Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we continue our conversation with 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.
Can we relate these efforts also to how Abraham Lincoln's views toward African Americans changed during the war?
PDE: Abraham Lincoln was not an impassioned abolitionist but a practical politician who needed to accumulate and hold enough power to preserve the Union. Yet he also was an empathetic, fair-minded man of fundamental decency who was glad when events gave him the opportunity to emancipate and then to move toward equality. During the war years he was influenced by white abolitionists and pro-equality Republicans such as Charles Sumner, Zachariah Chandler, Thaddeus Stevens, and Henry Wilson. But he probably was influenced even more by his contacts with Black leaders. Frederick Douglass was, of course, of the most important, but Lincoln also met with free Blacks from New Orleans and with individuals such as Abraham Galloway, a former slave from North Carolina who recruited Black soldiers and risked his life to lead slaves out of Confederate territory. Lincoln also stopped by a contraband camp near Washington, D.C., where he listened to the freed people sing and chatted with "Aunt Mary Dines" and others. His wartime contacts with Black people may have been as important to him as the vital support that Black soldiers gave to the Union cause.
With that in mind about Lincoln, let's turn to President Johnson, who oversees early Reconstruction. I am left wondering about his place within the story since it is northern opposition and reluctance on black suffrage--could he have done anything to bring about a more inclusive environment in the United States during Reconstruction?
PDE: Let's be clear -- northern opposition and reluctance on Black suffrage was very important in the situation that Johnson created. Imagine what might have been possible had Johnson not been a racist and defender of racist, white southern leaders. The Cabinet divided 4-4 on whether Black men should vote in the provisional governments Johnson was creating, and he cast the deciding "no" vote. After Lincoln's assassination and the war's end, the North wanted to place its confidence in the president and return to peacetime living, and the Republican Party was moving toward Black suffrage. What if Johnson had chosen to lead the party toward suffrage and equal rights? And what if he had insisted on loyal governments and fair treatment in the South, instead of favoring unrepentant Confederate leaders and viewing their Black Codes and violence against freed Black people as legitimate? He certainly could have made a difference had he continued in Lincoln's direction. Instead, he was ambiguous and deceptive at times about his reactionary policies, but Republican leaders perceived, nevertheless, that they must take the reins and move forward without him. Republican voters supported that stance in the fall elections and gave Republicans victories, although on questions of Black suffrage a portion of them withheld their support, and thus the result fell short of a majority.
We can never know what Lincoln might have done, but there is no reason to doubt that his policy would have been different from Johnson's. We can note, also, that Lincoln had said in 1863, when he wasn't at that time going as fast as many Republicans wanted, that he "hope[d] to stand firm enough to not go backward." In 1865 that would include his public statement of support for at least partial Black suffrage.
It also struck me as rather odd when you showed that as southern states are vilified for not including African American in the electoral franchise, northern state vote to do the same--did they not realize the irony of that or were they just so focused on punishing the rebel regions?
PDE: I reject the old canard that Radical Republicans were intent on punishing the South and drew up their Reconstruction policies out of a motive of vengeance. Yes, there was a contradiction -- one rooted in the attitudes of racism and white supremacy that were widespread in the North. Pro-suffrage Republicans wanted to require that the South do something that Connecticut, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other northern states did not permit. When efforts to establish Black suffrage in the North failed, these leaders resolved to work harder and try again. The Republican leaders favoring Black suffrage also believed, correctly, that suffrage was necessary in the South -- it was an essential measure to help freed Black people defend themselves against the onslaught of southern efforts effectively to re-enslave them. As future events showed, the so-called Radical Republicans became a majority of the party and succeeded in establishing the 15th Amendment, which legally applied to the North as well as the South.
Building on your last answer, how much did the African American community, both North and South, struggle to make their voices heard to get the right to vote--how did they do it? Were there any state or regional efforts that surprised you in how well organized and/or successful they were?
PDE: African Americans in the North used both communication and organization to try to gain their rights, and they were very determined, energetic, and active. I've already mentioned the regional and state-level conventions that drew up broadsides and published appeals to the public, along with statistics and arguments to bolster their case for suffrage and against all types of discrimination. The Equal Rights League of New York state seemed especially active. There were some successes. In Indiana, where racist attitudes were strong, laws against immigration or testimony by Blacks were struck down in the winter of 1865-66. Persistent efforts by Black people in Philadelphia won the support of local Republicans and some prominent citizens to end discrimination in the city's streetcars. A bill introduced in the state legislature in 1865 finally won approval in 1867. Massachusetts, one of the New England states that allowed Black suffrage, passed a public accommodations law in 1865. In Rhode Island, George T. Downing led a long battle against exclusion of Black children from public education, and the city of Newport dropped its barriers in 1865. Early in 1866 a state law won the battle. But fighting for the right to vote and for other rights faced a serious obstacle in addition to racism. Black people constituted only about one percent of the population of the free states, and in a majoritarian democracy it often is difficult for small minorities to gain the attention of a preponderant majority. Moreover, in 1865 many white northerners were hoping to turn away from politics and rebuild personal lives and goals that had been disrupted by the great war.
Reading your book, one does get a feeling of warning--democracy and the right to vote are important to the function of the republic and it has not been easy to obtain this right over the history of the country for minorities. How do you see your book in light of current events, especially efforts to curtail people's right to vote and make voting more difficult?
PDE: The right to vote is fundamental to citizenship in a democracy. Black leaders insisted on this point, loudly and repeatedly, throughout 1865. Today we see how crucial voting rights are to electoral outcomes. If you change the electorate, you change the outcome, and it is clear that the Republican Party aims to discourage or exclude voting by groups that tend to favor the Democrats. In North Carolina, where I live, the courts found that these efforts were surgically targeted to deny the ballot to Black citizens. Such strategies, as well as gerrymandering, strike at the heart of a democracy.
You are enjoying a well-earned retirement now, do you plan to continue writing or will retirement take you in new directions?
PDE: I have enjoyed the chance to research and write during retirement, and I hope to continue doing that. I have a new book in production at the University of Virginia Press that will be called The Civil War Political Tradition: Ten Portraits of Those Who Formed It. I've designed this book for classroom use and believe it can be a very useful tool to challenge undergraduates to explore more deeply key individuals and major events related to slavery, racism, and equality. Instructors also can use it to highlight particular crises or compromises, or to introduce debates about major problems and strategies of change. Inspired in a general way by Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition, I've presented my analysis and viewpoint on the careers of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, Albion Tourgee, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It will be very readable.