- The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement
"Democracy" and universal suffrage have not always moved together. In most cases, the rise of democratic governance did not ensure a universal right to participate. Women were usually excluded from the vote process at the time democracy was established. And in the early phases of democratic consolidation, efforts by the powerful to exclude other social groups from participation almost always limited the franchise. But one near-universal fact about the history of democracy around the globe. After a group establishes its right to participate, it is never taken away as long as democratic governance persists.
There is, however, one exception to this broad generalization. In the aftermath of the Civil War, an extraordinary coalition came together to bring about the enfranchisement of African American men in the United States. Previously excluded from voting in all southern and most northern states, the adoption of the 14th and 15th Amendments (in 1868 and 1870 respectively) and the creation of a series of federal enforcement mechanisms imposed on the former Confederacy ensured, for the first time, that black men would be able to exercise the franchise. And exercise it they did. With high levels of participation, the new African American voters worked to create Reconstruction governments across the South. Numerous African Americans were elected to political office in the late 1860s and 1870s. Although hampered by the difficulties of the post-war environment and high levels of white violence, the Reconstruction governments developed a startling number of initiatives that began to lay the foundation for a new, racially-egalitarian social order.
The Reconstruction agenda was initially supported and fostered in Congress, where radical Republicans and their moderate allies fashioned programs for substantial federal intervention in elections to ensure that the new electoral coalition could compete fairly, even in the face of white violence. Some important and promising national civil rights initiatives were adopted. Even the federal courts occasionally (and mostly only briefly) got in on the act. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, some courts surprisingly endorsed new initiatives with innovative rulings that, at least briefly, pushed in the direction of racial equality.
Yet it would take a century before the promise of the brief Reconstruction era would finally be realized. After 1872, Congress largely abandoned the southern reform movement. White violence (most notably the practice of lynching), electoral fraud, the decline of the Republican majority in Congress, the bitter hostility of white voters to Reconstruction (and the Republican Party which sponsored it), and (after 1890) legal disenfranchising measures adopted by southern state governments gradually stripped the right to vote from African Americans. By 1910, few blacks could vote anywhere in the South. The disenfranchising measures also reduced participation among poor whites. Led by the U.S. Supreme Court, federal courts began to reject the direction cautiously charted in the immediate post-1865 environment. Democratic control over southern governments was briefly threatened by the rise of populism (and Populist-Republican coalitions) in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and occasional threats [End Page 1847] to restore federal oversight by the remaining civil rights liberals in the Republican bloc in Congress. But these were crushed through a variety of different legal or illegal means.
The result was a single-party South that created the Jim Crow system to perpetuate virulent racial inequality for the first six decades of the 20th century. With their seniority assured, southern Democrats would dominate Congress for much of this period, defining the shape of the national party system and taking race entirely off the political agenda until the rise of the civil rights movement and the dramatic crumbling of Jim Crow in a "second" Reconstruction. In his masterful comparison of the two periods of reform, Richard Vallely tells the story of how the first Reconstruction rose and fell, while the second (in the 1960s) succeeded. Drawing upon a rich secondary literature and an especially close reading of key Supreme Court rulings, Vallely covers familiar and unfamiliar ground with grace...