The history of black American voting rights is much more complex than we often think. It’s generally held that black people simply could not vote prior to the Civil War, then were able to for a few years before the Jim Crow laws barred most until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Such a simple explanation isn’t just historically inaccurate, it disregards the nuances of race relations within both the North and the South throughout our history.
This piece will generally focus upon the first century of United States history, including the Constitutional period when many black Americans lost their right to vote, and the Antebellum era when many more lost the right. We’ll briefly look at the Civil War, during which the black vote was again considered upon a national level, and finally Reconstruction, when the right was given by the Federal government, before being taken away by many of the states.
While the history of the black vote is more obvious in the South, it was much more dynamic in the North. Because of this, the focus will be upon the more Northerly states, with mentions of Southern states for comparison.
The Constitutional Period — 1776 to 1790
The voting restrictions upon free blacks were late in coming in the Colonial Era. In fact, by the time of the Revolution, all qualified men of any race or religion could vote in all but three of the colonies. Though the right was first stripped from black colonials in 1715 by North Carolina, it was returned by order of King George II. He did not, however, see fit to return the right when South Carolina banned it a year later. 1Cortlandt Field Bishop History of Elections in the American Colonies, Volume 3 (Columbia College: New York, 1893) 51-52. Though it teetered now and then, neither was it returned in Virginia – a colony which had already barred any non-whites from holding office – in 1723. Georgia, too, disfranchised black colonials, ruling in 1761 for limiting voting rights to white men who owned fifty or more acres of land. 2Samuel Abrahams, “Negro Suffrage in Colonial America” The Crisis, February 1970, 50. This is a fine article on this entire era – well worth reading here.
Through the American Revolution and until the Constitution was fully ratified, the colonies-turned-states basically stuck to the same laws, especially concerning voting. Once the Federal government was established, however, a shift began to occur. The United States Constitution, as it was in 1790, had nothing at all to say in relation to who could and could not vote. This right was left up to the individual states to decide.
The New England states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont never made any laws discriminating against the rights of free black men to vote.
The Initial Reversal — 1790 to 1811
In this light, Delaware, through their 1792 Constitution, was the first state to keep blacks from voting, joining the southern states of South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, which had already outlawed it as colonies. 3Though Georgia seems to never have specifically outlawed the black vote, there’s no record of any black people being allowed to vote in the state. While the original thirteen states remained otherwise still, in 1799 the newly-adopted state of Kentucky allowed “every free male citizen (negroes, mulattoes and Indians excepted)” the right to vote. 4Kentucky Constitution of 1799, Article II, Section 8.
Kentucky’s neighbor, Tennessee, entered the Union in 1796, with its constitution following North Carolina’s. It actually allowed “every free man of the age of twenty-one years and upwards” to vote in elections. 5Tennessee Constitution of 1796, Article III, Section 1. On the other hand, Ohio, achieving statehood in 1803, immediately made sure that black men had no such rights. Only “white male inhabitants above the age of twenty-one years” enjoyed the right to vote. 6Ohio Constitution of 1803, Article IV, Section 1.
Between the adoption of Tennessee and Ohio, some of the original colonies began to rethink their stance on black people voting. The first of this lot to do so was Maryland, who outlawed the right of nonwhite suffrage in 1801. Prior to that, the state constitution allowed all free men to vote.7Laws of Maryland, Volume III (Baltimore: Philip H. Nicklin & Col., 1811) 53. This came after a black American horse doctor named Thomas Brown ran for one of the two seats allotted to Baltimore in the House of Delegates during the 1792 election. Brown’s bid was unsuccessful, but was not contested upon legal grounds. 8Benjamin Quarles Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) 62.
New Jersey was the next to fall. Curiously, the state had allowed not only black men to vote, but both white and black women as well. The original 1776 Constitution of New Jersey granted the vote to “all inhabitants . . . worth fifty pounds proclamation money.” Through the Revolution until 1807, New Jersey’s women fell across the whole spectrum of political ideologies. These were the only women across the entire nation who had this right.
