Contested Franchise

A Tangled Mess


Interestingly, the first Federal mandate for states to protect the rights of Black men to vote applied only in the former Confederate states. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 required those states to grant suffrage to Black voters as a condition for returning to the Union. (The Act exempted Tennessee and the border states from this provision.)

That meant that in 1868 in former Confederate states, Black men could vote. Still, the rules for defining eligible voters continued as they had before the Civil War: states decided.

In fact, in 1867, voters in Connecticut, Kansas, and Minnesota rejected proposals to extend suffrage to their Black citizens.

The Federal guarantees of voting rights in the south, however, did not mean that Black voting went forward unobstructed. Most White southerners still had trouble imagining that Black men had the capacity for self-government and feared that Black voters would be manipulated by Republicans. Some former Confederates courted Black votes, but many others did not hesitate to bribe or intimidate Black men at the polls, or kill them if they wished.

(Above) Central to this report on Black life in the south in 1867 is formerly enslaved people lining up to vote, no doubt a consequence of the Civil Rights Act of 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

(Left) This political broadside from Connecticut opposed the 15th Amendment because—it alleged—it would deprive the rights of states to determine qualifications for the electorate. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Senator Lyman Trumbull, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, oversaw the progress of the 15th Amendment through Congress. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

(Below) Content Warning: Racial violence This political cartoon elicited sympathy for Black men who went to vote in the south but were met with violence.