Reconstruction Begins: Arguments for Black Male Suffrage

When the Civil War ended, leaders took on the task of rebuilding, or “reconstructing,” the nation. One important issue was the right to vote: Would the franchise grow to include 4 million former slaves?

NERL and the Push for the Vote

In New Orleans, just before the war ended, a Black-led mock election was organized in 1865 to demonstrate their participation in the electoral process. In the same year, Andrew Tait and 58 other African Americans in Tennessee petitioned a convention of pro-Union whites to abolish slavery across the United States, allow African Americans to testify in court and give all Black Americans citizenship and the right to vote.

The petition said in part: “Nearly 200,000 of our brethren are today performing military duty in the ranks of the Union army. Thousands of them have already died … If we are called on to do military duty against the rebel enemies in the field, why should we be denied the privilege of voting?” 

In 1864, African Americans in New York formed the National Equal Rights League (NERL). They argued that African American service in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars entitled all Black males to vote and all Black men and women to full citizenship. NERL grew through the 1860s and 1870s, and had branches in Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina.

NERL also debated incorporating women’s right to vote into their platform, but decided that pushing for women’s suffrage might weaken their campaign for Black male voting rights in the South. The group advocated for women’s suffrage in the early 1900s.

At first, President Abraham Lincoln’s Reconstruction Plan did not require Southern states to give African Americans the vote. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation On June 1, 1863, President Lincoln declared "that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free." It applied only to the “rebel” southern states. In 1865 The 13th Amendment ended slavery across the U.S. and did so in the Constitution as opposed to an executive order so that it would be permanent was used mostly as a tool of economic pressure as opposed to a social justice move. In the midst of the Civil War, he knew he could economically starve the South by ending slavery because their economy relied so heavily on slave labor. However, despite not being a benevolent ally, he did suggest that the Black men who had fought in the Civil War or had served the country in other ways had earned suffrage.

Of a similar mind, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman stated that African Americans who fought for the Union cause had earned the right to vote, saying, “when the fight is over, the hand that drops the musket cannot be denied the ballot.”

Other social and political leaders went further. Leaders like Henry Ward Beecher argued it was a “natural” right of all men, regardless of race or color, to have a voice in the laws and structures that governed them.

Continued Resistance

Black resistance to disenfranchisement continued throughout the Reconstruction period and after Lincoln’s death.

Throughout 1865 and 1866, African Americans began holding conventions to advocate for the right to vote. In certain states, groups of Black men would go to the polls in an attempt to cast ballots despite their legal limitations.

A delegation of African American voting rights activists, including Frederick Douglass, went to meet with President Andrew Johnson in 1866 to demand the right to vote on the grounds that they were subject to being taxed and drafted like white men, yet lacked the democratic power that was essential to being a citizen of the United States.

Suffrage as a Political Strategy

For many white northerners, there were good political and economic reasons to extend the vote to former slaves.

Before the Civil War, each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person in the population numbers used to determine the number of seats each state had in Congress. This method gave the South a larger population count which meant more representatives in Congress.

If freed slaves were now considered citizens, Southern states would gain additional seats in Congress proportional to the combined population of white and Black people.

White arguments for African American (men’s) voting rights centered on three main ideas:

  • African Americans deserved the vote in recognition for their military service and loyalty to the Union. 
  • Voting was a natural right of all men, and would be a means of education and improving the common good.
  • African American voters would limit the political and economic power of former Confederates and Democrats, the two major political parties, Republican and Democrat, had different philosophies then than they do today. In many ways their platforms were opposite of what they are today both regionally and nationally.

Leaders like William Dickson, an informal advisor to President Lincoln, pointed out that having a Black voting class served the economic and political interests of the country.

By voting, African Americans could protect themselves and society from the influence of former Confederates in state and local governments, and they would help restore the Confederate states to the Union by electing loyal state governments. Essentially, giving freed African Americans the vote would ensure that the Republican Party had a voting base in the South.

Like for Lincoln himself, the motivation behind enfranchising freed Black men for many whites was less about social justice and more about politics. While genuine allies did exist, it’s important to remember that many in power were no such allies.

It was African American women and men, and these few true allies, who did the work to change conditions for non-white Americans.