In New Jersey, through the 1790s, likely due to the influence of Quakers, the right to vote was expanded to anyone of any race, sex or religion who paid taxes. By the early 1800s, voter turnout among women and blacks had greatly increased. However, there came wide speculation of voter fraud, with women and black people receiving most of the blame. Though women often voted contrary to their husbands, it was proclaimed that they simply voted as they were instructed. 9Joan N. Burstyn Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women (Syracuse University Press, 1997) 4. This was used as an excuse to revoke the right from both women and black citizens. In 1807, New Jersey ruled that “it is highly necessary to the safety, quiet, good order and dignity of the state” to bar “aliens, females, and persons of color, or negroes” the right to vote. 10Acts of New Jersey, 1807, 14-17.
New York followed New Jersey, when in 1811 it too effectively barred blacks from voting. They required free black males to carry “a certificate of his freedom” that could only be obtained by visiting two different administrative offices and paying two different and expensive fees. This was on top of the property requirements subjected to by all citizens. 11David N. Gellman, David Quigley, ed. Jim Crow New York: A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship, 1777-1877 (New York University Press, 2003) 65.
The Influx of New States — 1812 to 1821
With the 1810s and early 1820s came the adoption of Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri. Though the southern slave states were paired with more northerly free states to counter each others influence on the Federal level, none but Maine allowed black men the right to vote – though not without a fight.
There was an attempt during Maine’s Constitutional convention in October of 1819 to exclude black Mainers from taxation on the same basis of which Native Americans were excluded. This would also have excluded them from voting rights. Speeches were made arguing against such a decision, both relying upon the idea that “‘all men’ (without regard to colors) are born equally free and independent.” 12Debates, Resolutions, and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates, Maine (Portland: A. Shirley, Printer, 1820) 92. In the end, the constitution allowed “every male citizen” to be an elector. 13Maine Constitution of 1819, Article II, Section 1.
The southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri, controlled their black population through slavery, the threat of slavery, and strict black codes. The idea of non-white people voting wasn’t even entertained. Indiana and Illinois simply barred nearly all black people from their borders. If you were black and wished to move to either of those states, a certificate guaranteeing good behavior had to be obtained at the cost of $500 to $1,000. Illinois enacted this almost immediately, while Indiana took a little over a decade to settle upon such a course. Both were following Ohio’s lead, which had been doing the same from nearly their founding. Prior to the 1850s, the territories of Michigan, Iowa, and Oregon would enact likewise. 14Leon F. Litwack North of Slavery (University of Chicago Press, 1961) 70.
Reconsidering the Vote — 1818 to 1835
In 1822, the year after Missouri’s admission to the Union, Rhode Island, one of the original thirteen states, after forty-six years, finally decided to do away with the black vote. New York had recently reviewed their laws, and concluded that even with the property restrictions, too many black New Yorkers were voting. This led to new legal requirements for blacks and less for whites. Rhode Island took it a step farther by redefining the term “freeman” to mean only white male adults. As we’ll see, however, this prohibition would be short-lived. 15Hanes Walton, Jr. The African American Electorate (CQ Press, 2012) 138.
Black males in Tennessee had enjoyed the right to vote since their state had joined the Union in 1796. Thirty-eight years later, in the summer of 1834, the state held a constitutional convention in order to pass several amendments. Proposals both favoring and denying black suffrage were put forward. Tennessee, being always a state heavily divided, was itself divided upon this issue.
Even the argument against the black vote in Tennessee was suspiciously conciliatory, allowing for black men currently living within the state to retain the right, but barring it from all new comers, lest it make “the state an asylum for free negroes.” The argument in favor of the black vote was equally lackadaisical. Blacks had, wondered the supporters, “exercised it for thirty-eight years under the present constitution, without any evil ever having grown out of it,” so why change it now?
The arguments in Tennessee continued through June and July of 1834. By the middle of summer an amendment had been decided upon. If finalized, it would allow “every free man of the age of twenty-one years and upwards” to vote. Seemingly, this would include black Tennesseans. But when the document as a whole was gone over by the convention, a delegate moved that the word “white” be inserted after the word “free” so that it might read “every free white man.” Black citizens were thus denied the right to vote by a margin of 33 to 23. A last minute effort was made to at least continue the right to vote for black men who had already voted in Tennessee, but that was defeated by the same margin. 16Caleb Perry Patterson “The Negro in Tennessee, 1790-1865: A Study in Southern Politics” University of Texas Bulletin February 1922, 168-173.
