The Senate Killed the Voting Rights Bill…130 Years Ago

In 1891, a Senate filibuster of a federal elections bill ended efforts to ensure the civil rights of Black Americans for decades.

"Freedmen Voting in New Orleans" 1867 engraving showing African Americans who hade been enslaved but a couple years later participating in election.

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!

SUPPORT THE POST

Recently, using the filibuster, Senate Republicans blocked voting rights legislation that would have expanded voter registration and voter access. Nearly the same thing occurred 130 years ago with the Federal Elections Bill, although in 1891, the roles were reversed. Here’s the story of how and why that bill met its demise.

The Civil War had ended 25 year earlier, but Reconstruction was in trouble.

Formerly enslaved people in southern states were not enjoying their full civil rights, despite passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment granting citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to everyone born or naturalized in the U.S., and the 15th Amendment protecting voting rights of all citizens regardless of race.

States’ rights could not supersede the federally guaranteed rights of citizenship. And yet, African Americans in the South were routinely denied their rights as citizens. They were subjected to poll taxes or literacy tests at the polls. In addition, the Ku Klux Klan used violence to intimidate Black voters and keep them in a condition not much different from what they’d known before.

In 1870 and 1871, the Republicans passed three bills intended to protect Black Americans’ rights to vote, hold office, serve on juries, and receive equal protection. The bills also gave the federal government the right to step in and protect their rights when states did not. They were referred to, collectively, as the Enforcement Acts.

The first of these acts, The Enforcement Act of 1870, gave federal courts the power to guarantee African Americans’ right to vote. It authorized the president to call in the military to enforce the 15th Amendment, and federal marshals to charge offenders. The next Enforcement Act, in 1871, gave the federal government the right to oversee local and state elections. The third, known as the KKK Act of 1871, allowed the president to use the militia to suppress conspiracies against the federal government and suspend the writ of habeas corpus to suppress the Klan. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested and prosecuted, and more than 2,000 Klansmen in South Carolina fled the state to escape the law.

Once Black Americans were given the vote, Republicans assumed they’d all cast their ballots for the party of Lincoln. But because of voter suppression in the southern states, the expected Republican bloc of voters never emerged. The Democrats in the South regained power and, in 1884, a Democrat — Grover Cleveland — was elected president for the first time in 24 years.

The election of 1884 was marked by a higher than usual volume of mudslinging. Aside from any balloting irregularities in southern states, Republicans claimed that fraud had helped the Democrats to victory.

At the next national election, in 1888, the Republican platform declared, “The Democratic majority owe their existence to the suppression of the ballot by a criminal nullification of the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

After Republican Benjamin Harrison was elected president, two Republicans authored a bill to ensure that minority voters were heard and counted. Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge and Senator George Hoar drafted Federal Elections Bill of 1890.

It gave the government unprecedented authority to overcome voter suppression and enforce the 15th Amendment, moved elections for the House of Representatives under federal instead of state control, and authorized federal circuit courts to appoint federal supervisors of congressional elections. These supervisors were empowered to attend elections, inspect registration lists, verify information given by questionable voters, administer oaths to challenge voters, prevent illegal immigrants from voting, and certify the count.

Just as significant, it gave federal officials and courts the power to overturn questionable election results after they had been declared and certified by state officials.

Senator Hoar was motivated by his outrage that violence and fraud in southern elections was threatening to undo all that the Civil War had accomplished. Congressman Lodge said,

The government which made the black man a citizen is bound to protect him in his rights as a citizen of the United States, and it is a cowardly Government if it does not do it! No people can afford to write anything into their Constitution and not sustain it. A failure to do what is right brings its own punishment to nations as to men.

Democrats countered that the bill was partisan, unnecessary, costly, probably dictatorial, and an unconstitutional empowering of the federal government over states. Not a single Democrat voted for it when it came to the House, where it passed nonetheless.

The Senate was a different story.

The Republicans were no longer the unified party that had supported Lincoln through the war. While many Republicans were still concerned that Black Americans were ensured their civil rights, other Republicans were focused on the party’s pro-business, pro-economic development platform. Their chief concern was putting a protective tariff in place.

Senators from western states represented another faction. Their objective was “free silver,” a policy that would expand the money supply by authorizing unlimited coinage of silver on demand. They joined with Democrats in the Senate to delay consideration of the bill so the silver issue could be addressed sooner.

Historian T. Adams Upchurch has also observed that the civil rights of African Americans might not have been strongly supported in the West where the rights of Chinese immigrants and Native Americans were being denied.

