The Lessons of the Elections of 1866 and 1867

Recently I discussed how speaking about “the North” during the Civil War era without distinguishing between Republicans and Democrats offers a distorted view of that period, especially when it comes to matters of race.  Democrats were far more unified when it came to their views on race and slavery than were Republicans, those Democrats who did defect to the Republican coalition in 1861 did so because they believed, first and foremost, in the Union.  Only a few of those Democrats (and here the much-maligned Benjamin F. Butler takes pride of place) changed their minds about race and racial prejudice.  Moreover, many of the Democrats who defected to Republican ranks in the 1850s held fast to their attitudes on race, including the Blair family and Gideon Welles.

It’s an accepted interpretation of Civil War historiography that the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation caused many war Democrats to reconsider their support for the Lincoln administration’s conduct of the war effort.  I think that assumption is worth some reexamination, because I wonder how much people like Horatio Seymour, who was elected governor of New York in 1862, were really supportive of the Lincoln administration in the first place.  A more notable erosion of Republican strength started in 1865, when some conservative Republican leaders began making their way back to the ranks of the Democracy as the war came to an end and Andrew Johnson replaced Abraham Lincoln as president.  These people cared little for the cause of emancipation and racial equality and showed little concern for the fate of the freedmen.  Of equal importance was the fact that in the North, while one could muster a majority for Republicans in 1864 on the issues of waging war and destroying slavery, with war’s end those two goals appeared to be accomplished, leaving some voters to reassess their allegiances.

Republicans understood that equality before the law for African Americans in the North was going to be a hard sell in several northern states, especially outside New England.  This was especially true when it came to suffrage.  Most Republican voters might support equal rights and enfranchisement, but there were enough defectors to make those positions difficult to sustain through to victory at the polls.  However, the response of white southerners to the opportunity given them through Johnson’s Reconstruction policies to reshape their own world gave white northerners, especially Republican and Republican-leaning voters, pause.  The rise of antiblack violence, the election of former Confederates to office, and the generally recalcitrant attitude of former Confederates, combined with Johnson’s decision to back the results of self-reconstruction under his policy, gave Republicans an excellent opportunity to argue that a Democratic victory would mean that the sacrifice of the Civil War had all gone for naught.  News of the Memphis and New Orleans riots simply advanced that case, and Johnson’s bizarre behavior during the Swing Around the Circle helped Republicans secure an overwhelming victory in the off year elections of 1866, complete with veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress.  In short, refight the war and Republicans would prevail.  Make the elections a struggle to prevent former Confederates and their northern Democratic allies/pawns from regaining power as a means to undoing the results of the war, and Republicans would win.  Make race relations a “southern thing,” and one could rest satisfied that, at least for now, that would be enough to secure a Republican triumph.

In the wake of the elections of 1866 Republicans proceeded to pass what became known as the Reconstruction Acts after southern state legislatures failed to follow Tennessee’s lead by rejecting the Fourteenth Amendment.  The initial act basically enfranchised southern blacks, and provided the foundation for equality before the law coming from southern state constitutional conventions (as opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which established some federal safeguards to protect equality before the law).  But what Republicans did after that eventually caused them to pause and reflect on political strategy.  In 1867 the party pushed again for equality before the law and enfranchisement in the North in several key northern states, including Ohio.  Recall that civil rights and suffrage were still issues addressed at the state level: the Civil Rights Act kicked in only in cases of state inaction when it came to equality before the law.  This time there were no major race rots in the South (although white supremacist violence continued) and no Swing Around the Circle.

Democrats staged a comeback in 1867, especially in Ohio, where a proposal to enfranchise blacks failed and the Democrats took over the state legislature, meaning the end of Radical Republican Benjamin F. Wade’s tenure in the Senate.  Chaistened, Republicans learned that in closely competitive states, proposals for black suffrage would not fare well.  Although a significant majority of Republicans were willing to support such measures, just enough voters defected (either by sitting out the election or voting alongside Democratic opponents of such measures) to ensure the defeat of these initiatives.

As Michael Les Benedict pointed out years ago, the elections of 1867 demonstrated the limits of radicalism for Republicans.  The lesson seemed clear: a move back to the center featuring an antiSouth appeal promised better electoral prospects than did continuing to advocate black equality.  The elections of 1868 and the decision to return once more to the constitutional amendment process illustrated what they learned, as we shall see shortly.