Fight for black voting rights precedes the Constitution

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tags: Constitution, black voting rights



Van Gosse is an associate professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College. His book, “We Are Americans: The Origins of Black Politics, 1790-1860,” will be published by the University of North Carolina Press next year.

As Abraham Lincoln noted after the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which declared persons of African descent had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” some of those “Africans” had voted in the elections to ratify the Constitution. Lincoln went on to list five states — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina — where black men voted at the country’s founding. Later historians would add three more states.

Lincoln was outraged that the Supreme Court would strip citizenship from men who had been voting for generations, and he wasn’t alone. Across the North, leaders like William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Thaddeus Stevens expressed support for black voting rights.

These founders of the Republican Party knew what posterity has largely forgotten: that black voters by 1860 were a small but important voter bloc in those states where they could vote. They also knew that black men had been disenfranchised in state after state because they were influencing elections, and white politicians found them a convenient scapegoat.

Today, this political dynamic is familiar again: Modern Democrats for the past several decades have relied on black voters as an increasingly vital component of their electoral base. As in the antebellum period, however, opponents are attempting to deny this population the fundamental American right to vote. At its 50th anniversary this month, the Voting Rights Act and the racial equality it bestowed are under siege. This makes it all the more useful to remember that the fight for black voting rights harks back to before the signing of the Constitution — and that supporters had far more victories than is usually assumed.

There's A comforting myth in the United States that suggests African-Americans steadily moved from absolute slavery to complete freedom following the Civil War. This, however, obscures how hard many Americans of every race had fought against racism since the Revolution. It was a struggle that went deeper than slavery and right to the core of who was an American. ...





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