Echoes of 1891 in 2022

Echoes of 1891 in 2022

The New York Times recently deplored the ongoing threats to democratic governance and quoted President Benjamin Harrison’s 1891 Annual Message, where he warned against moves then underfoot to allow state legislatures to select presidential electors in disregard of the popular vote.[1]

Even more recently, Senator Angus King from Maine and his Oregon counterpart, Jeff Merkley, have depicted 1891 as a crucial watershed, when the Senate was stymied by a filibuster and failed to enact voting rights legislation.[2]

These little-remembered episodes from 130 years ago offer important perspective on our current political travail.  The erasure of voting rights in the late nineteenth century is a story that ought not be forgotten.  For more than a decade after 1877, often thought of as the end of Reconstruction, no state dared to enact formal disfranchisement legislation. African Americans still had a precarious right to vote. In much of the Upper South, they exercised that right, with the result that party competition remained close in states such as Virginia and North Carolina. Black voters in the Deep South, however, were routinely subjected to rampant intimidation and violence when they attempted to cast ballots, and the counting process often was fraudulently perverted. The Upper South had its own problems, such as the purging of eligible voter lists, but elections in the Deep South made a mockery of democratic norms.

Formal portrait photograph of Benjamin Harrison.
President Benjamin Harrison (Library of Congress)

Harrison was a Republican. His party had gained narrow margins in both houses of Congress when he was elected in 1888.  Louis T. Michener, the president’s chief political agent in his home state of Indiana, reported in 1889 that he had met with a number of influential Black leaders in Indianapolis. With “great power and earnestness,” they conveyed shocking details about the situation in the South and pleaded for “action on the part of this administration” to give Southern Blacks “some protection in their rights as citizens.” “My blood boiled while I listened,” Michener reported: “the truth of the matter is, that the people of the North do not hear of the one thousandth part of the outrages committed upon the colored people by the white people of the South.”[3]

Black voting had been the cornerstone for Congressional Reconstruction. It had been designed to secure dual objectives—to enable those formerly enslaved to defend their new freedoms, and to provide a mechanism through which pro-Union (and pro-Republican) electorates might take root in the ex-Confederate states. But neither objective had been secured. The “Solid South” had become a Democratic party bastion that carried Grover Cleveland to the presidency in 1884, while Southern Blacks lacked the political leverage to redress their grievances.

Northern Republicans fumed that those who had “nullified and uprooted” Black voting consequently enjoyed increased representation in Congress and additional clout in presidential elections.[4] Harrison had bested Cleveland in 1888 only by assembling wafer-thin margins in several pivotal Northern states, including his own. The new president had ample motive to pay attention to Indiana’s modest cohort of Black voters. Republicans could not hold the state without them.  But any effort to protect Black rights ran headlong into the fatalistic views of many educated white Northerners, who presumed that no law could overcome Southern white resistance to Black voting.[5]

Engraving of two men talking to one another.
Mainstream national publications such as Harper’s Weekly, which opposed the Elections bill, also propagated insulting stereotypes of African Americans. (Vol. 33, October 19, 1889, p. 835)

Harrison and his managers decided to give priority to enacting a Federal Elections bill, but the devil was in the details. The best way to secure “a free vote and a fair count” might have been to remove the electoral process from the tainted hands of Southern state and local officials—and to place the federal government in charge of registration, voting, vote counting, and certification.   Many Blacks and some white Republicans indeed called for thoroughgoing federal control. But an intense behind-the-scenes tussle revealed that proponents of federal control would have to settle for a plan to place federal supervisors at polling places and to empower federal canvassers to certify voting returns. Whatever its limitations, the bill threatened to overturn the ability of Southern state governments to validate election outcomes. “The law proposed is not as strong as it should be, but it is the best in sight,” noted T. Thomas Fortune, the African American editor of the New York Age.[6]

Formal portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge.
Henry Cabot Lodge (Library of Congress)

