(September 29, 2019) After the Civil War a veto-proof Republican Congress used two methods to impose puppet regimes in the former Confederate states without interference from President Andrew Johnson. First was to require universal black male suffrage. Second was to deny voting rights to the Southern white classes most likely to oppose Republican rule. Estimates on the number of whites disfranchised vary widely. Eric Foner of Columbia University put’s it at merely 8,000 – 10,000 but his estimate is far too low for two reasons. First, his research characteristically focuses on blacks to the near exclusion of whites. Second, his estimate is based only upon one method of white disfranchisement involving disqualifications stipulated in the Fourteenth Amendment. He disregards the actions of Republican-controlled Southern legislatures and bias among the registrars compiling Southern voter registration rolls under the 1867 Reconstruction Acts.
From December 1863 to April 1865, Reconstruction proceeded under President Lincoln’s guidance. After he died, President Johnson attempted to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps. But in March 1867 congressional Radical Republicans took charge. The plans of both Lincoln and Johnson permitted the typical ex-Confederate soldier to vote, although those who had participated in the Confederate government were excluded. Neither Lincoln or Johnson required that the former Confederate states adopt black suffrage, although both suggested to Southern leaders that their states should permit black Union veterans and property owners to vote. None did at the time.
After March 1867 Congress required that all former Confederate states except Tennessee form conventions to write new constitutions. (Tennessee was excepted because it was already controlled by a Republican vassal government.) Each state had to form new voter registration lists. Military occupation commanders usually selected registrars from among the minority of Southerners who opposed the region’s former political leaders. Consequently, registrars eagerly registered blacks but might arbitrarily disqualify whites even when the whites claimed to have met the conditions of the Fourteenth Amendment. There was no appeal to a registrar’s decision.
The power of biased registrars to disfranchise former Confederates far beyond the modest estimates of Eric Foner and his followers is ignored by modern historians. Nonetheless, prior to the politically correct interpretations that have dominated Reconstruction-era history during the last 30 – 40 years, researchers had long known of it as evidenced by William Russ’s “Registration and Disfranchisement Under Radical Reconstruction”:
As the New York Evening Post said on April 4, 1867: “The work of registering is of greatest importance. It is the foundation on which is to rest the whole work of reconstruction.” Since this was true, the first task, and a difficult one, was to secure loyal Unionist registrars who could be depended upon to interpret the laws as the radicals wished.
The registration results summarized below show that blacks composed half, or more, of the voters in six of the ten states. (They had already approached a majority in Tennessee in 1866 when the state adopted black suffrage.) By comparison, the previous 1860 official census revealed that blacks composed a majority of the population in only two states. There were, however, two reasons that ex-Confederates lost control in the six states noted above. In addition to disfranchisement during voter registration, some whites that could have qualified as voters boycotted the process out of protest. Although nobody can know the proportional impact of the boycott or disfranchisements, white exclusions and black suffrage allowed Republican coalitions win elections in every Southern state except Virginia.
After their Republican-dominated legislatures went into session, some states with a minority of black voters further denied voting rights to ex-Confederates through legislative action. Typically they required a voter applicant to affirm by oath that he had never supported the Confederacy. In Arkansas, for example, votes cast in the 1868 presidential election totaled 41,000 but increased to 97,000 in the 1876 elections after ex-Confederates were once again voting. Thus, Arkansas’ white disfranchisement totaled about 56,000. The figures were larger in Tennessee where legislative disfranchisement happened earlier. Tennessee votes cast in 1857 before the Civil War were 131,000 as compared to only 24,000 in 1865, which was a year before the state allowed blacks—but not ex-Rebels—to vote. Thus, white disfranchisement in the Volunteer State totaled about 106,000.
By 1877 all but a handful of former Confederates had regained voting rights. Gradually, the national Republican Party concluded that the corrupt Carpetbag regimes were delaying the region’s economic recovery thereby partially impeding a rebound from America’s 1873 – 1878 depression. Republicans also realized they no longer needed Southern votes to control the federal government due to Party’s popularity within the rapidly growing Northern states that benefitted from its mercantile economic polices and among the frontier states being admitted to the Union. All of the first ten new states to join the Union after the Civil War, for example, initially had two Republican senators until Oklahoma’s admission in 1907.
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To learn about Republican mismanagement of Reconstruction consider reading:
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh