Presently, the dominant Reconstruction Era narrative portrays the Republican Party’s support for black suffrage as a moral impulse. The likelihood that it would also increase the number of Republican-loyal voters is dismissed as a convenient by product of “doing the right thing.” Today’s experienced voters, however, realize that political parties seek to increase or maintain their political power by default. Believing otherwise is foolish. The Postbellum years are no exception. Consider the following:

One. During the first presidential election after the end of the Civil War in 1868, Ulysses Grant won only a minority of the white popular vote. His aggregate vote majority was due to the ex-slave ballots.

Two. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, America had 33 states: 18 free and 15 slave. Blacks composed only two percent of the free state population and 94% of them could not vote.

Three.  Blacks composed and average of 40% of the population in the eleven former Confederate states. Given a Southern black voting bloc twenty times larger relative to its population than the Northern one, state governments were likely to change radically in the South, but not at all in the North.

Four. Except for Tennessee, which already had a scalawag government, the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment required the ex-Confederate states to create new constitutions acceptable to a Republican-controlled Congress. Moreover, the state constitutional convention delegates were to be chosen in a plebiscite that included black voters. In that way, black suffrage became universal in the South, but not the North.

Five. After the plebiscite voter registration, blacks were a majority, or near majority, in five states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida. Ex-Confederates could not vote in Tennessee. The legislatures of Missouri and Arkansas also limited ex-Confederate vote.

Six. The purpose of “five” above was to create a Republican-controlled Southern voting bloc until the organically Republican western territories could mature into statehood. Of the first twelve that joined the Union after the start of the Civil War, not one entered  with a Democrat senator. That didn’t happen until Oklahoma statehood in 1907.

Seven. In 1867 the champion of Republican reconstruction, Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, said: “I am for negro suffrage in every rebel State.” When he spoke those words, Pennsylvania blacks were denied the vote in the state’s 1838 constitution.

Philip Leigh

Philip Leigh contributed twenty-four articles to The New York Times Disunion blog, which commemorated the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He is the author of U.S. Grant's Failed Presidency, Southern Reconstruction (2017), Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies (2015), and Trading With the Enemy (2014). Phil has lectured a various Civil War forums, including the 23rd Annual Sarasota Conference of the Civil War Education Association and various Civil War Roundtables. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology and an MBA from Northwestern University.


  • Albert Alioto says:

    There is more to Thaddeus Stevens on this question that Mr. Leigh seems to be aware. In his book GOVERNMENT BY JUDICIARY, the late Raoul Berger quoted Stevens: “In my county are fifteen hundred escaped slaves. If they are specimens of the Negroes of the South, they are not qualified to vote.”

    At least not in Pennsylvania.

  • Kenneth Robbins says:

    Stevens, if my understanding of scripture is correct was kicked into the lake of fire long ago. This was truly and evil beast.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    The Republican Party of Alabama was founded in 1867…in their first election they swept almost every seat in the Alabama House and Senate. Of course, they also had the Governor’s Office.

    In 1880, Democrats (former Confederates) swept the Alabama House and Senate, ending Reconstruction in Alabama. In the spring of1881, this group of former Confederates funded Tuskegee, as an all-black college in the Black Belt of Alabama.

    Tuskegee…funded by Confederates.

    • Earl Starbuck says:

      And we wonder why Tuskegee gets no praise. W.E.B. DuBois gets all the press because he was essentially a Marxist radical who focused on political activism and portrayed Reconstruction in a positive light (Eric Foner cribbed that interpretation for his own books on the subject, which have defined the “orthodox” interpretation for the past 40 years). Nobody holds up Booker T. Washington anymore because he doesn’t fit the narrative – this despite the fact that he was a truly admirable man. We live in dishonest, evil times!

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