Massachusetts representative Henry Cabot Lodge, who managed the House bill and whose name became attached to it, shared his party’s frustration about the malign consequences of Democratic cheating in the South, but his defense of the Elections bill transcended narrow partisanship. He warned that “a failure to do what is right brings its own punishment to nations as to men.”  The American people, who had paid a heavy debt because of slavery, ran a renewed risk: “If we permit any citizen, no matter how humble, to be wronged, we shall atone for it to the last jot and tittle.  No great moral question of right and wrong can ever be settled finally except in one way, and the longer the day of reckoning is postponed the larger will be the debt and the heavier the payment.” The United States government, having “made the black man a citizen,” was obligated to protect him in all his rights.  And, Lodge thundered, “it is a cowardly government if it does not do it!”[7]

In early July, the House approved the Lodge bill. Thomas B. (“Czar”) Reed, the Speaker, overcame Democratic obstruction and vituperation about a “force bill” to craft a narrow victory margin, 155 to 149.  Reed ruled out the subterfuge of a “disappearing quorum,” a Democratic party tactic to filibuster the House.  The Speaker’s firm discipline kept Republicans together on the near party-line vote.[8]  But the bill floundered in the Senate. Amid the sweltering heat of a humid Washington summer, long before the arrival of air conditioning, Republican managers found themselves unable to muster a majority to alter the Senate’s rules that permitted unlimited debate.

Republicans then suffered a landslide defeat in November’s congressional elections. Their only remaining chance to enact the Federal Elections bill rested with the lame duck session of the old Congress, which assembled in December 1890. The powerful Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, who headed the Rules Committee, proposed a temporary change in Senate rules to limit debate to thirty minutes per senator on the Elections bill after discussion had proceeded for a “reasonable” length of time. For more than a month, until late January 1891, the Senate wrestled with the Aldrich Resolution, and the fate of the Elections bill hung in the balance.[9]

As the Senate dithered, the state of Mississippi adopted a new constitution, which enacted a poll tax and created a gauntlet through which prospective voters would need to read any section of the state constitution or be able to “understand the same when read to him or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.” Convention delegates candidly acknowledged their goal: “to restrict negro suffrage.” Mississippi’s insidious “understanding clause” set an example that other Southern states soon would follow.[10]

To make a long story short, a Southern-led filibuster in the Senate killed the Elections bill.  Northern Democrats sided with the white South, and several Republican senators refused to support the Aldrich Resolution. This defeat marked the end of any federal effort to stave off disfranchisement. Within the next decade, hardly any Black voters remained in the former Confederate states, while Jim Crow abuses and terror gained wicked momentum.[11]

Albion Tourgée, who had championed equal rights as a carpetbagger in North Carolina, stood out as a lonely Cassandra. Having lobbied tirelessly for a stronger Elections bill, he blasted Mississippi’s flagrant nullification of the Fifteenth Amendment (“a substitute for armed rebellion”) and contemptuously rebuked “Northern doughfaces” who assumed that “only the rich and cultivated are fit to have a voice in government.” Tourgée correctly predicted that the worst would follow. He echoed Frederick Douglass, who mourned the Republican party’s callous disregard of “an oft deceived, betrayed and deeply wronged people.”[12]



[1] “Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now.” New York Times, 2 Jan. 2022, Sunday Review, 8.

[2]  David Rohde, “The Senate’s Dangerous Inability to Protect Democracy,” New Yorker, 19 Jan. 2022,; King and Merkley both addressed the Senate on Wednesday evening, 19 Jan. 2022.

[3] Louis T. Michener to E. W. Halford, 1 and 5 October 1889, Benjamin Harrison Papers, Library of Congress.

[4] John Sherman, Congressional Record, 51st Congress, First Session, 1998-2001.

[5] Harper’s Weekly, 30 Nov. 1889, p. 950.

[6] New York Age, 12 Apr. and 16 Aug. 1890.  The best secondary source on the Federal Elections bill is Charles W. Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869-1900 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 226-59.

[7] Congressional Record, 51st Congress, First Session, 6537-44, esp. 6543.

[8] Congressional Record, 51st Congress, First Session, 6940-41.

[9] New York Times, 16, 18, 19, 24 Dec. 1890

[10] Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865-1890 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947), 206-15.

