(November 13, 2019) The picture below portrays the currently dominant impression of the Reconstruction Era Republican Party’s motives for promoting Freedmen suffrage. It shows a federal officer preventing (presumably evil) Southern whites from attacking ex-slaves who had received voting rights via the 1867 federal Reconstruction Acts. The picture does not indicate that suffrage had always previously been a state’s right. Moreover, it fails to reveal that the same laws denied voting rights to many ex-Confederates. Nor does it suggest that the Second Plank of the 1868 Republican Party platform exempted the Northern states from mandatory black suffrage, requiring it only in the South. Finally it provides no hint that many Northerners opposed black suffrage in their own states. At the end of the Civil War only five New England states with tiny black populations permitted blacks to vote. Connecticut and Wisconsin rejected black suffrage in 1865. Kansas, New Jersey, Ohio, and Minnesota did so in 1867 as did Michigan and Missouri in 1868.
Although it is popularly assumed that Republican Party sponsorship of Southern black suffrage was motivated by a moral impulse to promote racial equality, the bulk of the evidence suggests that the Party was chiefly interested in retaining political power.
First, when the Civil War ended the Party was barely ten years old. Its leaders worried that it might be strangled in its cradle if the re-admittance of Southern states into the Union failed to be managed in a way that would prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government.
Second, the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the 1867 Reconstruction Acts gave citizenship and voting rights to ex-slaves but did nothing for other minorities such as Native Americans, Chinese Americans and Roman Catholic immigrants. The Acts targeted Freedmen because they were the solitary racial minority that would be reliably Republican and big enough to constitute a swing voting bloc capable of deciding Washington’s political power balance. In combination with the disfranchisement of many ex-Confederates the impact was obvious in the first presidential election after the Civil War.
In 1868 Republican presidential candidate Ulysses Grant won the election with a surprisingly narrow 53% to 47% popular vote margin. In fact, he received only a minority of the white vote notwithstanding his popularity as a war hero. Without the black vote he would have lost the popular vote altogether. Although Grant had a seemingly decisive 214 to 80 electoral vote margin, it also hinged upon the voting rights provisions of the Reconstruction Acts. In combination with disfranchisement of former Confederates in Tennessee, Missouri, and West Virginia ex-slaves gave Grant 67 of his 214 electoral votes. Without those 67 votes, the 1868 election would have resulted in tie in the electoral college.*
The popular myth of Reconstruction Era Republicans as noble champions for racial equality is just that, a myth. Self-interest was a much bigger motivation for their support of black suffrage than nearly all modern historians are willing to admit. According to historian Chester Hearn, “Black suffrage had not been an issue in the [Civil] War, nor had a musket been fired to achieve it.” After the war, Republicans cared little for blacks, “They merely intended to use black suffrage as their ticket to retaining permanent political power.”**
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*Albert Castel, Andrew Johnson, (Lawrence: Kansas University Press, 1979), 208
**Chester Hearn The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000), 88, 121