Party Matters: Racial Closure in the Nineteenth-Century United States


For nearly two centuries the United States was a democracy that institutionalized in law inequality between racially defined segments of the population. This article shows that such racial closure was causally linked to the workings of a party system in which one party was organized as an interregional alliance for the principles and practices of white supremacy. It does so through a detailed analysis of three historical outcomes: (1) variation in the establishment of racial closure laws across the North during the antebellum period, (2) the elimination of racial closure laws in the North after the Civil War, and (3) the failed attempt in the postbellum South to overcome racial closure in voting. Throughout the analysis of these three outcomes, the article shows that the party model conforms to the empirical record better than three major alternatives that emphasize the causal power of public opinion (electorate model), elite bargaining and consensus (elite model), and the racial preferences of the white working class (class model).