negro men of the District of Columbia, with the sole qualification of one year's residence. Thereupon Senator Cowan of Pennsylvania, an extreme conservative and a Democrat, moved to strike out the word “male“ from the bill, thus making the suffrage apply equally to women and Negroes.

It took three entire days of debate to dispose of Senator Cowan. He had invariably opposed change of any kind, and was accused of insincerity and a desire to hector the Republicans. He confessed that he believed in neither woman suffrage nor Negro suffrage, but “Negro suffrage will come,“ said he, “because the majority here is strong enough to bring it,“ but, “if I have no reason to offer why a Negro man shall not vote, I have no reason to offer why a white woman shall not vote.“ He asked Charles Sumner how he would answer the challenge to the United States Senate “when made by women of the highest intellect perhaps on the planet, and women who are determined, knowing their rights, to maintain them and to secure them.“ How can such Senators explain their attitude, especially those “who desire to keep themselves in the front of the great army of humanity which is marching forward just as certainly to universal suffrage as to universal manhood suffrage“?

This gauntlet thrown down to the Republican leaders brought out a paradoxí¬cal debate, many supporters of woman suffrage stoutly opposing the amendment, and many opponents defending it. Former suffragists not only acknowledged the justice of the woman's claim to the vote but admitted as well that it was a proper reconstruction demand. They contended, however, that while woman and Negro suffrage were both just and logical, the nation would not accept two reforms at one time; therefore the question of suffrage must be divided and the first chance be given to the Negro. “This is the Negro's hour“ became the universal response to the woman's appeal. Opponents of both woman and Negro suffrage, chiefly Democrats, played at friendliness and contended that white women were far better qualified to vote than Negro men. They held that if the suffrage must be extended at this time the ballot given to educated white women would offset the illiteracy of the black man, and therefore women should be given the first chance.

Republicans charged Democrats with insincerity and a desire to embarrass the party in power. Democrats in turn charged the Republican leaders with insincerity, since they seemed determined to put aside the woman suffrage cause which they had long advocated and to substitute this newer proposition of Negro suffrage. Time proved that the diagnoses of motives made by the rival parties against each other were both correct. Both parties had carried the Civil War into politics and each was sparring for immediate party advantage. At the end of three lively days of discussion, the vote revealed nine Senators for the amendment and thirty-seven against, the vote in opposition including many convinced advocates of woman suffrage. It was the first vote taken in the United States Congress on the subject of woman suffrage. The historic date was December 13, 1866.

On December 14 (1866), the Congress conferred the suffrage upon the Negroes of the District of Columbia. President Johnson vetoed the bill, January 5, 1867, upon the ground that the voters of the District had rejected Negro suffrage at the polls by an almost unanimous vote.[1]* On January 7 the Senate, and, on January 8, the House passed the bill over the veto.

The Congress followed this act by another, equally revelatory of Republican intentions toward Negro suffrage. On January 25, 1867, it passed a bill providing that “in the territories thereafter organized, the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.“ Thus the Congress had extended Negro suffrage wherever it had jurisdiction so to do. This bill became law without the President's signature. Under its provisions Nebraska was admitted to statehood after agreeing that the franchise should be allowed to Negroes. It promptly ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and thereby became an historic bone of contention, the Republicans being immediately charged by the Democrats, and by members of their own party, with “gross irregularity“ in their haste to secure another Legislature to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, then pending. Whether the charge was true or false, the amendment was ratified by Nebraska, June 15, 1867.

Meanwhile the irritable political situation in Washington was growing still more acute. While the Republican party included a controlling majority of the people outside the South, there were ominous signs of a split, or at least damaging defections. Leaders began to sense the possibility that all that had been gained by the conflicts of war might be lost by the conflicts of peace, and the instinct of self-preservation pushed all other motives into the background. The lofty expositions of the principles of human justice, which, as pronounced by great leaders, had uplifted the nation a few months before, were heard no more. The Congress ceased to talk of the rights of man and occupied itself with plans for saving the party. Under the threat of disruption from within, the party deserted logic and consistency and drove forward with the power of political might. Senators Sumner, Stevens, Wade, Wilson and Pomeroy, woman suffrage advocates in the Congress, made peace with their own consciences by the agreement that the Negro's chance must come before all else. Outside Congress, Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith and Horace Greeley adopted and disseminated that view. Thinking is always a laborious and painful process for the average human being, and the great leaders had simplified it for him by giving him an answer for every query,-“the Negro's hour.“

