Women's Suffrage: Politics After the War

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
The First Victory (1869)
Two Amendments and Many Women

Politics After the War

The enfranchisement of the Negro did not have the effect upon the politics of the nation that was expected.

General Grant had been elected in 1868 with a “handsome majority“ but, said Mr. Blaine:[1]*

“An analysis of the vote gave food for serious reflection. Six of the reconstructed States gave Grant their electoral vote. Georgia and Louisiana gave theirs to Seymour, the Democratic candidate, and it was believed that this had happened through fraud and intimidation of the Negro. If these conditions had obtained in all the States and Mr. Seymour had received the electoral vote of the solid South, he would, in connection with the vote he received in the North, have had a majority over General Grant in the Electoral College.“

Many Southern men had fought in the Northern army, risking their lives for the cause of the Union and had proved effective leaders of the Negroes in the first days of reconstruction, but by degrees when Negro suffrage became the test of loyalty the strongest of them deserted the Republican Party and joined the secessionists' standard. The remnants of the various political parties which had existed in the South before the war drew together under the banner of the Democratic party, whose watchword in that section was “white supremacy.“ The so-called carpet-baggers from the North were driven out, intimidated, or their views modified. Few white men remained as leaders and the black man was far too inexperienced to command his own forces.

The Fifteenth Amendment was proclaimed on March 30, 1870, and on May 31, 1870, the Congress passed what was familiarly known as the Force Bill in the effort to quiet southern disturbances, overthrow the Ku Klux Klan and insure Republican control over the South. The bill “was based upon the idea that until the colored man should have reached the point at which he could compete on even terms with the white man, his undeveloped powers must be reinforced.“[2]* “These Southern State governments proved a source of angry contention inside the Republican Party in the North,“[3]† and the military supervision of Southern elections, with its need of continual defense was waxing more and more unpopular. The strong characters who had unceasingly striven for Negro rights were passing out, and new men, whose convictions had not been formed in the long and hard-fought abolition struggle, were less ardent. As once the “political necessity“ of enfranchising the Negro “to save the party“ had been urged, the advancing years brought forth talk of “unloading the Negro“ in the interest of the salvation of the same party. The Pacific Coast continued to be alarmed by the possibility of Chinese political domination [4]‡ and this state of the public mind in that section was aggravated by the presence of large numbers of Southern men who, lured by the greater promise of the undeveloped resources of the West, had migrated there after the war.

The Negro vote proved annoying to Republicans in other ways. The gentleman's game of battling on the floor of presidential conventions for the nomination of favorite candidates lost much of its interest and thrill in the presence of full delegations from all the Southern States, mostly colored, few of whose members were competent to play their part on the plane of mental and ethical equality with other delegations. Their expenses were usually paid and they demanded favors not easy to confer. Candidates earliest in the field or with most money at their command had an unfair advantage which further increased the irritation. All in all, the Northern conscience became easier and less determined to protect the Negro in his right to vote. Negro suffrage had proved a load to carry instead of an added strength. It became odious to Northern Republicans to give military protection at elections to men the majority of whom could neither read nor understand; as odious to them as the intimidating Ku Klux methods had become to the better classes of the South. Any mention of further extensions of suffrage affected the average Republican politician with mental nausea.

Meanwhile, the hands of Northern suffragists were stretched across Mason and Dixon's line and accepted by Southern women, timidly at first, but after the lapse of twenty-five years with friendly loyalty to the common cause. “How I hate Susan B. Anthony,“ exclaimed one Southern woman in 1895 to an astonished visiting suffragist from the North. “Why? Do you know her?“ No, the lady had never seen her, but Susan B. Anthony was an Abolitionist, the Abolitionists had won the war, and had sent Sherman marching across Southern plantations, one of which had belonged to her father. The same Abolitionists had devised Negro suffrage and the Force Bill. Therefore all of them and all of their ideas were gall and wormwood to the South. Fearless Southern women in time, within the locality whose peculiar prejudices they knew and understood, waged unremitting warfare against these prejudices, and no stronger characters did the long struggle produce than those great-souled Southern suffragists. They had need to be great of soul. As late as 1920, the average Southern Democrat was filled with explosive rage at any mention of woman suffrage. He would not and could not argue the question. His response to all appeals was a scornful, sputtering ejaculation, “Negro women!

