An Attack on African American Voting Rights

H. H. Chalmers, in this essay from 1881, after the end of Reconstruction, lays out many of the criticisms southerners had of African American voting rights. Attitudes such as Chalmers’s laid the groundwork for post-Reconstruction suppression of black voters throughout the former Confederacy.

The Effects of Negro Suffrage- H. H. Chalmers

THIRTEEN years have elapsed since, by act of Congress, negro suffrage was established in ten States of the Union, and ten years since, by amendment of the federal Constitution, it was made universal throughout the nation.

The enfranchisement of so large a mass of new electors, and the instant elevation of so much of ignorance and pauperism to complete equality with wealth and intelligence, was never before, in the history of the world, wrought by a single legislative act. In several of the States it put the representatives of that race who alone knew anything of public affairs, or of private virtue, in a hopeless minority as compared with that race who had ever been barbarians save when they were slaves, and who were destitute alike of property, education, or morality. Whatever may have been the motives of those who inaugurated the scheme, — whether they were prompted by considerations of patriotic devotion to the public good and by a sense of justice to the helpless blacks, or whether they sought the perpetuation of partisan supremacy, — it must be admitted by their most devoted adherents that they took the risk of a tremendous political experiment. Desperate indeed must have been the ills that afflicted the body politic to justify a treatment so heroic.

We are not yet sufficiently removed from the strife evoked by these measures to do impartial justice to the motives of their authors, but time enough has elapsed to enable us to see something of the practical workings of the hazardous venture, and as he who lives in the present and for the future is concerned more with consequences than with causes, it will be at once more easy and more profitable to estimate effects than to divine motives. The most superficial effect of the enfranchisement of the blacks has been to give them the balance of power in all our recent political struggles. There has been no presidential election, since the suffrage was conferred upon them, in which the result would not have been different if their votes had been eliminated from the contest. Certainly this is true of the last two elections. In that event, Mr. Tilden’s majority would have been enormous before the people and quite overwhelming in the electoral college. He would have carried every Southern State, and a considerable number of Northern ones in which, by the assistance of negro votes, Mr. Hayes was successful.

In 1880, the subtraction of the negro vote would have given to the Democrats the States of Ohio and Indiana both in October and November, and in the latter month would have given to Hancock New York, Connecticut, and perhaps other Northern States. While the adherents of the successful party will, of course, consider the effect of the negro vote beneficial to the country in preventing such results, it is a noteworthy fact that the white race, who have made America what it is, and who are regarded by foreign nations as constituting the American people, have twice, if not thrice, been, by negro suffrage, denied the rulers of their choice.

But this is a mere surface view of the subject, and these are, it is to be hoped, only the temporary and accidental results of negro enfranchisement. Its deeper and more lasting effects are to be found in that demoralization of our politics which has sprung from the debasement of the elective franchise. It was madness to suppose that the body of electors could be swollen by the sudden injection into it of such an enormous mass of ignorance, pauperism, and immorality without debasing the value of the franchise in popular estimation, and without breaking down, in great measure, our reverence for the ballot-box as the supreme arbiter of our disputes. That these effects have already been partially wrought is quite apparent. Never was the atmosphere of American politics so rife with charges and suspicions of bribery and fraud in conducting elections and ascertaining their results as in the last ten years, and these things seem to increase with each recurring election. At the South, there can be no doubt that bad men engage in and good men shut their eyes to political practices which, in other days, all parties would have made haste to visit with exemplary punishment. At the North, the raising of large sums of money is deemed essential to the inauguration of every canvass, and the question of how much money the friends of a candidate for nomination can raise, is more often asked in party conventions than the question what are his qualifications for the office.

Returning-boards organized to count in the party candidates, ballot-boxes surrounded by swarms of paid party officials shameless assessments on the salaries of public officers, cipher dispatches breathing corruption in every line, electoral commissions composed of the highest in the land, where each member is sworn to decide like a judge, and where each member votes like a partisan, — these are the new devices, these the confessed practices which shame our recent politics, and are fast breaking down American reverence for the ballot-box. Some of them are the immediate, and all, perhaps, to some extent, the remote results of negro suffrage. Some are directly traceable to it, and all have sprung from that general political demoralization and that wide-spread popular belief that elections no longer elect which, if it did not originate with the enfranchisement of the blacks, certainly then received its greatest impetus. In the winter of 1876-7, a distinguished professor of a New England university delivered an address on the evils to be apprehended from the debasement of the suffrage by the wholesale enfranchisement of ignorance and poverty. President Grant, in his last annual message to Congress, dwelt upon the same topic, and suggested that some steps be taken to remedy the evils likely to ensue from it.

