Sometime last night, perhaps around sunset in Phoenix, Arizona State Professor Brooks Simpson wrote a critique of my post about the 1866 Memphis Race Riots. It’s at his Crossroads blog, which is a good place to safely observe his reality distortion field without having to worry about a bite in the neck.
Simpson fails to address the central question of whether black suffrage in the South was more important to Radical Republicans as a matter of morality or as a tool to sustain the Party’s political power. As always, he plays the race card early and often as if morality was all that mattered to Republicans and that racism was all that mattered to their opponents. He does not mention that Republicans abandoned black Southern voters eleven years after the Memphis Riots as well as many other factors suggesting the primacy of political—as opposed to moral—motivation.
Nor does he mention that three Northern states put black suffrage on the ballot in 1868 where all of them rejected it. He ignores Northern racism where blacks represented 1% of the population and could not impact the balance of political power in any state. Conversely, he pretends that racism alone explains the white Southerner’s objection to black suffrage where African-Americans represented 40% of the population and would be an even greater percentage of total voters given black suffrage and continued disfranchisement of former Rebels as in Tennessee and other Southern states.
Among the specific errors and obfuscations in Simpson’s remarks are the following:
Simpson: [In May 1866, which was the time of the Memphis riot,] there was not much support for black suffrage…The fact is that there is no evidence that there was widespread support for enfranchising blacks among Republicans in 1866.
1. Not true. After Congress refused to seat the Southern representatives sent to Washington in December 1865 under President Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan, the congressmen set-up a Joint Committee on Reconstruction to develop an alternate plan. The two would become known as “Presidential Reconstruction” and “Congressional Reconstruction.” The committee was composed of 12 Republicans and 3 Democrats. It was the brainchild of member Thaddeus Stevens who was the prime architect of Congressional Reconstruction and high profile proponent of black suffrage as well as a notorious vessel of hatred toward white Southerners and a businessman of dubious ethics.
At the time of the Memphis riots Southerners could not know that the Fourteenth Amendment, which was a work in progress, would not require black suffrage but instead mandate all states to reduce their congressional representation and electoral votes if they did not provide black suffrage. Thus, it would have negligible effect on the North but big impact in the South. Republicans had to settle on the convoluted approach of limiting the influence of white Southerners because of doubts about getting enough Northern states to approve the amendment if it included universal suffrage without regard to race. California, for example, did not want Asian-Americans to gain power.
2. Contrary to Simpson’s claim, the willingness of the vassal government in Nashville to do the bidding of Washington Republicans was fairly evident at the time of the riots. Tennessee, for example, was the third state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which it did about two months after the Memphis riots. Seven months later it adopted black suffrage. It would also further disfranchise ex-Rebels by requiring that whites applying for voting certificates supply at least two witnesses that the applicant did not support the Confederacy during the war.
Simpson: [To gain control of Southern states Republicans] would have to appeal to at least some white voters, because only in three states was the majority of the potential electorate African-American in 1867 (Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina).
1. The March 1867 Reconstruction Act required all former Confederate states—except Tennessee, which had already demonstrated its puppet status—to elect delegates to constitutional conventions to draw-up new state constitutions. Each state was required to have all adult black males participate in the elections, but many white males were excluded based upon their involvement with the Confederacy. The elections were held under the glitter of federal army bayonets, which would be used to settle disputes over a man’s qualifications to vote.
Furthermore, until after President Grant’s election the constitutions adopted at the conventions were required to mandate universal black suffrage and voting restrictions on former Rebels that were at least as strict as those applicable to the vote for convention delegates. Some were more restrictive. Consequently, blacks represented a majority of the electorate in five (Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida) former Confederate states, not three as Simpson claims.
2. Generally, a combination of black voters who voted as the Union Leagues instructed and influential carpetbaggers and scalawags who benefitted from profligate state spending could elect Republican vassal governments. Significantly, the carpetbag regimes sometimes collapsed as a result of a-falling-out-among-thieves when the state Republican parties split instead of losing to Democratic opponents.
Simpson: [Readers] will note that [President Johnson’s opposition to reconvening Louisiana’s 1864 constitutional convention authorized by President Lincoln] means that Johnson was on the side of the people who supported the New Orleans rioters.
The above is a prime example of playing the race card as if there were no other issues, but nobody should expect anything different from Simpson.
1. Louisiana was one of the first Southern states to adopt a Reconstruction constitution. It was adopted in 1864 at a convention authorized by President Lincoln’s Ten Percent plan and produced a Republican state government. After the war, returning Rebel soldiers were permitted to vote and did not approve of some of the governor’s actions. Consequently, the governor concluded that he wanted a large constituency that he could control, which inevitably led him to focus on freedman.
His chief problem was that the Lincoln-approved Louisiana constitution did not allow for black suffrage. Therefore, the governor contrived an excuse to reconvene the 1864 convention—which had already completed its purpose—for the sole excuse of writing a new constitution that would enable him to isolate a fortified constituency, to wit freedmen. The legal way of going about it was with an amendment or an act in the legislature, but he rejected them both. He preferred instead to call a new convention whose qualifying delegates would be individuals pre-disposed to his agenda.
The governor’s actions were essentially a coup d’etat. President Johnson said he would support whichever side of the dispute was judged to be legal by the local courts. That put him on the side of the law.
2. Even Simpson admits that War Secretary Stanton did not tell Johnson of the telegram from the local commander asking whether the military should intervene as a confrontation became pending. Failure to let the President know of the telegram was a failure to let him know that violence was pending—not merely possible even likely—but pending.
Stanton’s failure was either an egregious error or a deliberate action designed to provoke a race riot in order to strengthen support in the North for mandatory black suffrage in the South, but not the North. If Stanton’s action was deliberate it was indeed a reprehensible, and successful, attempt to provoke race killings in order to promote the political power of the Republican Party.
Simpson: …there is no evidence that Stanton did anything to withhold information on events in Memphis.
He certainly did not heed advice from the first post-war Memphis area commander to avoid using black troops in the garrison due to their potential to ignite race conflicts. Stanton also ignored similar advice from Ulysses Grant and other prominent army officers. Thus, the warnings from subordinates in the field are part of the evidence suggesting that Stanton wanted such riots so that Northerners would conclude like Simpson “that blacks needed the ballot to protect themselves from violence exemplified by the Memphis and New Orleans riots.” In the case of New Orleans, however, there would have been no riot if there had been no attempt to abrogate the 1864 constitution. Simpson bites on Stanton’s 150 year-old bait and drags it off to his reality distortion field where he foists it upon students who actually are required to pay him for such propaganda.
In sum, the central issue, which Simpson shrinks from debating, is whether Republican interest in Southern black suffrage was chiefly motivated by desires for racial equality or represented an attempt to secure a reliable voting block that would sustain the Party’s political power.