For years, Southern white women demonstrated by Census reports that, when enfranchised, white women would outnumber black men and women in all save two Southern States, yet the invariable answer was that of the Mississippi Senator, though less rudely given: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can't treat women, even black women, that way. No, we'll allow no woman suffrage. It may be right, but we won't have it.“ A Southern woman, pleading with a Congressional Committee for the submission of the Federal Suffrage Amendment in 1918, was publicly chided by a Congressman for having deserted the traditions and the political creed of her section.

As no action had ever been taken by the Republicans to enforce the penalty of loss of representation on account of the flagrant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the State of Mississippi in 1890 called a constitutional convention for the frankly avowed purpose of restoring white supremacy. It accomplished the purpose by establishing an educational and poll tax qualification. No federal penalty being enforced, Louisiana called a convention in 1898, with the determination to go farther. She adopted all the Mississippi handicaps and added the “grandfather clause“ which limited the vote to those who had it before the Civil War “and their legitimate descendants.“ As the Republicans still took no action, other Southern States followed with constitutional conventions in quick succession, until in the “black district“ the Negro was almost completely disfranchised. In after years the Supreme Court, upon an Oklahoma case, declared the “grandfather clause“ wholly unconstitutional, but to this day no political action has ever been taken to reduce Southern representation as provided by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Southern Democratic States disfranchised the Negro by as unconstitutional processes as the Republican Northern States had employed in enfranchising him. Whether the Negro, enfranchised a generation before his time, or the woman, enfranchised two generations after her time, suffered the greater injustice, it may take another century to demonstrate. Certainly both paid heavy penalties for the political blunders of the “white male.“

“The real reason behind the attitude of both Congress and the Courts“ concerning the enforcement of the amendments, “is the apathetic tone of public opinion which is the final arbiter of the question. In the technical sense, the amendment is still a part of the supreme law of the land. But as a phenomenon of the social consciousness, a rule of conduct, no matter how authoritatively promulgated by the nation, if not supported by the force of public opinion, is already in process of repeal.“[5]*

In the year 1872, the Republican Party suffered a split over financial problems. A convention of delegates calling themselves Liberals met in Cincinnati and nominated Horace Greeley for president. The women, led by Miss Anthony, were there to ask endorsement of woman suffrage, but although many of the old and true suffrage friends were delegates, they would not heed the appeal “to load the new party“ with issues other than those which called it into being. The Republicans met in Philadelphia in June, anxious and distressed by the defection of the so-called liberals. They needed all the help possible and for the first time put a woman's plank in the platform-a plank that deserves to go down in song and story as the ablest effort to say something and mean nothing that was ever written.

“The Republican party is mindful of its obligations to the loyal women of America for their noble devotion to the cause of freedom; their admission to wider fields of usefulness is received with satisfaction; and the honest demands of any class of citizens for equal rights should be treated with respectful consideration.“

Suffragists spoke of it not as a plank, but as a splinter!

The Democrats, meeting in July, made no mention of women. A strong pressure was now put upon suffragists to throw all their forces into the Republican side of the balance and many did, believing with Henry Blackwell that the “recognition of 1872 would be endorsement in 1876.“ The chairman of the National Republican Committee wired Miss Anthony to come to Washington, but as there was serious illness in her home she was unable to reach Washington until five days later, and then in response to a second telegram. Said the chairman:- “At the time we sent our first telegram we were panic-stricken, and had you come then you might have had what you pleased to carry out your plan of work among the women; but now the crisis has passed and we feel confident of success.“

The same change of front was soon noticeable in the press. “When it looked as if Greeley might be elected, the Republican newspapers were filled with appeals to the women, and the plank was magnified . . . but as the campaign progressed and the danger passed, it was almost wholly ignored by press and platform.“[6]*

Horace Greeley was defeated and for 48 years the Republicans, with restored confidence, not needing women's help, made no further pronouncement concerning woman suffrage in a national platform.


* Blaine, “Twenty Years in Congress,“ Volume 2, page 488.


* “Legislative and Judicial History, Fifteenth Amendment,“ Matthews, page 95.


† Blaine, “Twenty Years in Congress,“ Volume 2, page 472.


‡ The Chinese were later denied citizenship by act of Congress at the instance of the Irish of California.


* “Legislative History, Fifteenth Amendment,“ Matthews, page 126.


* “Biography of Susan B. Anthony,“ Volume 1, page 421.

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