Author Interview--Van Gosse (The First Reconstruction) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Van Gosse to talk about his new book The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War, published by the University of North Carolina Press in February 2021.

Van Gosse holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and is Professor of History at Franklin and Marshall College. He is the author of Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History (2005) and Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America and the Making of a New Left (1993). 

To start, Van, you have published mainly in post-1945 history, how did you decide to venture into the nineteenth century and look at the evolution of African-American political involvement? 

VG: Back in the 1990s, I became convinced that the ongoing struggle for black citizenship, and specifically for political power (the only thing that makes citizenship concrete) was a deep through-line in U.S. history. I originally conceived a book called Black Power in White America that would begin at the end of Reconstruction, and I compiled a great deal of research on African Americans' engagement in party and electoral politics from the 1880s to the 1990s. By the time I began writing in 2004, however, I had become aware that some kind of black politics predated the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I thought that would make the first chapter of my book, but over time it grew and grew.  The research itself led me towards this book and the concept of a "First Reconstruction," which is often the best way, I think.

What do you argue in The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War?

VG: That black men participated very actively in ordinary partisan politics across the North throughout this period, and that is the major reason they were disenfranchised in some key states like Pennsylvania and New York.  Further, that they actively fought that disfranchisement, and clawed their way back to political and electoral agency by the 1850s in New York and Ohio (then the first and third largest states by population) while exercising significant clout in the major New England ports--Portland, Boston, New Bedford (the wealthiest city in America), and Providence.  Finally, that their politics was emphatically biracial, carried out in alliance with significant party fractions and leaders, Federalist, National Republican, Whig, Liberty, Free Soil, and Republican.

I want to pick up on your first point with regard to disenfranchisement, how many states allowed African-Americans to vote in the Early Republican Era? How did they meet franchise requirements?

VG: When the Constitution was ratified, only three of the original thirteen states had a racial qualifier in their suffrage laws.  As Lincoln himself noted in 1857, denouncing the Dred Scott decision, black men had voted alongside white men to ratify the Constitution (although, quoting Justice Curtis' dissent, he got the number wrong, and listed only five states).  They kept voting in all ten of those, but disfranchisement came in state-by-state, in response to their agency, and most new states limited voting to whites.  New York's imposing a high property qualification on black men exclusively in 1821 (a $250 freehold) was book-ended by Connecticut in 1818 and Rhode Island in 1822.  The culmination of this drive for "white" suffrage came in the 1830s:  Tennessee in 1834, North Carolina in 1835, Pennsylvania in 1838. After that, black men voted freely only in Upper New England (Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine), where they were very active electorally.  But they got the vote back in Rhode Island in 1842, and used Ohio state supreme court decisions narrowly interpreting "white" as "preponderantly white" (easily evaded by swearing to one's status), and various measures in New York, to rebuild a substantial national electorate by the 1850s in those seven states.

Van, that seems to raise a really odd paradox. This very period from 1820 to 1835 is usually seen and presented as this Age of Jacksonian Democracy, where more people get the ability to vote, people directly vote for electors, etc. Yet, here we have this very opposed trend of actually limiting the right to vote. Did people at the time realize that paradox or just brush it off with their racism?

VG: First, I think defining the rise of Jacksonianism as "the age of democracy" is radically wrong. I quote Daniel Walker Howe on this, from What Hath God Wrought, where he says “The Jacksonian movement…although it took the name of the Democratic Party, fought so hard in favor of slavery and white supremacy, and opposed the inclusion of non-whites and women within the American civil polity so resolutely, that it makes the term ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ all the more inappropriate.”  Well-put!  Second, I also think the assertion that only in the late 1820s and 1830s do we get mass politics and a wide franchise is grossly over-stated. Certainly, some remaining property restrictions or registration requirements were removed, explicitly in tandem with racial disfranchisement in New York and Pennsylvania. But some major states, including Pennsylvania since 1790, already had minimal taxpayer suffrage. David Hackett Fischer explicated long ago, in his brilliant Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy, how the Federalists built party structures and mobilized voters in quite modern ways, and Donald Ratcliffe's books on Ohio make the same point about Jeffersonians there.