Just as Tennessee’s support for black suffrage was largely divided among geographic lines, so too was North Carolina’s. Like in Tennessee, black male citizens of North Carolina had voted since its statehood in 1789. But support for equal rights was dwindling in eastern counties of the state where slave-holding was much more prevalent. It was not only the “negro question” that was dividing this state, but nearly every other question as well.
In North Carolina, the arguments in favor of the black vote were somewhat embarrassing to the more gentile class. It was held that the majority of free blacks during the colonial period were in actuality the children of white women, and “therefore entitled to all the rights of free men.” There was, of course, a plea to morality, fearing that disfranchisement would only lower the status of free blacks to basically slaves.
Because of this, it was proposed that free black men be allowed to vote if they owned $500 worth of property. But even this could not sway the majority, which voted 64 to 55 to strip all blacks of their right to suffrage. 17John Hope Franklin The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 1943) 113-115.
A Decade of Reversals — 1836 to 1846
As the states of Arkansas and Michigan were adopted into the Union, the former was a slave state and the latter was free. Both, however, had denied black Americans the right to vote even before attaining statehood. For Arkansas, even though the state had a handful of free blacks, manumission was illegal, so the right to vote was hardly an issue. Michigan, as previously noted, by 1827 had simply denied most blacks the right to even live in the territory. The state constitution of 1835 barred suffrage to those few blacks who could live in the state. When this was challenged in 1850, that right was again denied. For a time, many whites joined in with the growing number of black people to demand equal voting rights, but as the decades wore on and racism grew more intense, the only people striving for such rights were, for the most part, black. 18Walton, 152.
In this midst, Pennsylvania was finally ready to deny its black citizens the right to vote – the last of the original thirteen states to do so. Leading up to this decision was a complete break down of race relations in Philadelphia (as the state hardly had a black population outside of the city). Racial prejudice, which was growing across the nation, was fanned by riots that shook the city in 1834. Three years later, black voter turnout was so great that it defeated a Bucks County commissioner. Rather than admit the loss, he took his seat anyway, complaining that blacks had voted for his opponent, which he deemed contrary to the law. Additionally, a candidate running for state congress who garnered black support came within twelve votes of actually winning.
With the fear of black equality looming large, bigoted Pennsylvanians became determined to strike back. In the spring and summer of 1837, a constitutional convention was held and the subject debated. Nothing could be decided upon until winter. Because of this lag, the public became involved, both sides petitioning the delegates for or against suffrage. The majority of the public across the state gave in to their prejudicial fears and wished to deny the vote to blacks. While this emboldened the black community, it also emboldened the delegates who wished to strip the rights away from black Pennsylvanians. Finally in January of 1838, the convention voted, denying the right of suffrage to blacks by a vote of 77 to 45. 19Ibid., 137.
And thus, Pennsylvania became the last state to take the previously-held right away from its black citizens. By 1838, only three of the original thirteen colonies (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont) still allowed blacks to vote. At the dawn of the nation, only three had denied it (South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia).
The Northwest — 1845 to 1867
Though Pennsylvania was the last state to revoke the right, it was hardly the last state to deny it from its founding. Starting in 1845 with the admission of Florida, ten states would be welcomed into the fold with precisely none of them allowing their black citizens voting rights. For slave states, such as Florida (1845) and Texas (1845), this was hardly a shock. But the remaining eight were all free states, including Iowa (1846), Wisconsin (1848), California (1850), Minnesota (1858), Oregon (1859), Kansas (1861), West Virginia (1863), and Nevada (1864).
Iowa, as mentioned previously, had barred black people from living within its borders. There was virtually no abolitionist movement in the state, and while some white Iowans were more accepting of the right to vote, most never considered it as an option. The state constitution, adopted in 1844, limited voting rights to white men only.
