Deciding who would be allowed to vote in the former Confederate states was a major issue and point of debate among Republicans, and they were not unanimous in their approach. Both the enfranchisement of African American voters and the disenfranchisement of former Confederate supporters were thoroughly debated. Particularly important to Republicans and North Carolina Unionists alike was the issue of African American enfranchisement. Conservative Republicans were uneasy about giving the largely uneducated former slaves of the Southern states widespread polling power, while radical Republicans and North Carolina Unionist believed African American votes were the only thing standing in the way of a full Confederate takeover of the state government. If the disenfranchisement of former Confederates in the South did not succeed, radical Republicans and North Carolina Unionist believed the state’s as well as Republican’s power in the South would collapse without African American political support. The black electorate, if loyal to the Republican Party, had the potential to help consolidate Republican power over the South and ensure the longevity of the party. In The Republican Party and the South, 1855-1877, Richard Abbott states, “Such enfranchisement would help blacks to protect their newly won freedom and also build up a party in the South that would cooperate with the Republicans”(Abbott 1986, 54). He goes on to say, “A number of Northern Republicans who either visited the South immediately after the war or who had contacts with Unionist Southerners became convinced that Southern white Unionists were doomed without black political support” (Abbott 1986, 54). Confederates who had not been disenfranchised were not going to idly sit by and let the Republicans change their states, they fought back using the ballot box, electing Democratic Party members who would protect the Southern planters’ interests. It quickly became clear to most Republicans that the small numbers of loyal white Unionist in the former Confederate states did not have enough support to create and maintain Republican Party style state governments in the South. When officials were elected into state office, the majority represented the interest of former Confederates who held the majority in the Southern states. Radical Republicans and Unionists realized that once these states fell under the control of the former Confederates, it would be hard to win them back. They argued that the only way to quickly and effectively support Unionist was to allow African Americans the vote.
The Harper’s Weekly supported the enfranchisement of all African Americans. They believed that the Republican Party best represented the ideas of the Union, that all men should be free and equal, and the best way to ensure that this took place in the South, was to allow African Americans to vote and choose their own destiny. It was believed that if African Americans were given the vote and power at the ballot box, it would be sufficient enough to protect their rights from former Confederates who sought to limit the newly freed slaves as much as possible. In the eyes of those at Harper’s Weekly, the Union could only be successful if all citizens we treated equally and allowed a say. They noted, that the experiment of the Union, “can be satisfactorily tried only by an equality of electoral right among the whole population”(Item 2738). As Harper’s Weekly stated, they, “can not see the justice of denying the elective franchise to men who have been fighting for the country, while it is freely given to men who have just returned from five years' fighting against it”(Item 893). They did not believe it just to deny African Americans, who fought valiantly to uphold the ideals of the Union, the vote, while former Confederates, who they believed were responsible for all of the destruction, were allowed to return to their old ways. The Harper’s Weekly believed very strongly in the benefits of African American enfranchisement and believed it was the only just course of action in upholding the principles of the Union. They stated, “The one imperative necessity is, that the measures which Congress takes to restore the governments of the States shall be just, wise, generous, and in the spirit of the Constitution” (Item 2726). Harper’s Weekly believed, “if an arbitrary enfranchisement is made, based upon complexion, or height, or age, or property, or weight, or size, how can Congress acknowledge the government that may result as the republican form of government which it is constitutionally bound to secure to every State?”(Item 893). Harper’s Weekly strongly supported any policy that they believed furthered the ideals of the Union, such as those mentioned in the previous quote. They believed that the Civil War was a war fought to secure the ideals of the Republican Party, just ideals, laid out by the founding fathers and served as the bedrock the nation was built upon. Harper’s Weekly believed that the ideals of the Union and protection for African Americans could only be achieved through the expansion of the Republican Party and suffrage.
Conservative Republicans, however, were wary of this strategy. They feared that unleashing a horde of uneducated former slaves on the ballot box would have dire consequences on the Republican Party. Conservative Republicans believed that these uneducated slaves were vulnerable to the trickery of their former masters and could be easily swayed into voting against the Republican Party. In an excerpt from the New York Times, the Harper’s Weekly highlighted this debate as it pertains to North Carolina. The New York Times excerpt stated, “While many admit that it may be the negro will be qualified to exercise that right in the future, every one thinks that he is not intelligent enough to do so now”(Item 925). The New York Times correspondent described white men in North Carolina: “The ignorance of the poorer classes is heart-rending, and their prejudices are strong as only those of ignorant men are…..Not more than one-seventh of the voters can read or write”(Item 925). Harper’s Weekly then added its own commentary on the matter stating, “These are the people who think the negro is not intelligent enough to vote; and these are the white loyalists to whom the apologists and friends of the rebellion insist that the right of voting shall be exclusively given because the colored loyalists are not sufficiently intelligent!”(Item 925). Harper’s Weekly called the apparent paradox of politics in North Carolina to its reader’s attention. White North Carolinians as well as conservative Republicans used African Americans’ lack of education as a valid argument to prevent them from acquiring voting rights. Yet, conservative Republicans allowed white North Carolinians who were only slightly more educated to vote. A plan for a required educational test to vote was proposed, but quickly shot down. It was widely believed that the test would eliminate most African Americans as well as almost all poor Southern whites. Harper’s Weekly argued that if, “a plan of an educational test of suffrage and a full amnesty were adopted as a substitute for the Amendment proposed by Congress, we should have intrenched and fortified the enemy, for we should have secured political power to the class most hostile to us”(Item 2728). Harper’s Weekly feared that African American rights and privileges would be infringed upon with this act, while conservative Republicans feared it would hamper poor whites and push them farther away from the party. In fact, conservative Republicans were hesitant to allow African Americans the vote because they feared alienating the white population of the South. The Republican Party held the belief that many of the whites spread throughout the South, like those in western North Carolina, could be persuaded to join the Republican Party. However, these poor whites would not support the Republican Party if they believed that the party would threaten their power and social status by allowing former slaves to vote. Most conservative Republicans, “were convinced that calling for black enfranchisement would cost them the 1866 elections”(Abbott 1986, 69). While Harper’s Weekly supported African American enfranchisement at any cost, many in the Republican Party were fearful of any policy that would cost them the power over the nation’s decisions.