After Slavery: Educator Resources

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10. Pressures on Freedmen to Vote the Conservative Ticket

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Ten: Freedpeople and the Republican Party in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

The Reconstruction South was in many ways an anomalous set of affairs when considered in the broader context of American—indeed world—history. With the support of federal authorities, mostly impoverished former slaves were raised to political power, while those who continued to control the main source of wealth—land—were disfranchised or otherwise blocked from exercising political control. This disjuncture between political and economic power resulted in chronic instability and frequent outbreaks of violence

In the early period of Reconstruction white conservatives generally refrained from electoral politics. In South Carolina and elsewhere across the region elites hoped by their "masterly inactivity" to withhold legitimacy from the Republican regimes, wrongly assuming that they would then collapse. But when it became clear that this was not the case, they then had to entertain the idea of 'persuading' black men to vote the conservative ticket. Here their control over land and, crucially, employment, proved critical. In many places freedmen confronted the options of either voting the Democratic ticket or being evicted, terminated from employment, and/or denied credit. The first two documents below are typical of hundreds of similar reports filed by Freedmen's Bureau agents across the South; the third records a white employer's astonishment at a freedman's unwillingness to vote as directed.

Pressures on Freedmen to Vote the Conservative Ticket

[Greenville, S. C.]
The unsatisfactory condition of affairs in this Bureau District which was evinced by the frequent complaints of injustice and outrage upon the part of the whites against the freedmen, at and about the time of my arrival here[,] has had the effect for which undoubtedly it was inaugurated, in the success of the Democratic ticket in this, and the adjoining Districts, in the late election. Since which time as great a degree of peace, and quiet, has been enjoyed by those peaceably disposed . . .

That the most strenuous exertions are being put forth upon all sides by every friend of the "white man's party", the members of which party or at least of some organizations of the party, are in the vicinity wearing upon their persons a button… shown no less by the fact that a number of dismissals from employment have occurred, on account of suffrage thrown for the Republican Ticket, then by an organized effort and determination to make the freedpeople realize their dependence upon those who have before been regarded as the ruling class, by telling those who are at this time engaged upon their crops, and who cannot be spared at the present critical period, that they cannot remain another year, without a change in their political opinions, and in cases where freedmen have rented land, and are trying to make a crop for themselves, all aid of whatever kind is studiously withheld from them.

The idea of extending credit to them is not for a moment entertained, and where they are able to buy… extortionate prices are demanded, and in a few cases that have been brought to my notice, where the supplies...were in the hands of the few men, and those in need remote from the sources of supply, it has absolutely been refused to them in any terms, a concession of principle being thus enforced, through fear of being reduced to extreme want.

In towns and villages where the nature of the services required from the freedpeople is essentially different from that in the country the same proscription is practiced, and draining and all kinds of menial work withheld from members of the League. From the fact that it was the custom of a late Bureau Agent to discourage the idea of bringing Contracts for approval...very few of these have been offered this year for examination...

[Aiken, S. C.]
The Election passed off without disturbances [requiring] military force to suppress them. Scarcely a case of discharge because of voting has been reported to this Office. Any general discharge of laborers at that time would, however, have been fatal to planters. The influence of party feeling is stronger now than it has been at any time here before. Both political parties are organizing clubs and in some portions of the District a majority of the colored people voted the Democratic ticket.

The superior intelligence of the whites, their constant intercourse with the freedmen, the covert threats or promises of reward and assistance which have been so frequently made, have not been without their effect upon the freedmen and in neighborhoods remote from railroads or large villages the freemen are almost entirely under the influence of the whites, who are, of course, opposed to Reconstruction. Many political clubs have passed resolutions binding their members not to employ, after their present contracts expire, freedmen who have voted the Republican ticket provided those who voted the Democratic ticket can be found. It is doubtful if this resolution is adhered to particularly if good crops are raised this year.

[Charleston, S. C.]
. . .William was discharged on the 1st. I have never known such a fool, his income must have been near $100 per month, with courteous and kind treatment from all, and yet with a full knowledge of the consequences he voted the radical ticket. About little Wm, however, you must be mistaken. He voted the straight Hampton and Tilden ticket having without any solicitation volunteered to do so. He voted too between Ben Huger and Fred Tupper who say there can be no mistake about his vote, and that he behaved boldly and well at the polls. If every employer of negroes had done half as well as you did-the election of our entire ticket would have been admitted at once. I feel confident anyhow that Tilden will be seated either by the direct vote or by their being no election, and the choice following on the Democratic House of Representatives, as to Hampton I don't think there is a shadow of doubt, and regard it as only a matter of time. The bayonet affair is fast dying from organic corruption, materially aided by corruption-I think they have found that there are some men among us yet after 10 years crushing. . .

Source: [1] Carroll Neide to Bvt. Maj. H. Neide, June 30, 1868, , RG 105, BRFAL Papers; [2] William Stone to Bvt. Maj. H. Neide, July 1, 1868, , RG 105, BRFAL Papers; [3] C. P. Allston, Esq. and James Lesesne to 'Charley', Dec. 8, 1876, Allston Family Papers, Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina


Questions to Consider

  1. According to the first document, by what means have Democrats succeeded in winning a majority in Greenville? What are the consequences of this victory for freedmen?

  2. What does William Stone mean in the second document when he writes that "any discharge of laborers" at election time "would have been fatal to planters"? How might labor demands affect planters' efforts to counter freedmen's political activism?

  3. How does Stone explain the Democrats' success in Aiken? What can Republicans do to counteract this trend?

  4. Judging from the third document, how closely are employers scrutinizing the voting behavior of their employees? Why might they be especially observant in 1876? What are the consequences for freedmen who vote contrary to their employers' instructions?

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