It was the fear of alienating white Southern voters that animated the debate on which former Confederates to disenfranchise. Radicals and Unionists feared that if nothing was done to stifle Confederate voters, they would easily sweep Southern state elections and enact policies that ran counter to the federal government. While Radicals and Unionists believed that it was necessary to disenfranchise all those who actively supported the Confederacy, conservative Republicans were hesitant. They feared that by eliminating the vote for everyone who played an active role in the Confederacy it would anger the Southern population, turning them away from the Republican Party. Massachusetts Congressman Henry Wilson summed up the argument when he stated, “disfranchisement will create more feeling and bitterness than enfranchisement”(Abbott 1986, 80). Conservatives wanted to gain the support of the poor whites who may or may not have vehemently supported the Confederacy and argued that disfranchising most Southern whites would create more hostility toward the Republican Party than enfranchising African Americans. This caused much debate within the Republican Party. As Abbott states, “The House was ready to deprive at least some classes of whites the vote, but the Senate strongly opposed the idea, and the compromise section that finally went into the amendment instead deprived a number of former Confederates of the right to hold state or federal office”(Abbott 1986, 55). Abbott concludes, “this measure attempted to compromise the views of Radicals, who wanted to destroy forever the power of the Southern aristocracy, and more conservative Republicans, who wanted to conciliate the same aristocracy”(Abbott 1986, 55). The compromise was an attempt to separate the mass of poor white Southerners from their more prominent, upper class Confederate leaders. The hope was that by doing so the Republican Party would be able to gain the support of poor whites and prevent Confederate leaders from regaining control of Southern states. The former Confederates represented a threat to the Republican Party’s power. If the Southern states fell back under the control of Confederates, they would be able to rival the Republican Party on a national scale. Through these compromises and laws the Republican Party hoped to reconstruct the South in order to protect their own power.
Republicans were also fearful that former slaves would attempt to enact revenge on their former masters and the white population through their newfound power at the polls. Republicans feared that if the majority of Southern white voters could not vote, they would not be able to successful defend themselves against the revenge of former slaves. As Abbott states, “Northern Republicans sought to use what influence they had over Southern party organization in 1867 to advise their new black allies not to take any action that would alienate potential white support”(Abbott 1986, 111). Their goal was not to create a situation that would further destabilize the South and create a rift amongst Americans, it was to unite Southerners under the Republican Party and assimilate them back into the nation. The Republican Congressional committee stated, “the Reconstruction Acts were intended to bring peace and tranquility to the South, not to punish that section”(Abbott 1986, 122).
Harper’s Weekly strongly supported the proposal to disenfranchise most former Confederates. They believed that the Republican Party was founded on the ideas of the Union and that disenfranchisement of former Confederates was the only way to ensure that African Americans were afforded these opportunities, ensuring the duties of the Republican Party and ideals of the Union were upheld. When President Johnson refused to disenfranchise large numbers of former North Carolina Confederates, Harper’s Weekly expressed their discontent. Harper’s Weekly Stated, “We confess that we should be better pleased with the plan by which North Carolina is to be reorganized, if it did not receive such unqualified commendation from those who have most savagely denounced President Johnson, and who have had a very ill-disguised sympathy with the insurrection of State Sovereignty against the Union”(Item 2723). Harper’s Weekly, like many North Carolina Unionists and northern Radicals believed the policies of President Johnson did not go far enough. They noted, “all agree that the governments of the unrestored States are in the hands of men hostile to the National Government—that the Union men in these States are consequently oppressed and in constant danger—that the liberty and property of the Freedmen are virtually at the mercy of the disloyal—that justice for loyal men in the civil courts is uncertain, and military protection inadequate”(Item 2726). Harper’s Weekly feared that if former Confederates were not disenfranchised they would easily gain control of North Carolina and undue any progress northern Republicans had made.
Harpers Weekly did not agree with Presidents Johnson’s policies as they pertained to the disenfranchisement of former Confederates. Harper’s Weekly stated, “The loyal white citizens of the State are admitted to vote not because the State authorizes them, but because the United States permits them”(Item 2723). Harper’s Weekly acknowledge that Confederates’ ability to vote happened because the national government allowed it. This was the point of contention; Harper’s Weekly believed that President Johnson and the national government should prevent former Confederates from regaining their power, not sit idly by and watch it happen. The article stated, “It is perfectly true that the Constitution of the United States suffers the people of the various States to determine who shall be voters? But it seems to us that the President hardly remembers that he is now deciding the vital point, namely, who are to be considered the people of the State?”(Item 2723). Here Harper’s Weekly criticized President Johnson for supporting the efforts of those who fought against the United States, instead of taking into account how his policies would affect those African Americans who gallant fought for the ideals of the Union. For many Republicans, it was unclear which path would be most successful. They debated if it was better to let the states decide on their own the terms of enfranchisement or disenfranchisement or better to let the federal government decide. Some believed that the states had the right to dictate their own future, while other Republicans believed the federal government had the best chance of implementing the plans.