The Civil War forced new and challenging questions into the debate about suffrage. Years of fighting, the emancipation of millions of slaves, and the reconstruction of a fractured nation forced the question of African American citizenship and political rights to the forefront. Reconstruction raised critical questions, largely dormant since the writing of the Constitution, about the role of the federal government in determining the breadth of the franchise. At this crucial juncture in American history, the issue of black enfranchisement was thrust on to the national agenda.
Before the Civil War broke out, only five states—all in New England—permitted blacks to vote on the same basis as whites, and New York enfranchised African Americans who met a property requirement. The Civil War brought new impetus for states to work to abolish racial discrimination from their laws. The four million former slaves had claims to civil and political rights. Almost 200,000 African Americans from the North and South alike had fought and died for their freedom and to preserve the Union, and could now make the claim that Americans had been making for years—that those who bore arms should be granted the right to vote. Even those who had not fought felt that voting was their right as free people.
African Americans in the North and the South advocated strongly for their own enfranchisement. Let by ministers, veterans, and established free blacks, they wrote petitions, held meetings, and paraded through the streets, demanding to be granted the right to vote. To African Americans, enfranchisement not only constituted a means of self-protection, but was a critical symbol and expression of their standing in American society. In Wilmington, North Carolina, freedmen organized an Equal Rights League demanding that blacks be granted “all the social and political rights” that whites possessed. In 1865, the highly politicized black community of New Orleans staged a mock election to demonstrate the strength of their resolve.
African Americans advocating for their own enfranchisement enjoyed the support of many Northern whites. Certain elements of the Republican Party—which controlled Congress during Reconstruction—embraced the idea of “impartial” or “universal” suffrage, and leading sympathetic whites offered forceful and eloquent pleas for the cause of black suffrage in speeches and in the newspapers. Influential Protestant minister Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most outspoken advocates: “The broad and radical democratic doctrine of the natural rights of men,” Beecher declared, “shall be applied to all men, without regard race, or color, or condition.” Suffrage “is not a privilege or a prerogative, but a right. Every man has a right to have a voice in the laws, the magistracies, and the policies that take care of him. This is an inherent right; it is not a privilege conferred.”
Equality of suffrage, however, was not ultimately a popular position. In the South, the prospect of black enfranchisement was simply unfathomable. The idea that African Americans might vote on equal footing with white citizens ran contrary to the deep-seated racism and the legal codes that had worked for almost 200 years to relegate and segregate blacks to a position of inferiority.
But opposition to African American suffrage was not confined to the South. Racism persisted in the North, and emancipation only exacerbated fears of mass migration of freedmen away from the South. Efforts to enfranchise African Americans in northern states failed repeatedly following the Civil War: between 1863 and 1870, proposals to enfranchise blacks were defeated in more than fifteen northern states. Although most northern Republicans supported black suffrage, Democrats adamantly opposed it, and they generally were joined by enough Republicans to guarantee popular or legislature defeat of reforms.
Ultimately, the political dynamics of Reconstruction led to a path-breaking series of steps by the federal government to override state control of the franchise and grant political rights to African-American men. Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, President Andrew Johnson attempted to take control of Reconstruction, offering lenient terms to southern states so that they could be restored quickly to the Union. Johnson’s proposals effectively would have guaranteed that the political status quo would remain unchanged.
The Republican-controlled Congress refused to accept this approach, and formulated its own version of Reconstruction beginning in 1866, imposing far harsher penalties on the leaders of the rebellion, and requiring each far more of state being re-admitted to the union. Although relatively few Republicans at that juncture advocated black enfranchisement, they did seek to guarantee the civil rights of blacks and promote greater racial equality in southern society.