From statesman to editor, from editor to people, the maxim passed, easy to remember, soothing to troubled consciences and comfortably postponing any necessity for further mental exertion. A successful maxim has ever been the most effective oil for troubled political waters. Political leaders stopped discussing woman suffrage; abolitionists declined further aid; political papers stopped publishing suffrage letters; editorials ceased; and in Congress former friends either withheld petitions for woman suffrage or dishonestly introduced them as petitions for universal suffrage which, in the parlance of Congress at the time, meant Negro suffrage. Abolitionists like Gerrit Smith, who had always decried mistaking policy for principle, now refused to sign a petition to the Constitutional Convention of New York urging that in the extension of suffrage no distinction between men and women be made. Horace Greeley pointed out to the women: “This is a critical period for the Republican party and the Nation. It would be wise and magnanimous in you to hold your claims, though just and imperative I grant, in abeyance until the Negro is safe beyond peradventure, and your turn will come next.“

The women replied: “No, no, this is the time to press the women's claim; we have stood with the black man in the constitution for half a century and it is fitting that we should pass through the same door now opened to his political freedom.“ “Well,“ said Mr. Greeley, “if you persevere in your present plan, you need depend on no further help from me or the Tribune.“ At that moment, the national political leaders had definitely turned their backs upon woman suffrage and were devoting all their energies to the first division of the suffrage question, the enfranchisement of the Negro. The women, surprised and grieved as they certainly were, did not yet comprehend what had happened. Miss Anthony said at this time: “Some think this is a harvest time for the black man and seed-sowing time for women; others, with whom I agree, think we have been sowing the seed of individual rights, the foundation idea of a republic for the last century, and that this is the harvest time for all citizens who pay taxes, obey the laws and are loyal to the Government.“ The great party leaders had given the women staunch promises that their turn would come next, and although the latter keenly felt the humiliation of this discrimination, they still believed in the promises and trusted the leaders who made them.

So, when the doors of Congress closed, suffrage leaders, discomfited but still undaunted, turned with brave hopes to New York and Kansas which offered fields for immediate work. In New York, Negroes owning $250 worth of property had long been permitted to vote and as Negro suffrage was no novelty in the State, New York was expected to lead in the movement for their full enfranchisement.

Although all the referenda on Negro suffrage had failed, party leaders believed that the great State of New York would give a fresh impulse to the proposed change, and therefore the Constitutional Convention of the State was watched by anxious men in all parts of the country. The New York Legislature had promptly ratified the Fourteenth Amendment upon the convening of the Legislature in January, 1867, which added strength to their expectations.

The woman suffragists were filled with as urgent a hope. On January 23, Mrs. Stanton by arrangement appeared before the crowded Assembly chamber in Albany where she made a masterly plea on behalf of allowing women to vote for delegates to the Constitutional Convention, basing her argument upon the precedents already established by the State. The Legislatures of 1801 and 1821 had each extended the right to vote for delegates to the Constitutional Convention of those years to all disfranchised classes of men. They had “swept away property qualifications and color barriers“ upon the principle that constitutions must emanate from and be representative of all the people. Mrs. Stanton begged the Legislature to continue that precedent in the provision about to be enacted for the election of delegates. “Your laws degrade rather than exalt women; your customs cripple rather than free; your system of taxation is alike ungenerous and unjust. Just imagine the motley crew from the ten thousand dens of poverty and vice in our large cities, limping, raving, cringing, staggering up to the polls, while the loyal mothers of a million soldiers whose bones lie bleaching on every Southern plain stand outside, sad and silent witnesses of this wholesale desecration of republican institutions.“

Logical, eloquent, soul-stirring was that marvelous address. The legislators afterwards declared that no such complete and unanswerable argument had been heard in the Capitol for many a year, but their answer was, “The time is not ripe for woman suffrage; this is the Negro's hour.“ A resolution to give women the vote for delegates to the Constitutional Convention was promptly introduced, but only nine members voted in its favor.

Meanwhile an active woman suffrage campaign had been in progress for some months in all parts of the state. Committees had been formed, meetings had been held and petitions had been circulated. From the first, the women workers met the maxim “this is the Negro's hour“ at every turn. Clergymen, newspapers, abolitionists, Republicans, who once favored woman suffrage and still professed to do so, refused to help and repeated the wellnigh universal aphorism. Not a letter came to the suffrage headquarters that did not recount experience with advocates of the “Negro's Hour“ and the refusal of many suffragists to co-operate with any campaign for woman suffrage until the Negroes were enfranchised.