This was not exactly the case in Wisconsin, which had seen a growing abolitionist movement. The majority of white people were still against equal rights, but the right to vote was more hotly contested. The state legislature voted in 1847 to send the question to the people. Like many states before them, Wisconsin was divided along geographic lines. The former-Southerners, Germans and Scandinavians in the western counties voted against black suffrage, while those who had moved from New England and New York voted in favor. Still, it was not enough, and the vote was lost by a margin of 2 to 1.
Wisconsin’s trials were not yet over. Though the public decided against the black vote, they had not approved a constitution, and a second convention was called. This time, the delegates decided to allow the legislature to again give the people the right to decide the issue. This came to fruition in 1849, narrowly passing by 1,000 or so votes – due mostly to poor voter turn out. Thus, Wisconsin lazily wandered its way into something resembling equal rights. 20Theodore Clarke Smith The Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897) 332-333.
California found itself far too busy trying to keep free blacks out of their state to even bring up the possibility of black suffrage during its convention. They borrowed from Iowa’s constitution, extending the right to only white male citizens. 21Cardinal Goodwin The Establishment of State Government in California 1846-1850 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1914) 219.
By 1858, when Minnesota was about to be admitted to the Union, the national debate over slavery had come to a near boil. Kansas had erupted into civil war, and the Supreme Court had ruled that Dred Scott was not a citizen as he was, instead, a “negro.” This is likely why black people were singled out and completely disfranchised. The Minnesota constitution allowed American whites, foreign whites, and even Native Americans the right to vote, but denied that right to blacks. 22Minnesota Constitution of 1858, Article VII, Section 1.
Oregon followed a similar path, but gave only white males the right. Their constitution specifically stated that “No negro, Chinaman, or Mulatto shall have the right of suffrage.” Additionally, it barred the “Chinaman” from owning property, though they were still allowed to reside in the state. Free black Americans and those of mixed race were actually barred from even entering the state, what to speak of voting, living or even working there. 23Oregon Constitution of 1859, Article II, Section 2; Article XV, Section 8; Article I, Section 35.
During the Civil War, three states were admitted into the Union – Kansas in 1861, West Virginia in 1863, and Nevada in 1864. Blacks were denied the right to vote in all three. The constitutional histories of both Kansas and West Virginia are too broad for this piece, but while blacks were free in each, they could vote in neither. Nevada, with so few black people, nevertheless barred them from not only voting, but from attending public schools and testifying in court. 24Nevada Constitution of 1864, Article II, Section 1; Laws, 1864-1865, p426, Section 50.
It was also during this period when several states allowed their white citizens to decide upon the question of black suffrage via a referendum. Beginning in 1846 with New York and continuing through 1868 with Missouri, eleven states held twenty-one different referendums. 25New York (3 referendums), Wisconsin (4), Michigan (3), Iowa (2), Minnesota (3), Illinois (1), Connecticut (1), Kansas (1), Ohio (1), New Jersey (1), and Missouri (1). The black vote was denied in all but Minnesota in 1868 and Michigan in 1870 – narrowly beating the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment. Wisconsin citizens approved the vote in 1849, but it was basically vetoed by the governor, who claimed that he couldn’t understand the results. Following the Civil War, eight territories held similar referendums with only the Dakota Territory approving the black vote. 26Colorado, Washington DC, Nebraska, Dakota, Washington, Idaho, Montana 27Data from Walton, 147.
A Few (Almost) Second Thoughts – The Fifteenth Amendment of 1870
Following the Civil War, it became clear that black Americans would soon receive the right to vote. In the Reconstructed legislatures of the formerly-seceded states, black males gained the vote in 1867 and 1869. All of the eleven states that seceded from the United States granted blacks the right to vote prior to the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed equal voting rights across the nation. This was, of course, due to the progressive Republican state governments. 28Data collected from Franklin Johnson The Development of State Legislation Concerning the Free Negro (The Arbor Press, 1919). It’s an incredibly handy resource.
In 1866, a year prior to its adoption into the Union, Nebraska Territory gave the vote to only “free white” men. The next year, the modifier was struck out and it entered the United States with the enfranchisement of its small black population. Though it was only for a short two years, the state of Nebraska joined Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine as the fourth state to give the vote to African-Americans from its founding. 29Nebraska Constitution of 1866, Article VII; Laws, 1867, 20.
