Author Interview--Paul D. Escott (Black Suffrage) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Paul D. Escott to talk about his new book, Black Suffrage: Lincoln’s Last Goal, published by the University of Virginia Press in June 2022.

Paul D. Escott is the Reynolds Professor of History Emeritus at Wake Forest University. He received his Ph.D. from Duke University. He has also published Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (1979), "What Shall We Do with the Negro?": Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America (2009), The Confederacy: The Slaveholders' Failed Venture (2010), Uncommonly Savage: Civil War and Remembrance in Span and the United States (2014), Lincoln's Dilemma: Slavery, Racism, and Equality in the Civil War Era (2014), The Worst Passions of Human Nature: White Supremacy in the Civil War North (2020).

To start, Paul, there are many books about Lincoln's plans for Reconstruction, what prompted you to write about voting rights for African Americans and how northerners felt about those rights?

PDE: In the last decade or so, I had been looking at the way Lincoln and the Republican Party grappled with the issues of racism and equality.  For almost all of his life, Lincoln (whom we remember as the Great Emancipator) was not a Great Equalitarian, and his party contained many individuals who were hostile to Black citizenship and were determined to remove African Americans from the United States.

After writing about white supremacist attitudes in the North during the Civil War, it was natural to extend the research to the months immediately after Lincoln's death and ask how his public support for Black suffrage at the end of his life, and the Union victory, affected the issues.

What do you argue in Black Suffrage?

PDE: There was more to the story in 1865 than Andrew Johnson's racism.  Three things stand out.  First, a vigorous and ambitious public campaign for Black suffrage was carried out by pro-suffrage Republicans, abolitionists of both races, and organized Black leaders.  This included all kinds of public advocacy and the distribution of hundreds of thousands of copies of printed material.  Second, the Democratic Party played a key role.  Immediately after Lincoln's death, some prominent Democratic papers in the North took the view that, with enslavement ended, full citizenship and voting would have to follow.  But within two months, Democratic newspapers chose extreme, racist partisanship, and editors waged a campaign against Black people and against the facts of what was occuring in the South.  Third, Black people in the North and in the defeated South spoke out strongly and frequently to demand their rights, proving that they deserved and needed the vote.  By December 1865,most leaders of the Republican Party had moved strongly toward Black suffrage, but racism in the North and among some Republicans remained strong enough to block success that year.

I was very intrigued by your study as I had recently a chance to chat with Van Gosse. He shows that northern states removed the right to vote from African Americans during first half of the century--how much is your book a continuation and builds on these earlier efforts and assumptions?

PDE: Yes, in the first half of the 19th century there was a broad movement to deprive Black people of the right to vote.  Did you know that free Black men could vote in slaveholding North Carolina until 1835, when a new constitution took that right away?  But, to my mind, one of the important features of Van Gosse's book is its evidence about the way Blacks in the North continued to organize and fight to influence politics and gain all their rights.  Although their share of the population was very small and they faced discrimination in all phases of the economy and society, Black people were not passive.  They organized and worked continuously to gain their rights, and those efforts were the foundation for the extensive efforts they made in 1865, the period on which I focused.

You draw a very important line about the people at the time who were willing to grant freedom but not equality, especially not political equality--what made people so reluctant to accept non-whites as equal partners in the running of the country?

PDE: Your question goes to the entire history of racism and white supremacy in the colonies and the United States.  Rather than reach back to the earliest phases of that sad record, let me emphasize what happened in the late 1840s, the 1850s, and during the Civil War.  As the slavery issue heated up, we know that southern politicians became more insistent on defending and privileging slaveholding.  But in the North, a key point is that Democrats reacted to the rise of the Republican Party by placing even more emphasis than previously upon racism and white supremacy.  Stephen Douglas, for example, was insistent on white supremacy and Black inferiority as he fought for political power.  I showed in "The Worst Passions of Human Nature":  White Supremacy in the Civil War North that Democratic newspapers churned out ever increasing amounts of racist bile.  One of their charges was that freed slaves would migrate and inundate the North, destroying white society.  In the last 8 months of 1865 they soft-pedaled that particular charge, because it obviously wasn't happening, but they increased their claims of Black inferiority and incapacity and pictured events in defeated South as a terrible period of "Africanization" and mistreatment of whites by Blacks.  Unfortunately, some Republicans, for example Senator James Doolitte, also believed that Black people had no place in American democracy.

Considering this racist attitude, how did advocates for granting African Americans the right to vote attempt to convince and educate the northern public that their views were wrong?

PDE: There is space here only to mention the most notable efforts of 1865.  First, Black leaders in the North had been meeting for decades in the Convention movement, and after the 1864 Convention they founded the National Equal Rights League, with branches in the various states.  It immediately called for "equality before American law" and the right to vote for Black men, since they had fought to preserve the Union.  Men such as John Mercer Langston, James H. Harris, William D. Forten, George B. Vashon, Moses Brown, and James Rapier were prominent in the League.  In addition to making a thorough case for their rights, they did not hesitate to criticize the minority of unsupportive Republican leaders, such Ohio's Jacob Cox, who was urging a separate territory for Black Americans.  At state conventions of the Equal Rights League in the summer and again in the fall, they issued appeals for justice and demanded their rights.  Let us not forget that communities of Black people in the South also organized, met, and spoke out for their rights, in many cities and in several state assemblages.  They started organizing these meetings in June and continued on into the fall. Not only did they present facts about their qualifications and property-holdings, but they also detailed mistreatment by southern whites and petitioned their allies in Congress. Their actions and resolutions were proof of their readiness to play a role in democratic and representative government.

Second, abolitionists and Republican allies were seizing opportunities to speak and to present their arguments in print and at public commemorations.  Their speeches were picked up by the Republican newspapers throughout the North.  I also have to mention the work of George Luther Stearns.  After creating a directory of several thousand pro-suffrage activists, to whom he sent 90,000 copies of the best pro-suffrage speeches and essays, he went on to found a Universal and Equal Suffrage Association.  Through that Association he mailed (at his own expense) "10,000 newspapers and 3,000 pamphlets per week."

Finally, the role of Republican newspaper editors was important.  In addition to publicizing pro-suffrage arguments, they carried reports on events in the South and demonstrated that Andrew Johnson's policy was a failure.  His restoration of former rebels to positions of power meant a return to conditions similar to slavery, and the Republican papers encouraged Congress to act while countering the racist propaganda of the Democratic press.