The Constitutional Convention met on June 1, 1867. The first petition presented was for woman suffrage, and introduced by George William Curtis. Every day the petitions for woman suffrage poured in until the total of signatures was 28,000, a remarkable demand for those days. Horace Greeley was chairman of the Elections Committee. Seven days before the convention opened, he had written editorially in the Tribune another endorsement of the principle of woman suffrage and predicted victory in Kansas. But he, it will be recalled, was among those who were willing to sacrifice the principle of woman suffrage to the expediency of the Negro's Hour.

On June 28, Mr. Greeley, as chairman, rendered the report for the Elections Committee. Just before he arose, suffrage petitions were presented, a few for Negro suffrage but many for woman suffrage. By request of the women the last to be handed in was presented by George William Curtis. It was a petition from Mrs. Horace Greeley and three hundred other women of Westchester County. Mr. Greeley was visibly embarrassed and irritated. His report recommended universal manhood suffrage for blacks and whites. It included the following:

“Your committee does not recommend an extension of the elective franchise to women. However defensible in theory, we are satisfied that public sentiment does not demand and would not sustain an innovation so revolutionary and sweeping, so openly at war with a distribution of duties and functions between the sexes as venerable and pervading as Government itself.... Nor have we seen fit to propose the enfranchisement of boys above the age of 18 years.“

As no one had made a suggestion that boys be enfranchised, while thousands of the best known men and women of the State had petitioned for woman suffrage, the allusion to boys was received as an additional and unnecessary offense.

Although the subject of woman suffrage was debated several times, the convention refused to submit an amendment to give the voters of the State an opportunity to express their opinions upon it, but, acting under party instructions, it submitted a Negro suffrage amendment. The friends of woman suffrage in the New York Convention admitted that a majority of women might not want the vote but declared that proportionately many more women than Negroes were asking for the suffrage. The opponents as frankly acknowledged the truth of this assertion, but with shrugs of the shoulder closed the debate with the finality,-this is “the Negro's hour.“

The Negro suffrage amendment, though clear of any entanglements with woman suffrage and though supported by the urgent influence of the party in power, was lost at the election.[2]*

With the door closed to further action in New York, Mrs. Stanton and Miss Anthony hastened to Kansas where the Republican Legislature of 1867 by a large majority had submitted two State constitutional amendments, one for woman suffrage and one for Negro suffrage. This was the first referendum for woman suffrage in the world, and the hearts of the women leaders were again light with hope and anticipation. Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry B. Blackwell, had already been at work in the State for some months. They had sent optimistic telegrams to the annual national suffrage convention in May predicting victory, and the convention raised a special fund to aid the campaign. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, writing about the campaign afterwards, said:

“With no greater faith did crusaders of old seize their shields and start on their perilous journey to wrest from the infidel the holy sepulcher, than did these defenders of a sacred principle enter Kansas and with hope sublime consecrate themselves to labor for woman's freedom; to roll off her soul the mountains of sorrow and superstition that had held her in bondage to false creeds and codes and customs for centuries. There was a solemn earnestness in the speeches of all who labored in that campaign. Each heart was thrilled with the thought that the youngest civilization in the world was about to establish a government based on the divine idea-the equality of mankind.“

They journeyed westward confident of victory, for the amendment was a Republican measure sponsored by a Republican Governor and advocated by the leaders of the party in Kansas and as they believed in the nation. The New York Tribune, with Horace Greeley at its head, the Independent, edited by Theodore Tilton, and the Anti-Slavery Standard, edited by Wendell Phillips, all circulated widely in the State, and their support was confidently expected. Fourteen of the twenty papers in the State were already supporting the amendment; why should they not have been lighthearted?

Alas! they were to see the Sumner episode in Congress paralleled again and again. Men who had stood shoulder to shoulder with the women leaders in their convention before the war when the women were serving men's causes, men who had earnestly and eloquently espoused in return the woman's cause when it was in a purely academic stage, now at the first opportunity to put theory into practice boldly chided the women for their selfish intrusion upon this, “the Negro's Hour.“ The eastern papers upon which they had depended were stolidly silent.

