March 13, 1866: Suffrage?

Negro Suffrage

The New York Times ran a short editorial on March 13, 1866 suggesting a rationale for placing limits on suffrage for black Americans. I leave it to the reader to pick apart the various problems with the argument, but this sentence is the key to the problem for me:

“But to throw this priceless privilege into the hands of blacks, whose ideas are still a compound of ignorance and fetichism, who, in all this war, have so feebly recognized their political relations as to utterly fail to raise a hand for the Government that was fighting their battle, is something that, for many reasons in no manner connected with color, we are most unwilling to bear a part. ” [Emphasis mine].

The writer goes on to propose restrictions on black voting that would not apply to white voters.


Justice to the Freedmen – The Suffrage Question

We suppose that nobody doubts the earnestness of purpose of the Radical leaders in Congress. They are probably as pure in motive as the general run of politicians. Their discretion and capacity as leaders are altogether another matter, and before the great Union masses of the country submit themselves to a policy which is largely founded on passionate, excited, or vindictive feeling, we should stop to think that constitutional amendments are unluckily universal in their application, and that in any so-called amendment we subject ourselves to the same conditions we impose on our late enemies. If we embody in our organic law, as guaranties of their future loyalty, unpleasant and unrepublican theories, against which our sense of right revolts when applied to ourselves, we may be pretty sure that we are somewhere wrong.

Within this category comes the question of negro suffrage. The Union party has in various ways asserted principles that logically involve that result at last. The details of time and method are the only real questions left for argument. We have a right to consider the principle as practically settled: and, if so, we have also a right to hold opinions of our own as to when and how the principle can be carried out, without being denounced as traitors to the cause.

Some moral and political points are very obvious. The Federal Government has, in various ways, incurred obligations to the black race that should be promptly discharged. The black soldier who has helped fight our battles should not be made an alien now. He has not only served his country in the field, but has almost universally qualified himself by education to serve her intelligently at the polls. His time of delay should be short, his method prompt. So, too, with others, who have looked into the spelling-book and the Bible for the first qualifications of voters. To such as these, and we may add, those who have raised themselves above their level by the acquisition of property, we are willing to give the ballot as we gave the musket.

But to throw this priceless privilege into the hands of blacks, whose ideas are still a compound of ignorance and fetichism, who, in all this war, have so feebly recognized their political relations as to utterly fail to raise a hand for the Government that was fighting their battle, is something that, for many reasons in no manner connected with color, we are most unwilling to bear a part.

These reasons should be obvious to every student of State polity. If we force upon the Southern States an unconditional negro suffrage, we consolidate its opposition, and renew its hatreds by the same act in which we increase its political power to a ration greater than that existing prior to the rebellion. We confer no real benefit upon the negro, for he, like his brethren of the ignorant classes of the North, will be led up to the polls to vote his own wrong and destruction.

Again, is the right of the ballot a cheap thing to be cast out carelessly and picked up by the first comer? Or is it a prize of honor to be won in the fair fields of education and citizenship? Is the negro, now for the first time really a citizen, any better qualified for the ballot than the educated foreigner who leaves his country and seeks a home here because he admires our institutions, and whom we compel to wait five years? The right of the ballot, so far as it is a right, and so far as it can be safely employed, is a privilege, based on intelligence, to express an authoritative and, if in the majority, a forcible opinion on the affairs of the State. Yet we deny this right to our wives, to our young soldiers still in their minority, to Mr. Sumner himself if he happens to be away from home on election day. It is a gross error to say that this Government has ever sanctioned an absolutely universal suffrage. But it has lying at the foundation of its system, the very pivotal idea of its existence, the theory that an intelligent and reading popular mass is the truest and safest sovereign, the wisest ruler. Let us then hold out suffrage to the black as “the prize of the high calling,” to be earned honestly by education, good conduct, and the vindication of his manhood.

And as, sooner or later, he must and will vote, we are called upon by selfish as well as patriotic considerations, to see that the proper opportunities for improvement and a fair chance for his own vindication are afforded him.

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