- The Appeal of Racial Neutrality in the Civil War–Era NorthGerman Americans and the Democratic New Departure
On June 9, 1869, a weekly newspaper catering to Wisconsin’s German-speaking Catholics published a blueprint for reforming the Democratic Party. Under the simple heading “Our Platform,” the Milwaukee Seebote outlined sixteen policy demands. The first was “Universal suffrage for all citizens of the United States.”1 Peter V. Deuster, the editor of the Seebote, had broached the issue a week earlier: “The Democracy must unreservedly accept Negro suffrage—indeed, universal suffrage in the broadest sense of the word—if it wants to win over the masses.”2 This conclusion and the subsequent manifesto appeared a full month before any Anglo-American Democrat made such an emphatic pronouncement and a scant year after Deuster’s opponents in the Republican Party had deemed manhood suffrage too politically hazardous to include on their own national platform.3 After the 1868 elections, in which Republicans had retained their majorities in the House and Senate and won the presidency, Congress had passed a constitutional amendment intended to enfranchise black men. Yet the Fifteenth Amendment was still awaiting ratification when Deuster published the Seebote platform. It is surprising, then, that many other Democrats agreed that he had given “clear expression to the views of the German Democrats in the Northwest” in taking a stand for universal male suffrage.4
The Seebote platform and the Democratic New Departure that it heralded are difficult to square with historians’ characterizations of white northerners and their attitudes toward African American citizenship during the decade of the Civil War.5 Most historians have argued that the majority of northerners found the idea of equal male suffrage highly disconcerting. Prevailing interpretations emphasize that the Radical Republicans who advocated extending black rights were an ideologically beleaguered minority within their own party, to say nothing of where they stood in the wider population.6 In most treatments, the rank-and-file northerners who enabled the Republican Party to refashion the South [End Page 68] in the wake of the Civil War surmounted their personal prejudices only because they wanted to force unrepentant Confederates to accept defeat and institute a system of free labor.7 To underline examples of unguarded popular bigotry, historians quote the Republicans who considered black suffrage a “political liability” in the North. They enumerate all the state referenda that went down to defeat during the 1860s.8 In 1865, Wisconsin was among the first of fifteen states and territories where white men had the opportunity to enfranchise their black counterparts and declined to do so.9 African American men residing in that state won the vote only when the state’s supreme court overrode the public will in 1866.10 What could Peter Deuster have been thinking in 1869, just three years later?
Public opinion within a select segment of the northern electorate, the German community, was certainly a central concern. One of this essay’s goals is to trace the distinctive trajectory of German American politics. Wisconsin was by far the country’s most German state, with 15.4 percent of its residents born in German Europe by 1870. While the German-born made up only about 4.4 percent of the population nationwide, they garnered disproportionate attention from contemporaries because of their status as swing voters in crucial midwestern states.11 Observers since have focused on the colorful Forty-Eighters, refugees of the unsuccessful Revolutions of 1848 who clustered at the radical end of the Republican Party and repeated the refrain that the “liberty-loving” German had no time for prejudice.12 If the preponderance of the literature were taken as a guide and the Forty-Eighters were assumed representative of most German immigrants, there would be little reason to investigate the Seebote platform any further.
Divisions among German Americans, however, keep the interpretive questions surrounding Deuster’s choice alive. Deuster drew his readership from the third or so of German immigrants who were at least nominally Roman Catholic.13 This minority within a minority found the passionately anticlerical views of most Forty-Eighters alienating and acquired a reputation for antipathy toward African American rights...