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Reconstruction: Congress v. Johnson // District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Passage // Congressional Reconstruction // Elections, 1867 and 1868

The sweeping Republican victory in the fall elections emboldened the outgoing 39th Congress to address the suffrage issue when it reconvened in December 1866.  First on the agenda were the federal territories and the District of Columbia, for which there developed a consensus among Republicans that Congress could act directly.  The District of Columbia suffrage bill had passed the House in January 1866, but stalled in the Senate.  In December 1866, the bill was recalled for debate in the Senate.

In the December 22, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published December 12), editor George William Curtis discussed the possible enfranchisement of black men in the District of Columbia and the Southern states.  He argued that the reform was based on just principle and, in the South, practical necessity.  However, he warned that black suffrage by itself was not enough.  For one thing, he recommended the (temporary) disfranchisement of former Confederates.  He worried, too, that the literary requirement in the District suffrage bill (as it was then proposed) might become a precedent for similar legislation regarding the South.  Such a policy would keep most black men disfranchised because they had not been allowed by law in the Southern states to learn to read and write.  Judging the enfranchisement of Southern black men to be “essential to the national peace,” Curtis endorsed federal action if the states did not comply, and insisted on the complementary duty of educating the former slaves.   

On December 12, 1866, an effort to derail passage of the District suffrage bill by expanding suffrage to women was defeated.  The next day, the literacy requirement that had concerned editor Curtis was also defeated, and the bill passed the Senate, 33-13, without it.  Reverdy Johnson of Maryland was the only Democratic senator who voted in favor of the final bill.  The next day, December 14, the House passed the Senate version, 118-46.  It had the support of 111 Republican congressmen, three independents, and four Democrats.  On January 7, 1867, the Senate overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto, 29-10.  The next day, the House overrode the veto and the District suffrage bill became law.   

The first election with black voters in the District of Columbia occurred in Georgetown on February 25, 1867.  (Georgetown was a separate city until incorporated into Washington City—today, Washington, D.C.—in 1871.)  Editor Curtis praised the black voters’ “dignified and decorous” behavior despite “sneers and insults” from some white onlookers.  Curtis concluded that the election was “ample vindication of the wisdom of Congress in passing the suffrage bill, and of those who insist that justice is the best policy.”  In the same issue of Harper’s Weekly, a cartoon by Thomas Nast depicted a respectable black man casting his ballot for the Republican ticket headed by the successful mayoral candidate, Charles Welch.  The black man is followed in the Republican line by a white man in business attire.  They are contrasted with a rough-looking ex-Confederate and sour-faced President Johnson, who holds his veto of the District of Columbia suffrage bill.  The Democratic slate topped by incumbent Mayor Henry Addison is designated “the White Man’s ticket.”  The phrase was based on claims by some Democrats that the American republic was intended for white men only. 

On June 3, 1867, a municipal election was held in the nation’s capital of Washington City in which Harper’s Weekly reported that black voters began lining up at two a.m. to wait for the polls to open.  The accompanying illustration showed a black man voting and a black man as one of the election judges.  As in Georgetown, the Republican ticket was victorious in the Washington City election.  Editor Curtis dryly observed, “Colored men have voted in Washington, and the country and the Constitution still live.” 

In December 1866, the outgoing 39th Congress also began debating suffrage in the rest of the federal territories, including regarding the proposed statehood bills for Nebraska and Colorado.  Radical Republicans wanted to open voting there to all adult men regardless of race or color.  They argued that Congress had authority over federal territories, in establishing conditions for statehood, and in guaranteeing a republican form of government in the states.  Moderate Republicans agreed with congressional authority over federal territories, but initially drew the line at imposing voting qualifications on would-be states (which had not been in rebellion).  Most Democrats objected to any federal role in territorial or state suffrage standards.  On January 10, 1867, Congress passed a bill prohibiting territorial governments from discriminating in civil and political rights, including voting, based on race or color.  The bill became law on January 31 without President Johnson’s signature. 

On January 9, 1867, the Senate passed statehood bills for Nebraska and Colorado, which included an amendment for impartial manhood suffrage introduced by Republican Senator George Edmunds of Vermont.  In the House, Republican Congressman George Boutwell of Massachusetts successfully added an amendment requiring the Nebraska and Colorado legislatures pass a proclamation accepting the condition of enfranchising black men.  The House passed the amended statehood bills on January 15, and the Senate concurred the next day.  President Johnson vetoed the statehood bill for Colorado on January 28 and for Nebraska the next day.  On February 6, Congress overrode the president’s veto of the statehood bill for Nebraska, so that it entered the Union on March 1, 1867.  The Senate failed to override the president’s veto of the Colorado statehood bill, so Colorado remained a territory until 1876.  In the February 2, 1867 issue of Harper’s Weekly, editor George William Curtis supported the enfranchisement of black men in Nebraska and Colorado, but argued that the question of what a “republican form of government” means in the United States needed to be clarified by an amendment to the U.S. constitution prohibiting the denial of voting rights based on race or color.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  December 22, 1866, p. 802, c. 1-2
editorial, “Restoration and Suffrage”

2)  December 29, 1866, p. 819, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

3)  December 29, 1866, p. 819, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

4)  December 29, 1866, p. 819, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

5)  January 19, 1867, p. 35, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

6)  January 26, 1867, p. 62, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

7)  March 16, 1867, p. 162(c.4)-163(c.1)
editorial, “The Georgetown Election”

8)  March 16, 1867, p. 172
cartoon, “The Georgetown Election—The Negro at the Ballot Box,” Thomas Nast

9)  June 22, 1867, pp. 397-398
article, “The Washington Election”

10)  June 22, 1867, pp. 397(lower right)
illustration, “A Significant Scene at Washington”

11)  June 29, 1867, p. 403, c. 1
editorial, “A False Alarm”

12)  January 26, 1867, p. 62, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

13)  January 26, 1867, p. 62, c. 2
“Domestic Intelligence” column

14)  February 2, 1867, p. 67, c. 3-4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

15)  February 23, 1867, p. 115, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

16)  February 2, 1867, p. 66, c. 2-3
editorial, “A Republican Form of Government”

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Reconstruction: Congress v. Johnson // District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Passage // Congressional Reconstruction // Elections, 1867 and 1868





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