Attitudes of Northern Papers toward the Egalitarian Laws of Reconstruction

Article excerpt

Frederick Douglass' post-abolitionist campaigns aimed at influencing public opinion were designed, in large measure, to bring about legal reform.(1) This effort paid off during Reconstruction when one of the most profound constitutional reforms in U.S. history was effected with adoption of the three War Amendments as well as several major civil rights laws.(2)

But the antithesis to that emancipatory campaign had overwhelming political, economic, and cultural force. One source of this antithetical message was the newspapers of the day.(3)

This study examines press opposition to the Civil Rights Bill of 1875.(4) During the 1860s, notable pro-Republican papers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune supported the emancipatory policies championed by the Republicans and thus were often counted as allies by Douglass.(5) The friendship of these papers, however, was sorely tested during the later years of Reconstruction when the Civil Rights Bill became law. Most pro-Republican papers essentially drew a line, marking the limits of their support, at the law of 1875. Frederick Douglass was most disturbed by the editorial positions adopted by traditionally supportive newspapers, and he complained specifically about the "betrayal" by the Times and the Tribune.(6)

1875 Civil Rights Act

The end of the Civil War and the subsequent adoption of the War Amendments raised the hopes of African Americans. But the amendments, which prohibited slavery, gave citizenship rights to blacks, and conferred voting privileges on the former slaves, did little to ameliorate the status of the intended beneficiaries.(7) In much of the South, for example, blacks became targets of greater hostility from former slave owners.

Consequently, Frederick Douglass and other civil rights leaders implored Congress to "enact and provide for the enforcement of appropriate laws for the better protection of persons, property, and political rights" of the oppressed.(8)

In 1870, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced the initial version of what later became the Supplemental Civil Rights Act of 1875. This law was intended to give practical meaning to the 14th Amendment, and has been invariably described as the most important civil rights act of the 19th century.(9) It sought to improve equality for blacks by regulating the civil liberties of all citizens in the course of ordinary social interaction in public places. Although the most important clauses of the bill (on school desegregation) had been stripped away before passage,(10) the law, nevertheless, symbolized the egalitarian spirit of the Reconstruction period.

But on October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court struck the law down as unconstitutional(11) - sparking cries of despair and frustration among civil rights leaders. In expressing this frustration, Douglass wrote: "The future historian will turn to the year 1883 to find the Supreme Court of the nation defeating the manifest purpose of the Constitution, nullifying the 14th Amendment, and placing itself on the side of prejudice, proscription, and persecution."(12) He worried that the Court had rolled back some 20 year's the clock of black legal and social progress.

Influence of the 19th century press

The media played an important role in the affairs of the nation as newspapers were influential framers of public opinion during the 19th century. Journalism historian Frank Luther Mott characterized the tremendous popularity of newspapers during the second half of the century as "one of the wonders of the time."(13) He attributed this popularity to a growing interest in public affairs at a time when "the chief source of political information was the newspaper."(14) Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by what he perceived as the pervasive influence of newspapers in 19th century America - especially in terms of molding public attitudes and/or opinion.(15) In Democracy in America, he observed that:

   The press' influence in America is immense. …