Andrew Johnson: The American Franchise

Andrew Johnson: The American Franchise

During Andrew Johnson's presidency, the composition of the American electorate underwent revolutionary change. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, in conjunction with Congressional Reconstruction, set the stage for extending suffrage to hundreds of thousands of African American males. Congress did this indirectly, however, threatening to penalize states that did not enfranchise African Americans by reducing their congressional and electoral representations in proportion to the adult males disfranchised. But the amendments did not specifically guarantee suffrage to African Americans. It would take the Fifteenth Amendment, approved by Congress in 1869 and ratified in 1871, to actually guarantee voting rights to African American males. It prohibited the federal government or any state from restricting the right to vote because of a person's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." More important in extending suffrage to formerly enslaved males during the Johnson years were the actions undertaken under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which required African American male suffrage as a condition of a state's readmission to the Union.

Black Political Participation

In the state constitutional conventions that met in 1868, 265 black delegates were included. In Louisiana and South Carolina, half or more of the delegates were black. Starting in 1869 and lasting until 1877, fourteen African American men served in the U.S. House of Representatives, and two African Americans served in the U.S. Senate, Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce from Mississippi. Six blacks served as lieutenant governors, and more than 600 black men served in Southern state legislatures. Moreover, in heavily black populated counties, African American men were elected to every village, town, and county post from tax collector to mayor.

The upsurge of black political activity was met with a racist propaganda campaign and terrorist tactics implemented by Southern whites to intimidate both black and white Southern Republicans. With Johnson at their head, white Southerners argued fraudulently that Congressional Reconstruction had brought “black rule” and the prostration of the white South. This potent myth obscured the fact that African Americans never dominated the Republican coalition or Southern office-holding, and that the congressional program had tried to implement interracial democracy and to bring modern social services such as public education to the South.

Beginning in late 1866, a terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, which was a secret veterans' club, spread through the South. It practiced nighttime harassment, whippings, torture, and even murder. The Klan attacked the white schoolteachers of black children; the Union League Clubs, which organized black voters; and anyone suspected of supporting Republicans. In 1868, one-tenth of the black delegates to the state constitutional conventions had been attacked. When Johnson left office, in much of the South, especially in counties dominated by white majorities, terror had become a common aspect of race relations.

Women's Suffrage Movement

Although black male suffrage increased substantially by 1868, not all reformers were happy with the Fourteenth Amendment. Advocates of women's suffrage objected to the exclusion of women from the amendment, pointing out that it introduced the word "male" for the first time into the Constitution. The amendment, when followed by the Fifteenth Amendment, left feminist leaders feeling betrayed. Thereafter, many women activists severed their historic alliance with the cause of civil rights for African Americans and created an autonomous feminist movement independent of the existing reform crusades. More and more, feminist leaders equated suffrage with liberation from all male dominance and also viewed it as an expression of equality in the voting place.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats intended to do anything about expanding the franchise to women. At the Democratic Convention of 1868, a petition was read from Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the Women's Suffrage Association. She asked the convention to acknowledge the principle of women's suffrage. The delegates roared with laughter, refused to take the petition seriously, and then adjourned for the day in general merriment.