Constitutional Development in Alabama, 1798-1901: A Study in Politics, the Negro, and Sectionalism

By Malcolm Cook McMillan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVIII
THE GREAT DEBATE: SUFFRAGE AND REPRESENTATION

Although, brought before the convention on other occasions, continuous debate on the reports of the suffrage committee began on July 23 and lasted through August 3.1 The debates opened with the gallery full and "over in the south-east corner quite a large group of negroes sat through the proceedings," reported the Montgomery Advertiser.2 The majority report was ably supported by the president of the convention, the chairman of the suffrage committee, most of the members of that committee, and others. The four members of the suffrage committee who signed the minority report were joined in opposition to the grandfather clause or other parts of the majority report on the floor of the convention by Robert J. Lowe, chairman of the Democratic State Executive Committee, ex-Governor Thomas G. Jones, and others. Six of the eleven days of continuous debate on the suffrage reports were spent in debate on the temporary plan of the majority--including the soldiers, grandfather or descendants, and good character and understanding clauses. These debates disclose the complexity of the motives for the disfranchising movement not only in Alabama but throughout the South. They reveal with equal frankness the status of the Negro in Southern society and various attitudes toward the Negro and the poor white-- as well as a distinct sectionalism within the state which had so long been a force in Alabama's history. The discussions constitute a commentary on the conscience of the South, "the central theme" of its history, and its abnegation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. They are a testimonial to the guilt of both races as to the prevalence of fraud at the ballot box, its effect on the morals of the people, and of the desire of the majority (although many differed as to methods or temporary compromises that were necessary for ratification purposes) to restrict the suffrage to the "intelligent and the virtuous." Only in part, of course, can the debates be used within the confines of this chapter.

Again and again during the course of the convention, delegates testified to the prevalence of frauds in Alabama's election system in various

____________________
1
See Official Proceedings, II, 2709-III, 3456. A caucus of Democratic delegates (called at the request of 64 delegates) refused to debate the suffrage issue in a closed caucus of only the Democratic members, although J. Thomas Heflin and others did not wish "to wash dirty party linen in public." Montgomery Advertiser, July 13, 16, 1901.
2
Montgomery Advertiser, July 24, 1901.

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