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Background // Wartime Reconstruction // South and North, 1865
District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Early Proposals

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency.  Republicans initially believed they could work productively with Johnson, even though he was a Southern Democrat.  Radical Charles Sumner remarked in May that “on the question of colored suffrage the President is with us.”  That positive assessment of President Johnson was apparent in the May 27, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly, in which editor George William Curtis designated black voting rights “The Main Question.” 

The editor rejected Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case (1857) that blacks were not citizens of the United States.  Curtis argued that access to the ballot was a right of citizenship, not a privilege, explaining that most states had allowed blacks to vote in the early years of the republic, and tracing their disfranchisement to the parallel expansion of the government’s protection of slavery.  With the official end of slavery near, the editor emphasized the practical necessity of enfranchising black men so that they could secure other rights and liberties.  “Are those who were willing to sell other men’s children likely to shrink from forbidding those men to learn to read or to bear arms?”  

Curtis’s comments were prophetic:  by the end of the year, Southern states had begun enacting Black Codes, which severely restricted the liberties of the newly freed slaves.  To those who insisted that voting qualifications fell under states’ rights, the editor reminded his readers that the former Confederate states would be reorganized only under the authority of the federal government.  That view, however, would not be shared by a majority of Republicans until almost a year later.  As an answer to doubters, Curtis proposed a constitutional amendment “making every native and properly naturalized citizen, if unconvicted of crime, a voter.” 

During the summer of 1865, President Johnson began implementing his Reconstruction policy.  It included the stipulation that high-ranking or wealthy ex-Confederates personally petition him for pardons, but no requirement of enfranchising black men.  Thomas Nast responded with a double-page cartoon in the August 5 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  On the first page, entitled “Pardon,” Columbia looks with dismay at the former Confederates petitioning for pardons and asks, “Shall I trust these men”; on the second page, entitled “Franchise,” she stands with her hand on a wounded black Union veteran and a ballot box behind her, completing the question with:  “and not this man?”

The petitioners kneeling in the foreground of “Pardon” are (right-left):  State Representative Roger Pryor of Confederate Virginia, holding a petition on the far right; General Robert E. Lee, lowering the battle standard; Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, holding a petition; former Confederate Secretary of State and General Robert Toombs, behind Stephens’s head; the mustachioed Admiral Raphael Semmes, former commander of the Alabama naval ship, who kneels behind Stephens’s back; General Richard Ewell, behind Semmes; John Letcher, the ex-governor of Confederate Virginia, wearing glasses on the far left; and, General John Bell Hood, behind Ewell.

Despite Johnson’s refusal to make black voting rights part of his Reconstruction policy, editor Curtis continued to give the president the benefit of the doubt.  In the November 4, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly, an editorial contrasted Johnson’s support of gradual enfranchisement of veteran, literate, and propertied black men in the president’s home state of Tennessee with former Postmaster General Montgomery Blair’s endorsement of colonizing black Americans to foreign lands. 

While no Southern state reconstructing under President Johnson’s plan enfranchised black men, white voters in three Northern states—Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—and the territory of Colorado also rejected the reform in 1865.  Before Connecticut’s referendum, Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis urged each voter to “remember that the question upon which he is to vote is the most fundamental one in the country.  Do you believe the Declaration of Independence … that men are created with equal rights…?”  The referendum was defeated 55%-45%, losing in seven of eight counties, according to the October 14, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly.  (The exception was Windham County in the northeast corner of the state.)  The defeats were similar in Minnesota and Wisconsin:  55%-45% and 54%-46%, respectively.  In the December 2, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly, Curtis pointed out that while the failure to enfranchise black men in Northern states was “a pitiful disgrace,” it was not a question of “national welfare,” as it was in the South, where the exclusion of black voters meant control of the political process by former Confederates.  

White reformers like Curtis were not the only voices calling for black voting rights.  After the war, the civil rights activism of Frederick Douglass and the National Equal Rights League spread to the South.  In 1865 and 1866, hundreds of delegates attended black conventions in the Southern states.  The conventions condemned anti-black violence and demanded equal rights, with their central concerns being equality under the law and voting rights.  George William Curtis lauded their efforts in the lead editorial of the December 16, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  May 27, 1865, p. 322
editorial, c. 1-4, “The Main Question”

2)  August 5, 1865, pp. 488-489
cartoon, “Pardon/Franchise”

3)  November 4, 1865, p. 691, c. 1
editorial, “A Difference”

4)  September 30, 1865, p. 610, c. 2-3
editorial, “The ‘Steady Habit’ of Equal Rights”

5)  October 14, 1865, p. 643, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column, “News Items”

6)  December 2, 1865, p. 755, c. 2
editorial, “The Suffrage”

7)  December 16, 1865, p. 786, c. 1-2
editorial, “Convention of the Other Color” 

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Background // Wartime Reconstruction // South and North, 1865
District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Early Proposals





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