These views met the approval of the “New York Tribune” and other leading journals, and while it is true they found utterance at a time when the then recent presidential election was supposed, perhaps, to have resulted disastrously to the Republican party, and they have not been followed up by similar advice under circumstances more favorable to that organization, their inherent wisdom is not thereby, we may venture to hope, essentially diminished.

But it is in the Southern States that the blighting effects of negro suffrage are most apparent, and yet, strange to say, it is there too that we find the greatest compensatory benefits resulting from it. In 1867 the negroes of the South were mere inhabitants, not citizens of the States in which they dwelt. Civil rights, to a limited extent, had been conferred upon them, but in many respects they were an alien people — dwelling among but not a part of the population by which they were surrounded.

That one-half of the people of a State should be legally deemed and treated as outcasts and pariahs, of a caste so low as to leave them virtually at the mercy of the other half, would eventually have resulted in a most deplorable state of society. If the strong arm of the federal government had interposed for the purpose of enforcing perfect equality of civil and legal rights, and had provided for a slow and gradual acquisition of political equality by standards of time and education and property, it might not have subserved so well the party purposes of those who were foremost in the work of reconstruction, but surely it would have wrought better and more wisely for the republic.

The ballot indeed has won for the newly enfranchised every civil and legal right, but fearful has been the price which the country has paid for it, and direful the consequences. The reconstruction acts manifestly if not avowedly proceeded upon the theory that the whites were unfit to rehabilitate their upturned governments, and that this duty must be devolved upon the negroes. While the whole of the latter were suddenly enfranchised, large classes of the former, embracing the most cultured and experienced, were disfranchised, and as the ingenuity of President Johnson’s legal advisers sought to limit the number of the disfranchised classes, successive acts of Congress made them yet more sweeping. While the scheme was nominally submitted to the vote of the people of the States affected by it, no election was permitted to stand that did not result in its favor, and in some of the States repeated elections were ordered until the desired result was compelled. When negro domination had by these methods been established, there ensued a scene of incompetence, profligacy, and pillage, the like of which has never disgraced the annals of any English-speaking people.

It was wealth plundered by pauperism, intelligence dominated by ignorance, America ruled by Ethiopia.

A vivid picture of the disgraceful scenes of this period is set forth in the “Prostrate State,” a work written by J. S. Pike, a Northern Republican, and a staff correspondent of the “New York Tribune.” If this book could be put into the hands of all our people, it would give them a more truthful idea of the reconstruction era than is likely to be derived from the pages of “A Fool’s Errand” and of “Bricks without Straw.” Mr. Pike’s book fails, however, to afford an adequate conception of one of the notable features of these grotesque caricatures on government, namely, their utter want of power to maintain their own existence. There never was a day during the time that they were permitted to live when five hundred resolute men could not have overthrown them in a few hours. And this fact was as well understood by the rulers as by the ruled. It found signal illustration in the city of New Orleans, on the 14th of September, 1874, when a few hundred members of the “White League” in less than fifteen minutes put to rout the whole force of the State government, who were advised in advance of the intended attack, and had prepared to resist it. After a few ill-directed volleys, the State forces (negroes with a few white allies) fled in every direction, — the rank and file to the swamps, and the leaders to the United States Custom-house, — and in all the State of Louisiana not a hand was raised to restore them to power. Their overthrow was complete, and to all appearances final, and so quickly accomplished that a distinguished gentleman visiting the city at the time remarked that he “was sitting in the St. Charles Hotel” when “the revolution” broke out, and though he hastened with all convenient speed to the scene of conflict, which was five hundred yards distant, “the revolution” was over before he could get there. But at a word from Washington the whites quietly remitted the reins of government to the hands of their trembling rulers, and returned to their obedience.

