“A Sacrifice on the Altar of Slavery”: Doughface Politics and Black Disenfranchisement in Pennsylvania, 1837–1838


This essay places the 1838 disfranchisement of black Pennsylvanians in the context of the sectional crisis sparked by the abolitionist mailings and Gag Rule debates in order to understand the motivations of “doughface” politicians (“northern men of southern principles”). Historians have generally understood the process of black disfranchisement in the early republic as a byproduct of the democratization of white suffrage and the hardening of racial thought. However, Pennsylvania does not fit within this traditional model. The disfranchisement of black Pennsylvanians was not accompanied by an expansion of suffrage among whites and racist arguments were insufficient to create a majority in favor of black disfranchisement. Initially the defenders of black suffrage successfully used appeals to the ideals of the American Revolution and arguments about the potential for black uplift to defeat disfranchisement proposals. But as controversy over abolitionism flared in Congress, the national implications of black suffrage became clear. Congressmen and southern newspapers equated black suffrage with radical abolitionism and called on Pennsylvanians to remove the “dark blot” of black suffrage. Doughfaced Pennsylvanians claimed to abhor slavery while portraying abolitionists as fanatics who might unintentionally destroy the Union and arguing that black suffrage should be sacrificed for the greater good of sectional harmony and the perpetuation of the Union. These arguments eventually swayed virtually all Democrats and a significant number of Whigs and Anti-Masons. Thus black disfranchisement in Pennsylvania grew out of the national sectional tension rather than local racism or a byproduct of white suffrage expansion.