After Slavery: Educator Resources

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6. Columbia Democrats Debate Black Suffrage

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Six: Pursuing Citizenship: Justice & Equality in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Conservatives were disoriented by emancipation, but both pleasantly surprised and relieved as it became apparent that President Andrew Johnson shared their antipathy to the former slaves. While Johnson held the reins of power in Washington D.C., white Carolinians passed a raft of legislation severely limiting African American freedom, culminating in the infamous "Black Codes." But in allowing these codes to become law, and in vetoing legislation aimed at protecting black civil rights, Johnson alienated many in the Republican Party, and in northern society generally. By the middle of 1867 southern conservatives found themselves reeling yet again from a shift nearly as significant as emancipation itself.

Power had swung decisively in favor of the Radical Republicans, and Congress asserted its control over Reconstruction policy. Together the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (granting African Americans equal citizenship) and the Military Reconstruction Acts (abolishing the Johnson-era state governments and granting the franchise to freedmen) diminished the power of southern conservatives to dominate their states through electoral means—particularly in states with a black majority like South Carolina. In this new predicament, as the following report on a Democratic Party mass meeting in Columbia makes clear, whites were divided on how to proceed.

Columbia Democrats Debate Black Suffrage

The mass meeting on the 27th inst. to organize a Democratic Club in this city was a fair success. A club was formed, and most of the members are prominent citizens; and the main object seems to meet with general favor with the whites here. The name adopted is "The Democratic Club of Richland District," and the objects, as set forth in the Constitution adopted, are "to cooperate with the Democratic Party of the United States, for the purpose of perpetuating a white man's government, maintaining the Constitution and the Union, and preserving our republican their original purity, as handed down to us by our fathers."... The article that excited the only discussion at the meeting, regulates the admission of persons to membership in the organization, and read as follows:

ARTICLE 9-Any free white man of the age of 18 years, a resident of the district, may become a member by signing the Constitution, in a book to be kept for that purpose, or sending in their letter asking membership...

The discussion was upon the opening phrase, "any free white man." The party of moderation urged that "white" should be stricken out, so as to admit to membership such negroes as might feel willing to cooperate with the whites in carrying out the end s of the organization; and it as urged with great earnestness that there were in this district many negroes of this class, and that it was both right and expedient to favor such cooperation.

The party of action replied that it was absurd to invite the negro to cooperate in a measure that looks to the supremacy of a race now placed by the negro himself in an attitude of antagonism to his own-that the action of the Convention of Radicals in Charleston has so arrayed the blacks against the whites as races, that no advantage to either race can result from an effort to political harmony now. This view prevailed, and the article excludes all negroes from membership in the Club [although there is some regret that race had been made an issue at all]...

Similar clubs have been organized in twenty or thirty of the counties of the State, and the sentiment is popular among whites everywhere. The course of the North toward the South has resulted in the blacks being as a race radical, and the white as a race democratic.

Upon the question of suffrage by the negro, the sentiment of our people is not opposed to giving the right of voting to the black and the white upon the same basis-education or property qualification. As it is universally held that minors should not vote because of their immature minds, so our people hold that the negro is in the immature state of the minor, and is really not competent to vote. Public sentiment is here entirely opposed to ignorant white men's voting, just as it is, and for the same reasons, opposed to the ignorant negro's voting. It is the ignorance and not the color that our citizens are opposed to...

Source: "South Carolina: Organization of Democratic Clubs," New York Times, April 5, 1868.


Questions to Consider

  1. What are the prospects for winning freedmen to a party committed to "perpetuating a white man's government"?

  2. What issue or issues are giving rise to factional divisions in the Democratic Clubs? What is the range of disagreement among conservatives, and how much of a threat do these disagreements pose to party unity?

  3. What is the rationale for denying suffrage to the mass of freedmen?

  4. How would educational and property qualifications affect the white electorate? What are the difficulties facing Democrats in balancing their commitment to 'white supremacy' with educational and property qualifications?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Six