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  • Constitutional Revision and the City:The Enforcement Acts and Urban America, 1870–1894
  • David Quigley (bio)

Congressional enactment of the Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 marked an unprecedented federalization of voting rights. The various election laws aimed to make real the promise of the recently enacted Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the constitution. A complex duality characterized this new departure in the constitutional understanding of democratic suffrage. On one hand, Republican leadership looked to secure the rights of freedmen in the Reconstructionera South. At the same time, from the outset, northern Republicans strategically worked to strengthen the party in all regions with a particular interest in urban America. From the immediate postwar years down to the early 1890s, congressional committees regularly investigated the problematic and deeply partisan politics of enforcement. Often, House and Senate investigators were more concerned with developments in northern cities than with the state of African American voting across the rural South. This urban story of the consequences of constitutional revision illuminates the often-obscured national dimensions of Reconstruction and its aftermath, while also alerting us to shifting visions of the vote across the final third of the nineteenth century. This essay explores this nationalization of Reconstruction in the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment's enactment by first documenting the central place of New York City in the emerging postbellum electoral regime and then expanding out from Manhattan to look at broader patterns of urban experience with enforcement. [End Page 64]

Local metropolitan struggles—in the cities of New England and the Midwest, in San Francisco as much as Manhattan—illuminate processes of state formation and political change in the Gilded Age. The national ambitions of Republican operatives necessarily confronted the long-standing problem of many northern city politicians' commitment to Democratic home rule. At both the level of the local polling place and in the halls of Congress, both the power and the weaknesses of the Reconstructionera state come into view. By remaining alert to the complicated, intersecting histories of race, citizenship, and suffrage in the city, the fundamentally compromised quality of Gilded Age state formation is illuminated.1

Republicans, from Ulysses Grant down to the local ward level, were clearly concerned with their party's long-term prospects as they set about to draft the Enforcement Acts. A movement born in the rural Midwest in the 1850s had long attracted substantial support from voters who harbored fears of large cities. In 1870 and 1871, some of this enduring antiurbanism in the Republican movement meshed with sincere concerns on the part of many activists that Democratic partisans were undermining self-government in the nation's cities. The antiurban dimension of Republican strategy cannot be denied, yet many leading Republicans viewed this as central to achieving the goals of interracial democracy. Party leaders in Washington saw clean elections in the nation's cities as essential to maintaining the Republican position in D.C. and, by extension, throughout the rural South.2 Recent scholarship by Sven Beckert and Richard M. Valelly helps to clarify the broader context of Republican electoral reform in the Reconstruction years. Beckert has documented the class-based movements to restrict the suffrage in Gilded Age New York; some architects of the Enforcement Acts shared related concerns for the "purity" of the ballot in urban America. As Valelly makes clear, the Republican ascendancy to majority party status relied upon the creation and maintenance of the enforcement regime in the face of resurgent Democratic forces in both the rural South and the urban North.3

The 1870 election in New York City would turn out to set a precedent—both locally and nationally—for the next quarter century. Tens of thousands of federal marshals and election officials regulated elections in Manhattan and in other major metropolitan areas down to the mid 1890s. For Gilded Age urban Americans, the state was most abundantly visible—in the form of armed, uniformed United States deputy marshals—every two years on Election Day. Urban historians too have often underplayed the significance of the federal government's role in city life [End Page 65] in the last third of the nineteenth century. This emerging central state authority, moreover, was centered...


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