RECAP: “The First Reconstruction,” with Franklin & Marshall Prof. of History Van Gosse

The great fallacy of scholarship on the origins of American politics, Franklin & Marshall Professor of History Van Gosse noted in opening his October 15 colloquium at the Kinder Institute, is the idea that, at the time of the founding, only propertied white men could vote. No! In New Jersey, for example, women could vote from 1776-1807, and this was not by way of accident or anomaly, but was a very deliberate institutional choice. And as Prof. Gosse explores in his 2020 UNC Press book, The First Reconstruction, at every point between ratification and 1860, Black men likewise went to the polls, and engaged actively in party politics, in counties, cities, and states across the growing U.S. Lincoln alluded to this in his lament of the Dred Scott decision, but only got it half-right; where he said that Black men ratified the Constitution in five of the thirteen former colonies, the number was actually ten (only Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia had racial qualifications for suffrage).

If this latter fact has long been ignored by the vast majority of historians, it was in no way lost on residents of the antebellum U.S. In particular, enslavers and their allies noticed it all the time and everywhere, often taking to the newspapers to summon and rebuke Black suffrage as a way to discredit political opponents or galvanize supporters. As for why this has been understudied—in truth, more or less unacknowledged—Prof. Gosse offered a pair of answers. On one hand, we can think of it as an unconscious collaboration of liberal and radical historians. For the former (see: Arthur Schlesinger, Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz), not noticing Black men voting allows them to think of the white republic as a regrettable facet of an otherwise progressive history. For the latter (see: Alexander Saxton, David Roediger), overlooking it supports the notion of a monolithically white republic that defines the nature of the country. The idea of a racialized, violently discriminatory white republic, Prof. Gosse emphasized, is very real. That said, he continued, it’s by no means a totalizing fact but rather something that was challenged throughout the antebellum period by Black men and white allies who embraced a nonracial idea of America (in addition to opposing slavery).

In terms of the other explanation for why we harbor a certain blindness to pre-Civil War Black suffrage, Prof. Gosse argued that, even when historians have taken note of Black men’s political participation—as, for example, Leon Litwack did in his foundational 1965 monograph, North of Slavery—they’ve often just as quickly dismissed this participation as not worth counting: irrelevant because of its numerical insignificance-bordering-on-invisibility. It’s this explanation that The First Reconstruction—expanding on the work done in a select few, site-specific scholarly studies on the subject—pushes vehemently back against. If, as Prof. Gosse did in the remainder of his talk, we train our focus on states or, in some cases, regions, we can see how Black men voted in numbers that not only swayed elections but also shaped party strategies.

Pennsylvania: In what Prof. Gosse described as a “strange, antique place” made up of 19th-century micro-regions, Pennsylvania suffrage was entirely localized and determined at the county level, which yielded a fascinatingly patchwork, uneven history. Some counties never enfranchised Black men. Black men, though able at some points in time to vote, very rarely did so in Philadelphia (proof of the unreliabile, reductive nature of any myth of metropolitan political hegemony). But at the same time, Black men made up a key voting constituency in a number of rural counties, helping, for example, Whigs sweep Bucks Co. in 1837 by margins narrow enough that it spurred a statewide movement to disenfranchise Black voters that was driven not by racial ideology but instead by naked party politics.

Upper New England (i.e., Massachusetts and North): It wasn’t simply that Black men voted in New England for the entirety of the period that Prof. Gosse’s book explores. It’s more that, particularly in port towns where abolitionism flourished alongside market capitalism, Black men made up a distinct, and distinctly powerful, economic and political class. They functioned symbiotically with Boston’s Brahmin upper-class. They controlled the waterfront in Portland, ME—as well as wards around it—to the degree that they were receiving patronage positions in local government as early as the 1820s. And New Bedford was something of a fortress of Black political power and wealth, where Black men formed an autonomous voting bloc that moved between parties, issuing critical endorsements and splitting votes, based on interest and favor. The New England exception, at least for a matter of two decades, was Rhode Island, which followed Connecticut and New York’s lead by disenfranchising Black men in 1822, only to re-enfranchise them in 1842 as Democrats fought to loosen white suffrage so to include Irish immigrants.

New York: From 1800-1815, New York was a portrait of Black political dynamism, as Black men made up a large, mobilized, militant political community in the contentious hotbed of the Hudson Vally. From Van Rensselaer to Burr, Federalists courted (and counted on) the Black vote, which swung countywide elections as the party briefly surged back into power after Jefferson’s Embargo. As in Pennsylvania in 1837-38, assertions of Black political power led to disenfranchisement via freehold property requirements in 1821—the doing of Martin Van Buren—though the battle to regain the vote would begin in 1837 and Black men increasingly entered the state political arena throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, effectively becoming a formidable sub-machine of Sewardite Republicans.

Ohio: Though never a slave society, Ohio’s state constitution came as close as possible to disenfranchising Black men via denizenship and black laws. Starting in 1823, however, and continuing through 1860, the Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly, unequivocally confirmed that to be white was simply to be preponderantly white, making thousands of mixed-race men white under the law, elevating them higher than in any other state.

Whether in Maine or Ohio, the shared ideology of Black republicanism—premised largely on birthright citizenship, orthodox Protestantism, and military service—was a direct one, perhaps summarized best by Frederick Douglass: “Again, we are Americans, just like you except for this accident of complexion.”