As easy as it was to throw off these shackles by force, it was well-nigh impossible to do so by the ballot-box. Apart from the numerical majorities which the blacks possessed in several States and large sections of other States, so skillfully were the election laws framed for the promotion of fraud, and so unscrupulous the men who counted the votes, that it was simply impossible by any ordinary method of conducting elections to dislodge them from power. Mr. Pike thus clearly states the situation in this regard:

One of the great discouragements to regular and sustained efforts on the part of the whites to resist negro sway in South Carolina has been the frauds practiced on the ballot-box. These have been so great and audacious that voting became a farce. The party in the majority counted in whomever they wanted elected, without any reference to the votes cast. The following testimony discloses a worse state of things in South Carolina on this subject than ever was before seen since voting was invented. It shows that men who were elected by a majority of thousands were deliberately counted out, and their adversaries declared elected by overwhelming majorities. The result has been that at the last election no voting was done in numerous districts, except by the dominant party in the State.

At length, when longer endurance became impossible; when taxes, already swollen a thousand per cent. on former rates, were mounting still higher and threatening confiscation of all property; when, despite these enormous levies, the bonded indebtedness grew year by year more enormous; when millions of acres of land had already been forfeited for unpaid taxes; when all industries were paralyzed, and the very soil seemed reluctant to bring forth its accustomed fruits, the maddened whites burst their bonds — burst them under the forms of law and the guise of the ballot-box, since federal power would not otherwise permit, but by means in some instances, certainly, which a firm believer in the efficacy of the ballot-box would find it difficult to defend. For crimes against liberty, which by comparison sink into insignificance, the people of England brought a king to the scaffold and drenched their island in blood. For misgovernment and corruption far less disgraceful and ruinous, the people of France guillotined a royal family and exterminated the flower of their nobility. Let not those who have not felt the bitterness of such a tyranny judge the whites of the South too harshly. Let it be remembered that in no time or clime have the Caucasian race ever consented to live with the inferior ones save as ru1ers. The British in India, the French in Guiana, the Dutch in South Africa, the Spaniards in South America, and our own forefathers on this continent, have abundantly demonstrated that the white man will not be governed by the black man or the red. Sentimentalists may deplore, but statesmen must recognize this as a fixed and irreversible fact.

Numbers in such a matter count for nothing. Not all the navies of the world could transport Chinese enough to our Pacific slope to establish them there as the governing race. The Congress of the United States might enfranchise them, but the armies of the United States could not keep them permanently in power. No county in Massachusetts or New York would long submit to be governed by any number of negroes who might suddenly be transplanted from the rice-fields of Carolina or the canebrakes of Louisiana.

The Northern man believes that the political solidity of the Southern whites bodes evil to the republic. The Southern man knows that the solidity of the blacks, if allowed to grasp the reins of power, involves ills so great that any remedy is better than the disease. Happily for the country, unmistakable signs point to a disintegration of this solidity on both sides. If the whites of the South, on the one hand, are made to see and feel that a Republican administration at Washington neither means a relegation of their States to negro domination, nor exclusion of their section from the practical benefits of government, nor an ostracism of themselves from public affairs; and if the negroes, on the other hand, can be made to believe that a Democratic administration does not threaten their enslavement or disfranchisement, this disintegration will grow daily more rapid. But then, undoubtedly, a new evil will appear, and indeed has already begun to appear in some sections. The deep devotion of the negro to the Republican party, and his belief that his own salvation depended upon its success, has in the past enabled thieves and scoundrels to plunder in the name of Republicanism; but it has at least had the merit of preserving the negro himself from venality in the exercise of his ballot. When elections cease in his imagination to be fraught with his liberty, and he realizes that he has no other interest in them than the rest of the community, the enormous negro vote of the South will afford a field for the arts of the demagogue and the briber such as the world has never seen. Without property or thrift, highly emotional, and painfully timid, venality is as certain to follow as night follows day. They will be bought and sold, and coaxed and bullied by unscrupulous men, and led in droves to the polls, if not like “dumb-driven cattle,” certainly most unlike free men who “know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”

That this will become the complexion of Southern politics when the races cease to be divided on the race line, is as certain as any proposition in political ethics. Even where the vote is not the subject of individual purchase, it will naturally drift, as recently illustrated in Virginia, to the side of demagoguery and of bad faith in public morals. How are republican institutions to be preserved under such circumstances? Let us look the question fairly in the face, discarding all prejudice, and laying aside all passion. What is the remedy for these evils? How is a government to be carried on by universal suffrage where a majority of the electors are so unfit for the trust, and where the difficulty is immeasurably increased by antipathies of race and the memories of two hundred years of masterhood on one side and slavery on the other? Eventually, perhaps, by education and the healing effects of time, but this is a slow process. Two full generations will elapse, even with the most lavish expenditures of money (and nobly are the whites of the South meeting the burden of such expenditures), before the mere book education can be made general.

