(January 11, 2018) As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, modern historians are generally less willing to examine the political motivations that partially, perhaps chiefly, motivated Reconstruction Era Republicans to support suffrage for African-Americans. Instead, as in recent Ulysses Grant biographies, the motivation is generally portrayed as an enlightened advocacy for racial equality.
If the racial-equality interpretation is valid, however, then Republicans should have favored suffrage for all racial minorities. . . but they did not. For example, they did nothing to help Chinese-Americans who were the most common lynching victims in nineteenth century California. In fact, America’s biggest lynching happened in Los Angeles in 1871, in the middle of the Reconstruction Era. The victims were Chinese-Americans.
Finally, a minority of delegates at the Republican convention in 1876 disclosed the hypocrisy implicit in the eleventh plank of the Party’s platform:
It is the immediate duty of congress fully to investigate the effects of the immigration and importation of Mongolians on the moral and material interests of the country.
“Mongolians” was evidently a deliberately provocative term for “Chinese.” When a minority of delegates objected that the plank contradicted the Party’s traditional stance on racial equality they were voted down 532-to-215. Only 29% of the delegates supported them. During the floor debate delegates in favor of the plank explained that it was intended to protect white Westerners from unfair coolie labor and Chinese prostitutes.
In short, it appears that Republicans were interested in black suffrage, instead of minority suffrage per se, for two reasons. First, they knew that blacks could be counted as reliable GOP voters. Moreover, blacks represented a large voting block by composing 40% of the population in the former Confederate states. Second, in contrast, Chinese-Americans were a tiny voting block. For example, they were most prevalent in California where they never represented more than 10% of the population. From a political viewpoint, Republicans had more to lose by alienating white workers than they could gain from Chinese-Americans by supporting racial equality for the latter.
To be sure, the Democratic Party was also hostile toward Chinese-Americans. The key difference is that the GOP limited its concern for minority suffrage and civil rights to Republican-loyal black voters and largely ignored the plight of other “non-white” minorities. (They were also hostile toward Native Americans and the ethnic minorities of recent immigrants such as Irish Catholics.) As a result, it is difficult to conclude that Republicans were genuinely interested in minority rights, except for the solitary minority that would help keep the Party in power. Such a conclusion changes the complexion of the currently dominant Reconstruction interpretation that minimizes Republican Party self-interest.