Race, Politics, and Patronage: John Edward Bruce and the Republican Party

Article excerpt

On September 8, 1879, The Weekly Argus boasted that it was "Republican at all times and under all circumstances." Despite the Great Compromise with the South nearly two years earlier, John Edward Bruce, co-owner and associate editor of the paper, believed the destiny and welfare of African America was tied to the Republican Party. Bruce's conclusion was a mixture of political opportunism and Republican loyalty. The Weekly Argus, founded by Bruce to promote Republican candidates and party leaders, received financial support from the GOP during the 1880 campaign. Bruce sold his interest in this publication to a stock company in 1881, but his allegiance to the Republican Party remained unquestioned. This, however, would change in 1883.(2)

During the first fifteen months of Chester Arthur's administration, Black Republicans became disillusioned with the new President's policies. William E. Chandler, Secretary of the Navy and future Senator from New Hampshire, directed the administration's southern strategy, crafting a policy that gave lip service to protecting Black rights while supporting an assortment of lily-white independent Movements. The Arthur administration also fostered Black exclusion among southern Republicans. "Negro officials," the President declared, "do not help the party as much as white officials." But this challenge to Bourbon supremacy not only ignored respected African American leaders, but quickly diminished any hopes of Black patronage appointments.(3)

As the Republican establishment distanced itself from Black party loyalists, the national commitment to racial equality also eroded. After 1880, mob violence and lynching became alarmingly common throughout the South. Northerners and their elected representatives questioned any form of federal intervention in southern affairs. Radical Republicans were vilified by the country and sectional controversy over the race question avoided, as white public sentiment wanted to "bury the bloody shirt" and reconcile the differences between the North and South. In addition, during this period of a boom in the nation's railroad system and explosion in industrialization; America's energy concentrated on uniting the country and increasing its material welfare. The status of Black citizens became a negotiable factor in the reunification and economic advancement of the United States.(4)

By 1883 these developments fueled a thriving debate among Black leaders and intellectuals on the merits of political independence, the relationship of the Republican party to the African American community, and a demand for an equitable share of political patronage and leadership positions. For the next thirty-seven years, John Edward Bruce was an articulate and passionate participant in this dialogue. He authored myriad articles and speeches about the Republican Party while recording his observations on race relations and the American political scene. Bruce's struggle with Republican politics reflected a blend of personal ambition, and political vacillation, as well as an attempt to prevent the gradual deterioration of Black political power and the value of citizenship.(5)

What was the nature of Bruce's relationship with the Republican Party? How did he view the Democratic opposition? What was his interpretation of Black independent movements? How did he participate in the efforts to prevent the deterioration of Black political influence? What was the outcome of Bruce's quest for a patronage appointment? How did he use his journalistic skills to promote personal ambitions within the party? This article will address those questions and chart Bruce's long sojourn in the Republican Party.

Between 1874 and 1882, John Bruce entered Republican politics while carving out a career in journalism. A young and ambitious man in his twenties, Bruce had grown up listening to Black Republican partisans, such as Martin Delany and Henry Highland Garnet, debating public policy in his cousin's boarding house. …