White immigration would promise ultimate relief if it could be induced, but population and capital alike shrink from contact with negro association, and from the danger of negro rule. It is quite commonly said that immigration is repelled by Southern solidity and intolerance of political dissent. That this is erroneous, and that the true reason is found in the unwillingness of white laborers to come in contact with the negro, and of capitalists to seek investments where his domination may bring confiscation, is abundantly demonstrated by the fact that Georgia attracts more capital and Texas more immigration than any other Southern States. Nowhere are the whites more solid or the Democratic majorities so large. It is the assurance of continued white supremacy that permits the soil and climate of these States to exert their natural attractions. Granting that education and immigration will ultimately solve the problem, what is to be the condition of the people of the South during all the weary years that must intervene?

How long will it take to eradicate that inborn sense of superiority which every white man feels, that instinctive recognition of his own inferiority that every negro evinces in his every action? How long has it taken in the Northern States? Is it not just as apparent there now as it is at the South? Will it ever cease to exist? So long as it remains, what sort of government must there be in States where a majority, or very large minority, of the electors are the recognized inferiors of the remainder in every aspect of life, save at the ballot-box, and this inferiority springs, not from the personal merits of the voters, but from the inextinguishable differences of race? How many years must elapse before some elegant and accomplished negro will lead out the mistress of the White House to a state dinner, or an American President be glad to wed his daughter to a millionaire whose face is as black as his diamonds may be glittering?

These are social questions, it is true; but how can perfect political equality co-exist with a social inferiority dependent, not upon personal merit or pecuniary advantages, but solely upon race, and where the social inferior threatens at every election to become the political superior? What madness will it be for the national government to attempt again, as the Hon. Geo. S. Boutwell intimates, to interfere for the purpose of adjusting these questions in favor of the blacks! They must be left to be settled by the people affected by them. In their settlement, what is most needed is a clear apprehension of the situation, and calm and dispassionate consideration on both sides of the Potomac and Ohio, and with this view the people on either side must fully understand certain fixed facts. The men of the South must understand once for all that the negroes, as negroes, and because their skins are black, can never be disfranchised. Their right to vote, as a race, is as fixed and irreversible as their freedom, and the fifteenth amendment to the national Constitution is no more likely to be repealed than the thirteenth.

They must understand further that governments cannot live by the means which revolutions justify, any more than health can be maintained by the strong medicines sometimes necessary to preserve life. The ballot-box must speak the unbiased verdict of all the lawful electors, and that verdict must be made wise, not by force or fraud, but by such limitations on the right of suffrage as will no longer leave intelligence and virtue at the mercy of brutality and crime. Standards of education and property must be enacted which for a time will disfranchise many, and to the attainment of which, by the rising generation, the State and national governments must afford every possible facility and aid. In this work the men of the North must aid and not obstruct. They must understand, once for all, that the Anglo-Saxon race will not be governed by the African, and, if they are wise, they will content themselves with aiding those who propose that the African shall be wisely, justly, and fairly governed by the Anglo-Saxon. They must never forget that they themselves forced this stupendous problem on the people of the South, against all their protests and all their struggles to prevent it.

They must hold as enemies to both sections, as fire-brands and pestilent demagogues, those who would stir the fires of sectional ill-will or race hatred in order to infuse spirit into a canvass, or carry an election. They must not denounce the whole Southern people as negro-haters or bulldozers, but know and realize that everywhere throughout the South there are thousands of earnest, thoughtful, and patriotic men who spend anxious days and sleepless nights pondering a problem that seems impossible of solution. If the South, writhing like Laocoon in the coils of the serpent, sometimes strikes out wildly, blindly, madly, in vain attempts to extricate herself, it ill becomes those who fastened the monster upon her to deride or denounce her ill-advised and frantic efforts.

She has the right to demand from the people of the North, and especially from the Republican party, sympathy, not obloquy, counsel, not condemnation, and, even for the excesses and misdeeds into which her sufferings may hurry her, the tender compassion which dropped a tear upon the record of Uncle Toby’s oath.


Questions for consideration:

  1. According to the author what were the “effects” of African American voting? Does he characterize these effects positively or negatively? Provide specific examples from the text.
  2. Does Chalmers’s argument rely on logic or does it appeal to emotion and prejudice? Provide specific examples.
  3. What political party do you think Chalmers supported? Why do you think so?