- Silver and Segregation
The early 1890s saw the intersection of the two most divisive political issues of the 19th century: race relations and the currency. An effort to protect the voting rights of southern blacks and another to preserve the gold standard gave rise to an alliance between Silverites and Segregationists that influenced public life in the United States well into the 20th century.
Although the Compromise of 1877 terminated Reconstruction, it did not settle the questions of what race relations and politics would look like in the postwar South. Many northern Republicans expected southern Democrats to respect the rights of African Americans, and at least a few of the latter promised to do so. African Americans often voted and, in some areas, held public office. In most southern states, the Republican Party still functioned, electing local officials, state legislators, and the occasional U.S. Representative. In the 1880s a coalition of Republicans and dissident Democrats won state elections in Virginia, and in the 1890s alliances between Republicans and Populists did the same in North Carolina and Louisiana. Nevertheless, during these years, southern Democrats often used fraud and intimidation to eject Republicans from office, and southern states enacted the first Jim Crow statutes. In 1890 a petition from blacks in Oklahoma to President Benjamin Harrison lamented that “[t]he passage of unfair laws affecting elections, labor and the landlord and tenant system, by the legislatures of southern states, has caused widespread unrest and discontent” and “produced a feeling of profound discouragement and utter dismay among Africo-American [sic] voters in the entire country.”1
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Many Republicans sympathized with the plight of southern blacks. They valued the GOP’s history as the party of freedom and recognized that the Democrats’ lock on the South made it much harder for their party to win national elections. Unfortunately, the Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for most of the 1880s, allowing them to block civil rights legislation. In 1888, however, the GOP won control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, and Republicans came to Washington with an ambitious agenda that included a voting rights bill. Senator George Hoar (R-MA) and Representative Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA) took charge of what its opponents soon dubbed the “Force Bill.” This measure provided for the appointment of federal election inspectors in any congressional district where a certain number of voters requested it. These inspectors would keep track of voting practices and election returns, and ideally, their very presence would discourage chicanery. If, however, inspectors disagreed with local or state authorities about the outcome of an election, the federal courts would decide the winner. Although less [End Page 2] sweeping than the voting rights measures of Reconstruction or the Civil Rights era—among other things, it only applied to elections to federal office—the Force Bill would have acted as a brake on the pervasive fraud and intimidation that characterized elections in the South and might have set a precedent for further action. It enjoyed strong support among rank-and-file Republicans. As a party operative in Indiana wrote, “Our people are just as anxious for the passage of new elections laws as they were for the pension bill [for veterans of the Civil War]”—a strong statement considering the central role of veterans in the GOP.2
Dissent came from those who considered themselves reformers. The only Republican senator who refused to endorse the Force Bill, Richard Pettigrew of South Dakota, was an agrarian radical who eventually joined the Populist Party. Terrance Powderly, the leader of the country’s largest labor organization, the Knights of Labor, opposed the Force Bill outright. In a printed exchange with Henry Cabot Lodge, he insisted that southern blacks suffered no more from electoral fraud than people in the North and that the secret ballot and better education would eliminate the problem altogether. Overall, Powderly gave the impression that civil rights was a nuisance that distracted reformers...