Republicans and the Fifteenth Amendment

A few weeks ago I posted several entries having to do with the Republicans, black rights, and northern racism.  Basically, I’m arguing that a solid majority of Republicans came to advocate equal rights for African Americans both in the South and in the North, but that they discovered that basing their appeal on equality before the law did not fare well with the northern electorate.  The vast majority of Democrats opposed black equality, and so did some conservative Republicans, many of whom were slowly finding their way back into Democratic ranks with the conclusion of the Civil War.

In 1868 the Republicans veered back to the center.  The nomination of Ulysses S. Grant was a nod to the general’s popularity and an admission that a more radical candidate who was a forthright supporter of black equality would not be nearly as politically attractive of viable.  The platform distinguished between former Confederate states and loyal states when it came to black suffrage, mandating it for the former while leaving it to the state to decide in the latter case.  Although a black suffrage initiative did prevail in Iowa, most Republicans understood that the same procedure would not work elsewhere.  It was better to make the election of 1868 a referendum on the war and win that referendum by running the Hero of Appomattox.  The Democrats cooperated when they named former New York governor Horatio Seymour and former Union general Frank P. Blair, Jr., as their ticket.  In 1863 Seymour had addressed draft rioters as “my friends”; Blair was in favor of continuing the controversy over Reconstruction, in contrast to Grant’s simple statement, “Let us have peace.”

Grant’s fall triumph illustrated several political realities.  Although he handily prevailed in the electoral college, close observers noted that had only white voted, Seymour would have won a majority of the popular vote … although he still would have lost in the electoral college.  Grant’s popular vote majority was due to the large numbers of African Americans voting for the first time in a presidential contest.  If the Republicans were to build a national base, they would have to protect those black voters; however, the party could hang on to the presidency simply by taking the North, leaving the South alone, so long as the party swept through the North and took crucial swing states like New York and Ohio.  That realization helped pave the way for the retreat from Reconstruction in the 1870s.

In the wake of the 1868 presidential election, Republicans pursued a new way to secure black suffrage–through constitutional amendment.  Gone would be the state-by-state initiatives; indeed, the amendment process circumvented the problems posed by statewide popular votes, for it would be left to (Republican-controlled) state legislatures to ratify an amendment.  An amendment would also offer some protection to southern blacks, who might find themselves stripped of suffrage should southern states fall in Democratic hands where constitutional revision was a possibility.  In short, the amendment process allowed Republicans at last to obtain black suffrage without falling victim to the electoral process in the North, where they knew racial prejudice held sway among Democratic voters and some conservative Republicans.

As Republican congressman William P. Kelley observed, “Party expediency and exact justice coincide for once.”  Indeed, the way the Republicans went about their business demonstrated that they understood the persistence of prejudice in the North carried with it political costs; at the same time, to blur (or obliterate altogether) the distinction between “white northerner” and “Republican” in claims that racism was present in the North as well as the South is a neat way to distort historical reality in pursuit of a different agenda.

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