When all was over Mrs. Stanton said:- “The editors of the New York Tribune (Greeley) and the Independent (Tilton) can never know how wistfully from day to day their papers were searched for some inspiring editorial on the woman's amendment, but naught was there; there were no words of hope and encouragement, no eloquent letters from an Eastern man that could be read to the people; all were silent. Yet these two papers, extensively taken all over Kansas, had they been as true to woman as to the Negro, could have revolutionized the State. But with arms folded, Horace Greeley, George William Curtis, Theodore Tilton, Henry Ward Beecher, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, all calmly watched the struggle from afar, and when defeat came to both propositions, no consoling words were offered for the woman's loss, but the women who spoke in the campaign were reproached for having 'killed Negro suffrage.'“ Mrs. Stanton testified further that the loss of friends and sympathy just when they were most needed was the hardest experience the suffragists had yet been called upon to bear. Again and again to the very end of the suffrage campaign half a century later this same history repeated itself, for human nature is timid and looks out upon the world through small windows.

The women had expected stalwart help from Republicans and Abolitionists in Kansas. They found that Eastern Republicans had urged the Central Committee to do its utmost for Negro suffrage, which was a party measure although it had not been endorsed in a national platform, and not to entangle itself in the “woman question.“ The State Central Committee had been called by its chairman, T. H. Drenning. It had issued an address to voters on behalf of Negro suffrage but had said nothing about woman suffrage. It had summoned ten Republicans who were known opponents of woman suffrage and engaged them to canvass the State for Negro suffrage, permitting them “to express their own sentiments on other questions.“ The Committee had taken pains to summon no Republicans who advocated woman suffrage, although such Republicans were numerous and the list included as gifted speakers as those who were called.

The Republican campaign committee therefore officially sponsored and campaigned for the Negro suffrage amendment and as officially repudiated the woman suffrage amendment, which their own party Legislature had submitted. Negroes were encouraged to speak on their own behalf and were aroused against the woman's amendment as an impediment to the success of Negro suffrage. They commonly said that “the black man has the woman question hitched on him.“

Before election day the report had traveled eastward that the Republican managers had so incensed the early settlers that they were likely to lose the Negro amendment, whereupon a list of prominent Eastern Republicans issued an appeal to “Voters of the United States“ urging them to apply the principles of the Declaration of Independence to women, but the appeal came too late. The news had reached Kansas that the commission appointed by the Michigan Legislature to consider Negro and woman suffrage had submitted Negro suffrage only, and that Horace Greeley, well known as an advocate of woman's rights before the war, had reported the recommendation from the Elections Committee of the New York Constitutional Convention that Negro suffrage should be submitted to the voters but not woman suffrage. That the national party stood for Negro suffrage and not for woman suffrage was therefore accepted in Kansas.

The suffrage workers in the Kansas campaign were unanimous in their conviction that had the old time friends stood steadfast the woman suffrage amendment could have been won. As it was, it only fell behind the Negro amendment by one thousand votes, though the latter had been supported by the full party influence of the State and nation. Both were lost. The Republicans were dismayed and irritated that Negro suffrage had failed in the two States upon which they had most, depended; the Democrats were rasped by the entire reconstruction program; and white women were hurt by the apostas y of former friends and the failure of the party of which most, if not all of them, were supporters to uphold the principle of equality and justice.

The nation had receded from the exalted unity of sympathy which marks any war period, and public thought had reached that chaotically distrustful, suspicious and divided state which accompanies any reconstruction period.

In the matter of Negro suffrage the Congress was not, however, to be deflected from its purpose of completing the ratification of the 14th Amendment, although completing it meant the coercion of at least four of the seceding Southern States, all of whom save Tennessee had rejected ratification. It is written in imperishable history that they were coerced, just the same, and that the Negro was temporarily enfranchised in the ten rebellious States by statutory act of Congress, the measure carrying the penalty that until this act was respected by the States and acknowledged in their constitutions, military supervision would be in force. The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted by no less than seven States under military compulsion and the threat that military supervision would continue until they did.

Thus it came about that under the threat of the bayonet, resolved upon by the majority party in Congress, the black man was enfranchised in the Southern States; under the instructions of the same party, the Congress declined to consider woman suffrage and the New York Constitutional Convention refused to the voters of the State their constitutional right to decide the question; while in Kansas that same party used its enormous influence to secure the adoption of Negro suffrage and the defeat of woman suffrage at the polls.


* A referendum on Negro suffrage in 1865 had resulted in 6521 votes in Washington, and 812 in Georgetown against; and 35 votes in Washington and 1 in Georgetown in favor.


* Negro suffrage had been twice submitted before, once in 1846 when it was rejected by a vote of 223,834 to 85,306; again in 1860 and rejected by a vote of 337,984 to 197,150; again in 1868 and rejected by 282,403 to 249,802. (Thorpe's “Constitutional History of the United States,“ page 173.)

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