Suffrage Restriction in Post-Reconstruction Texas: Urban Politics and the Specter of the Commune

Article excerpt

STUDIES OF THE DISFRANCHISEMENT LAWS PASSED BY SOUTHERN STATES IN the post-Reconstruction decades have quite properly emphasized that, while the measures were formally color-blind, they were aimed chiefly at African American voters. Even the most cursory examination of the arguments for, and consequences of, these laws permits no other conclusion. A number of the most prominent treatments of southern disfranchisement have nevertheless argued that white voters were also targeted by some disfranchisers. The decline in white turnout that followed the imposition of poll taxes and other restrictive devices, these studies contend, was neither unanticipated nor regretted as an unpalatable but necessary means toward the end of decimating the black electorate. C. Vann Woodward and J. Morgan Kousser, for instance, have noted the partisan advantages Democrats derived from disfranchising both the black and white lower classes in the aftermath of the Populist and fusionist challenges of the 1890s. Unfortunately, such studies have devoted relatively little effort to identifying precisely who the white people in question might have been. For the most part, their authors leave readers simply to assume that suffrage restriction's white targets were the battered and cranky farmers who had filled Populist ranks. (1)

Examination of suffrage restriction efforts in Texas between the collapse of Reconstruction in 1873-74 and the passage of a poll tax restriction on the franchise in 1902-3 suggests that disfranchisers also had their eye on another set of white men--poorer men who lived in cities and towns, men who might well have regarded themselves as Democrats. This urban focus ought not to come as a surprise to students of disfranchisement. A number of important studies have located sources of suffrage restriction in southern cities. Howard N. Rabinowitz, Joseph H. Cartwright, and Don H. Doyle have stressed the ways that urban politics prompted an interest in instituting restrictive measures in cities and have noted that disfranchisement in many cases came to cities first. Yet these scholars tend to view disfranchisement in racial and partisan terms, emphasizing Democrats' desire to circumscribe the power of African American and Republican city-dwellers rather than finding in southern cities those specifically white targets that remained rather shadowy figures in Woodward's and Kousser's discussions. (2) The case of Texas suggests how these distinct themes in the scholarship of disfranchisement--suffrage restriction's white targets and its urban sources--might intertwine. It illustrates, too, how southern disfranchisement partook of a current in nineteenth-century American politics that extended beyond the region and was evident before emancipation--a current stirred by the power that propertyless voters of any color possessed where universal manhood suffrage prevailed.

Texas might not seem to have been the most fertile ground for a suffrage restriction movement, particularly one focused on containing black electoral power. Even before Reconstruction ended, Democrats enjoyed advantages that their brethren elsewhere in Dixie could only have envied. African Americans constituted less than one-third of the state's population, and Republicans had proved unable to build a sizable and enduring following among white Texans. Accordingly, after narrow and contested Radical victories in 1869, Democrats won most legislative races and every congressional race and quickly rendered the Reconstruction government little more than a lame duck--this though the Republican governor held on like grim death until an armed confrontation at the state capitol removed him from office in early 1874. (3) Contemporaries recognized, furthermore, that the state's Democratic majority seemed likely only to grow. With its vast expanses of thinly settled land and seemingly boundless agricultural and commercial opportunities, Texas attracted a steady stream of settlers, making for a population boom unmatched in other former Confederate states. …