[11] Richard M. Valelly, The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 121-48; Daniel W. Crofts, “The Blair Bill and the Elections Bill, the Congressional Aftermath to Reconstruction” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1968), 312-43.

[12] Chicago Inter-Ocean, 1 and 29 Nov. 1890; Frederick Douglass to George F. Hoar, 2 Sept. 1890, George F. Hoar Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, quoted in Calhoun, Conceiving a New Republic, 252.

Daniel W. Crofts

Daniel W. Crofts, Professor Emeritus of History at The College of New Jersey, has written extensively about the North-South political crisis that culminated in secession and Civil War. He was awarded the University of Virginia's Bobbie and John Nau Book Prize for his 2016 volume, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union (University of North Carolina Press).

5 Replies to “Echoes of 1891 in 2022”

  1. A very useful thumbnail. In addition to Charles Calhoun’s excellent “Conceiving a New Republic” see Michael Perman “Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South 1888-1908.” While beyond the scope of Croft’s piece also significant is the impact of the Fuller Court. This began emerging with his appointment as Chief Justice by Cleveland in 1888 and coalesced in the early 1890s after the deaths of Justices Mathews, Miller and Bradley. That Court eviscerated Waite Court decisions recognizing Federal power under the 15th Amendment and effectively rendered it a dead letter.

  2. Excellent piece, Professor Croft! It’s interesting that Republicans of the 51st Congress proposed five pieces of legislation: the McKinley Tariff Act, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and Dependent Pension Act, and Lodges Federal Election Bill. As Croft relates, Lodge wanted to use the federal court system to fix the out of control racist voting irregularities in the South which counted Black voters but disenfranchised vast numbers of them, giving Democrats the advantage. Although Republicans were heading for an electoral defeat in 1890, they managed to pass every other piece of legislation except the voting bill which failed. Another good book to add on this period is Steve Luxenberg, “Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation”

  3. I very much enjoyed reading Professor Croft’s excellent piece and the responses to it. A few additions to comments many months later. The Federal Elections Bill was not the only one to fail in the Fifty-First Congress. Despite Republican majorities in both Houses, the Blair Bill for federal aid to education in order to reduce illiteracy, which was considered a cause of electoral fraud, was defeated in the Senate and never got to the House. (The Senate had passed it three times before.) Most of the money would go to southern states. President Harrison refused to speak up for Blair’s Bill, freeing crucial Republicans, like his friend John Spooner, to vote against it. The bill was flawed. Blair gave federal funds directly to the the states. As Albion W. Tourgée warned, states would distribute more money to white schools than to black ones. Tourgée proposed giving federal funds directly to schools most in need. But that was not the reason for Spooner’s and Senator Sherman’s failure to vote for the Blair Bill. They felt the South should pay to educate its own citizens. Unfortunately, Tourgée’s alternative has received far less attention than Blair’s Bill.

    On appointments to the Supreme Court. Tourgée had been contacted during debates on the election bill about challenging Louisiana’s recently passed Separate Car Law. In 1890 he was optimistic about a challenge because it looked like Republicans would have enough Supreme Court appointments to change the balance of the Court. Indeed, Harrison made four appointments. The last was a southern Democrat. None of them joined Justice Harlan in a PLESSY dissent. On the contrary, one of them was Justice Henry Billings Brown, who wrote the majority decision. Tourgée knew Cleveland’s appointments would hurt. He rightly felt betrayed by Harrison. He also felt abandoned by Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s biographers fail to mention that, when contacted, he refused to support the PLESSY challenge because he “saw no good in the undertaking.”

    1. I was gratified to read Professor Thomas’s astute reflections on my Muster essay. The Blair Bill was very much a part of my long-ago dissertation about the Republican Party’s final abandonment of Reconstruction in 1890-91. It certainly is true that Albion Tourgee opposed both the Blair Bill and the Federal Elections Bill. He had principled reasons for his stances. In both instances, however, he played into the hands of those who opposed any continuing federal presence or oversight in the South. There are times, alas, when the best is the enemy of the good.

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