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The Making Of Southern Disfranchisement:
A View From Inside The Hall
Michael Perman. Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 416 pp. Figures, maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $49.95 (cloth) $24.95 (paperback).
The historian Alfred Young once argued that the Founding Fathers did not act in a political vacuum when they drafted the American Constitution. A narrow focus on the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, he insisted, had led to a preoccupation with the "great compromises" reached during the Convention--between big states and little states, slaveholders and nonslaveholders, North and South--and left obscured the much more important compromise between the delegates and what they referred to as "the people out of doors." Although monied men all who wished to strengthen the power of the federal government, the delegates in Philadelphia found themselves constrained by the popular movements of the Revolutionary era. The democratic vision of Tom Paine, the propensity of state legislators to pass paper money laws that favored debtors over creditors, the pervasive and rebellious spirit of Daniel Shays, and the specter of slave revolts all weighed heavily on the minds of the Philadelphia delegates. As a result, they drafted a constitution that granted coercive powers to the national government to suppress domestic rebellion and slave insurrections but that made enough democratic accommodations to ensure its ratification. Distressed yeoman farmers, tenants, artisans, laborers, debtors, and African slaves, hence, all had a presence at the Constitutional Convention even though they were not present inside the convention hall itself. Young's piece remains a wonderful reminder that elites do not rule by fiat and that people with seemingly little or no political power shape the political context in which they live. To understand events inside the halls of power, as it were, requires that we pay careful attention to people and movements outside the hall. 1
Historian Michael Perman's new study of the state-by-state campaigns to disfranchise African Americans throughout the American South by state constitutional convention at the turn of the twentieth century would have benefited from Young's insights. Perman's goal is sweeping and comprehensive: [End Page 72] to reexamine disfranchisement "in every southern state, while also placing each instance in a comparative context across the entire region" (p. 2). Perman warns us at the outset that he is interested in illuminating the process of disfranchising rather than the context in which it occurred. Such an approach, he believes, gets to the admittedly old-fashioned but fundamental questions of "who did what to whom, how and why" (p. 8). And to Perman, process means the drafting of the new state constitutions. He tells us much about the debates over how to remove large numbers of eligible voters from the political process that raged both within the convention hall and on the editorial pages of the region's newspapers. As Perman writes, "neither the rank and file of the Democratic Party nor the electorate at large, with its white and black voters, was particularly involved" in the disfranchising process (p. 328). Perman, in other words, does not cast his gaze outside the hall.
With this conceptual framework, Perman embarks on a tale of disfranchisement as first and foremost electoral history. The struggle for disfranchisement that began in the 1890s represented a distinct phase in the region's political history, one that Perman sees as a single event, as the last crisis in a century that southerners experienced as one of continuous political crisis. Perman reminds us that the counter-revolution--what historians call Redemption--that overthrew Reconstruction-era, Republican-controlled state governments in the South was actually incomplete because it left intact the electoral regime, established under Congressional Reconstruction, that enfranchised African Americans. In the twenty years following the end of Reconstruction, black voting remained central to the political life of the South, and southern Democrats had to work within an electoral system they regarded as...