- Between Freedom and Bondage: Race, Party, and Voting Rights in the Antebellum North
Christopher Malone has read widely and deeply in the historiography of politics and African Americans in the antebellum Northeast to produce this thoughtful attempt to explain why—or why not—white majorities in northern states moved to disenfranchise African Americans in the period between 1820 and the Civil War. Malone provides a very good synthesis of the secondary sources on race and politics in four states: New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. He refrains from mashing these four separate stories together and, more carefully, tells each narrative of black disenfranchisement or enfranchisement one after the other. To tie the four cases together, Malone, a political scientist, offers an overarching argument: that white majorities in northern states disenfranchised black minorities when three conditions were present in the economy, politics, and discourse of that state. First, there must have been economic competition between poor whites and poor blacks. Second, there must have been a party that saw political advantage in making an issue of black suffrage. Third, the discourse of racial ascriptivism must have become more dominant in local culture than the discourse of racial paternalism. If any of these three conditions were not met, Malone argues, attempts to disenfranchise African Americans would not succeed.
Malone lays out this argument and connects it to the historiography of voting rights and race in chapter 1, which serves as an introduction. In chapters 2 and 3, on New York and Pennsylvania, respectively, he tests it. In New York, which imposed a special property qualification of $250 on black voters in 1821, and in Pennsylvania, which outright barred black suffrage in 1838, each of Malone’s three conditions for black disenfranchisement were met. In each case, blacks and whites competed for jobs. In early 1820s New York, Bucktail Republicans knew [End Page 657] that black voters were overwhelmingly opposed to them. In late 1830s Pennsylvania, Jacksonian Democrats had experienced electoral defeats that were made possible by black voters who voted Whig. Finally, in each case, Malone scours primary sources from the states’ constitutional conventions and finds delegates making arguments both for racial “paternalism,” that whites need to help blacks, and for racial “ascriptivism,” that blacks are unalterably different from whites and not worthy to vote. In both cases, Malone judges the winner of this paternalist–ascriptivist debate by who won the convention votes. In both cases, as we know, the conventions voted to rescind most or all black suffrage rights.
In chapters 4 and 5, on Rhode Island and Massachusetts, respectively, events play out very differently than in the first two cases. Malone presents Massachusetts as the “‘Exception’ to the Rule” in that racial paternalism never lost its dominance, even among Democrats in the state (143). Indeed, Malone presents chapter 5 as the history of a “nonevent” in that there was no climactic debate over black suffrage in Massachusetts (150). But Rhode Island also seems to defy Malone’s argument. In Rhode Island, the legislature rescinded black voting rights in 1822, an act for which Malone and other scholars can find little explanation in the primary sources. African American community leaders protested this continuously in the following decades, and black suffrage became a significant issue during the Dorr War of 1841–43. During this famous conflict over property restrictions on voting in the state, two competing constitutional conventions in 1841 both denied blacks the right to vote. Malone covers the so-called “People’s Convention” in great detail, and shows it to be similar to the conventions in New York and Pennsylvania in that it was divided over the question of black suffrage, but voted in the end to bar black suffrage while expanding white suffrage. Only after armed conflict, in which black militia opposed the “People’s Constitution” as extralegal, did a third constitutional convention, in 1843, vote to grant blacks the franchise on the same terms as whites, while imposing a stiff property requirement on immigrants. Malone interprets this...