The story of the Fifteenth Amendment is better studied elsewhere. Its ratification, obviously important, had little effect on the states wishing to give their black citizens the right to vote. Those states that wished to do so, did so up until the last minute before its passing. Those states that refused to grant the vote unless forced to do so, held out until the bitter end.
States such as Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, and New York had refused from nearly the founding of the nation to extend equal rights to all men (what to speak of women). These states had to be dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the era of the Black Vote. The entire South, of course, largely refused until the Reconstruction governments were in place.
Unfortunately, this era would be short-lived. Reconstruction was defeated with capitulation, allowing mostly Southern states to usher in the Jim Crow era, where voting rights for blacks were crippled and lynchings took the place of the ballot box. In the United States, women would be given the right to vote four decades before all black American citizens would finally be re-enfranchised with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||Cortlandt Field Bishop History of Elections in the American Colonies, Volume 3 (Columbia College: New York, 1893) 51-52.|
|2.||⇡||Samuel Abrahams, “Negro Suffrage in Colonial America” The Crisis, February 1970, 50. This is a fine article on this entire era – well worth reading here.|
|3.||⇡||Though Georgia seems to never have specifically outlawed the black vote, there’s no record of any black people being allowed to vote in the state.|
|4.||⇡||Kentucky Constitution of 1799, Article II, Section 8.|
|5.||⇡||Tennessee Constitution of 1796, Article III, Section 1.|
|6.||⇡||Ohio Constitution of 1803, Article IV, Section 1.|
|7.||⇡||Laws of Maryland, Volume III (Baltimore: Philip H. Nicklin & Col., 1811) 53.|
|8.||⇡||Benjamin Quarles Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) 62.|
|9.||⇡||Joan N. Burstyn Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women (Syracuse University Press, 1997) 4.|
|10.||⇡||Acts of New Jersey, 1807, 14-17.|
|11.||⇡||David N. Gellman, David Quigley, ed. Jim Crow New York: A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship, 1777-1877 (New York University Press, 2003) 65.|
|12.||⇡||Debates, Resolutions, and Other Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates, Maine (Portland: A. Shirley, Printer, 1820) 92.|
|13.||⇡||Maine Constitution of 1819, Article II, Section 1.|
|14.||⇡||Leon F. Litwack North of Slavery (University of Chicago Press, 1961) 70.|
|15.||⇡||Hanes Walton, Jr. The African American Electorate (CQ Press, 2012) 138.|
|16.||⇡||Caleb Perry Patterson “The Negro in Tennessee, 1790-1865: A Study in Southern Politics” University of Texas Bulletin February 1922, 168-173.|
|17.||⇡||John Hope Franklin The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 1943) 113-115.|
|20.||⇡||Theodore Clarke Smith The Liberty and Free Soil Parties in the Northwest (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1897) 332-333.|
|21.||⇡||Cardinal Goodwin The Establishment of State Government in California 1846-1850 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1914) 219.|
|22.||⇡||Minnesota Constitution of 1858, Article VII, Section 1.|
|23.||⇡||Oregon Constitution of 1859, Article II, Section 2; Article XV, Section 8; Article I, Section 35.|
|24.||⇡||Nevada Constitution of 1864, Article II, Section 1; Laws, 1864-1865, p426, Section 50.|
|25.||⇡||New York (3 referendums), Wisconsin (4), Michigan (3), Iowa (2), Minnesota (3), Illinois (1), Connecticut (1), Kansas (1), Ohio (1), New Jersey (1), and Missouri (1).|
|26.||⇡||Colorado, Washington DC, Nebraska, Dakota, Washington, Idaho, Montana|
|27.||⇡||Data from Walton, 147.|
|28.||⇡||Data collected from Franklin Johnson The Development of State Legislation Concerning the Free Negro (The Arbor Press, 1919). It’s an incredibly handy resource.|
|29.||⇡||Nebraska Constitution of 1866, Article VII; Laws, 1867, 20.|