“The right of suffrage, being the creature of the organic law, may be modified or withdrawn by the sovereign authority which conferred it, without inflicting any punishment on those who are disqualified.”
— Anderson v. Baker (October 1865)
“I cannot do justice to my own feelings without . . . commenting upon . . . that great fifteenth amendment . . . the hearts of the Virginia people have never approved it, and true Virginians can never approve it. We do not believe that the collared man is the equal of the white man, and that is what the fifteenth amendment means.
I wish to put myself on record here as being opposed to what is known as manhood suffrage. I believe that the greatest mistake that any people ever made was made when the Convention of 1850 adopted manhood suffrage. I believe that the right to vote, as it is generally conceived by some ignorant politicians, is not a right but a privilege.”
— R.L. Gordon, Constitutional Convention of Virginia, 1901–1902
From 1850 to 1920, the right to vote was one of the most hotly contested issues in American political life. The battle for political rights for African Americans in the South following emancipation, as well as for working class immigrants in the North and the West, included episodes of enfranchisement and disfranchisement and fell at the intersection of class tensions with racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural differences.
The Civil War and emancipation faced the country with the unavoidable question of African American citizenship. The 14th and 15th Amendments made efforts to protect the right to vote for African Americans—briefly enfranchising them across the country—but black voting following the Civil War was followed by a massive backlash in the South, and white political leaders led the systematic effort to exclude African Americans from the polls yet again. Meanwhile, women advocated for the right to vote, first attempting to find common cause with African Americans, before securing the franchise for themselves with the 19th Amendment.
Throughout the time period, many of the forces and dynamics that promoted an expansion of the franchise before the 1850s remained active. Soldiers and veterans insisted that their service on the field of battle merited their inclusion in the franchise, and political competition still meant that those who could not yet vote were potential voters for one side or the other should they be allowed access to the polls. And perhaps most importantly, a deeply-held belief in democratic values inspired many Americans to advocate strongly for expanding the franchise—most of all the disfranchised themselves, who clamored for their own right to vote louder than ever.
Those who advocated for expanding the franchise were met with equally vigorous opposition. The nation’s economic and social structure was changing: the industrial and agricultural working class was growing rapidly—and this increasingly diverse population was made of up men and women who were racially, ethnically, and culturally unlike old-stock white Americans.
In the South, the idea that the newly freed slaves could vote was repulsive to most of the white political elite. For the former Confederate states, granting the right to vote to African Americans was made a condition of their readmission to the union—both while they drafted new state constitutions and by way of the 15th Amendment. The federal government enforced these provisions for a time during Reconstruction and for several years, African Americans could and did vote in the South—in huge numbers. During and after Reconstruction, Southern blacks were elected to office—including to the U.S. Congress—and put forward programs to promote their own education and economic welfare.
But once the military occupation was over, southern states immediately began to infringe on the political rights of African Americans—pushing them from the polls with violence and crafty legal maneuvers that were not overtly racial (and so did not violate the 15th Amendment), but that were aimed directly at denying blacks the right to vote.
Meanwhile, in the North and West, millions of foreigners from Ireland, Asia, and Eastern Europe—men and women who were non-English speaking, Catholic, and Jewish—arrived to work in factories and mines, building railroads, roads, and cities. Like the African Americans in the South, the prospect of allowing these lower classes of people to vote frightened many white Americans in positions of political power.
These changes in the population, which unfolded in scores of different ways in individual states and municipalities, provoked a strong reaction against the idea of expanded suffrage in the United States. Southern white leaders believed that they could not control their region if the black population remained enfranchised—after all there was a black majority in more than a few states. Northern elites, as well as many middle-class, old-stock Americans, also feared that they would lose control of politics to immigrants who did not share their interests and values. By the late 1870s and 1880s, then, the democratic fervor that had swept the country in the Age of Jackson had all been evaporated, and the franchise began to contract rather than expand.
The result was a long period, stretching into the second decade of the 20th century, marked by often hostile conflict over suffrage. Many continued to support the disenfranchised and fought valiantly to broaden the right to vote, while others struggled, with much success, to block the road to the polls. It was during these years that it was most apparent that the story of American Suffrage is not one of a straightforward, unrelenting march toward universal suffrage, marred only by the well-known and exceptional disfranchisement of southern blacks between 1890 and 1910. Rather, it is a story where the right to vote expands and contracts over time, and the prevailing trend between the Civil War and World War I was ultimately a narrowing of the franchise.