History of voting, Part V: Reconstruction

A Liberal Dose


 Last week, we talked about the Reconstruction Amendments. Now we’re going to look at how they affected the voting rights of African-Americans. The 13th Amendment, ratified on Dec. 6, 1865 (the Civil War had ended in April), ended slavery. President Andrew Johnson (of Tennessee) had initiated a Reconstruction program that was remarkably conciliatory to Southern states, which did not abridge the voting rights of former Confederates and allowed them to reinstate their local and state governments - this led to, essentially, the same people being in charge as had been before the war, and every Southern state drew up “black codes” to control the newly- freed back population. For example, black workers were required to call their employer “master” and were forbidden to quit their job without the employer’s permission. Any who did so would be hunted down by “negro catchers” and forced to return. Children could be forcibly taken from their parents and apprenticed out until adulthood. African-Americans were not allowed to buy alcohol or bear arms, could be publicly beaten for insolence to a white person, were not allowed out after dark without papers from their employer, and were required by law to work from dawn to dusk. They were not allowed to vote.

In other words, they were still slaves, except in name.

Many Northerners were outraged by this turn of events. It felt like the war had been fought for nothing, as the South seemed to have mostly returned to the pre-war status quo. This motivated voters in the 1866 midterm elections to turn out many Democrats and moderate Republicans and sweep in a large number of what “radical Republicans” who were determined to impose stricter rules on the South. The radical Republicans gained a supermajority, enabling them to overturn any vetoes President Johnson made (they also impeached him, though he managed to stay in office - but his power was broken.) They imposed a much stricter regimen of Reconstruction, keeping the former Confederate states under military occupation and martial law - and enforcing the newly acquired rights of the freed slaves, including the right to vote.

The 14th Amendment, ratified on July 8, 1868, declared that everyone born in the United States was a citizen and therefore had all the rights of a citizen. Therefore, in the presidential election of that year, African-Americans could vote. In most Southern states, though, any white men who had served in the Confederate government or as officers in the Confederate military could not vote or hold public office. This lasted for several years. Not only was Republican Ulysses S. Grant elected president, in 1868, but, all through the South, black men were voted into public office: as magistrates, city councilmen, state legislators - and several were elected to Congress. Jefferson Davis’s old Mississippi U.S. Senate seat was won by a black man named Hiram Revels. Even beyond the advances made by African-Americans, Republicans, in general, won big throughout the South.

It is important to remember that, at that time, Democrats were the more conservative party and radical Republicans were what we today would call liberal. Most white Southerners did not like Republicans and especially did not like seeing them get elected. Paramilitary groups sprang up to prevent Republicans from voting - groups like the Red Shirts, the White League, and the Ku Klux Klan. They focused mostly on black voters but also hated white Republicans - whether they were “carpetbaggers” (transplanted Northerners) or “scalawags” (Southern-born but supportive of Reconstruction and black rights). You know their tactics. They would intimidate people - especially black people -by burning their property (burning crosses didn’t come until the 1900s), beating people up, and often committing murder. In 1871, Congress passed “the Ku Klux Klan Act,” further empowering the federal government to enforce the 14th amendment and the more recent 15th (Feb. 3, 1870) - to protect black voters.

Until 1877, when everything changed.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.   


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