National Party Competition and the
Disenfranchisement of Black Voters in the South,
DESPITE the efforts of Martin Van Buren and the other leaders of the second-party system, race emerged as the dominant issue in national party politics by the late 1850s, destroying two-party competition in the process. The rise to power of the Republican party during these years in many ways represented the antithesis of Van Buren’s vision of party politics. Unlike the Democrats between the 1820s and the 1850s, the Republicans did not make strong appeals for a cross-sectional alliance, nor did they attempt to minimize or contain the emotions and ideologies surrounding slavery. Although there is still some scholarly debate about the motives of Republican party leaders, it is undeniable that in its first decade in office the party championed the interests of abolitionists and civil rights advocates.1 For roughly five years at the end of the 1860s, Radical Republicans in Congress dominated the political agenda. They enacted a number of dramatic pieces of civil rights legislation, including the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution which abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection, and gave blacks the vote.2 Congressional Republicans enforced these amendments by disenfranchising southern whites who threatened Reconstruction efforts and by authorizing federal military troops and “Freedmen’s Bureaus” to aid and protect black citizens in the region.3
To a significant extent, the Radical Republicans in Congress acted in the absence of two-party competition. The Democratic party in the
1 For discussion of the motives of Republican party leaders, see Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).
2 The Fifteenth Amendment deals specifically with African American voting rights. In order to pass the legislation, the amendment needed to be written in a way that appeased western Republican concerns about the potential voting rights of Chinese immigrants.
3 Two of the best and most thorough summaries of the era of Reconstruction are W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935); and Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).