When, at last, the Federal Elections Bill came to the floor, Democrats launched a filibuster, which ended in when the Senate voted to end debate.

And with the defeat, Congress halted its efforts to ensure the civil rights of Black Americans for decades. Not until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 did the federal government actively take up minority rights in elections. In the following years, Congress expanded the powers of the act five times.

Featured image: Engraving of Freedmen voting in an election in New Orleans, 1867 (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now

Recommended

Comments

  1. It is sad to see the Post become just another leftist publication. It is easy to see the influence of the left from the “schools of higher learning”. It is easy to observe how the common people who actually have to work for a living have a better perspective on life . Those who spend their lives insulated from the realities of life have only their very narrow leftist view of the world. That is why I will never allow your influence in my home again.

  2. Too many responses here are by frivolous, unqualified, poorly understood individuals. Not saying that I am above board but, to try and compare today with 130+ years ago is a lesson in history. Power control, generation of wealth, and the furtherance of white supremacy is behind voter restriction. For some to say that there are none is absurd – they have not observed conditions during election day, both from visual and vocal testament.

  3. I also thought better of your publication , since you chose to take the low road in your comparison of the attempt to weaken our nation with a no accountability election law , funny how your “party” is all in for vax id’s but it’s wrong to ask for id at the poling booth , I also have decided not to renew my subscription, My advice stay out of politics.

  4. “As for the Supreme Court, if anyone thinks for one second that it is not partisan, look at its rulings.”

    In deciding 5 civil rights cases in 1883 (109 US 3), Supreme Court Justice Bradley ruled “that only formal state action of a discriminatory character” fell within the interdict of the 14th Amendment; Bradley basically declared the 14th Amendment, as originally conceived, i.e., to provide a constitutional certainty for the Civil Rights Act of 1866, unconstitutional.

  5. I’ve seen a lot in my 76 years on this planet, and what I’ve seen and heard of late, makes me sick to my stomach.

    As for the Supreme Court, if anyone thinks for one second that it is not partisan, look at its rulings. The Supreme Court is a disgrace to the Constitution and spits in the face of freedom loving folk.

  6. Your article comparing the 130-year-ago Voting Rights Act to Biden’s supposed Voting Rights Act is ridiculous. The voting “rights” Democrats are seeking is the right to send out and receive as many unverifiable voting ballots that they can print, in order to cheat in an election. EVERYONE in America today has complete access to voting. To say that black people do not have access is very insulting.
    Such articles are why I have chosen not to renew my subscription to your ignorant POST.

  7. The simple acts of love and kindness toward one another would have solved all of these problems which will continue because of this continuous bickering about who is right and who is wrong about the simple act of voting. It is very easy to check who is and isn’t voting nowadays in case we haven’t noticed.
    The idea that we call ourselves a Christian nation is completely lost in this issue. We don’t love each other, we don’t care if “the other side” loses rights. We want power, control, and greed to RULE.
    What ever happened to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.
    We all seem to be allowing ourselves to be yellers and hateful. Let’s knock that stuff off. Let’s get voting and even better, find good people to vote for.

  8. Jeff Nilsson’s selective recollection of the old days is very “laid out” don’t you think? Both obvious, and ambiguous at the same time. One who could probably convict or exonerate a rock for merely sitting at an institution of higher indoctrination like the university of Wisconsin for being a rock or comparing a rock to a tree. In their day the issue was simply voter rights. There was certainly no need much at all to be concerned with who was flying from state to state coordinating a soft coo. Or synchronizing a flood of unsubstantiated votes via a touch of a button on the ole celly. No, if you feel you have to sway and cheat to win you already lost not only for the yourself but a nation. Verify who you say you are. Even your Saturday Evening Post requires an email as much for this little totalitarian shin-dig. And just who do you think your writing to? Rocks and Trees? Apples to Oranges. Regards Comrade

  9. Stick to cartoons and feel good articles. Comparing post civil war statutes (implemented by the Republican Party) and the Democrats filibuster of additional minority protection statutes is simply biased journalism. To vote, you must prove you are a U.S. Citizen. The Democrats recent abomination of a “voters rights bill” would have abolished that simple requirement.

  10. Any reader can use Wikipedia to see how many Dems and how many Reps voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the Civil Tights Act of 1968. Stop arguing about facts.

  11. LOLOLOLOL at all the racists in the comments complaining about an article showing how racist the US has always been…and LOLOLOLOL at complaints about the Post suddenly being left-leaning when it’s been conservative most of the time…

    Don’t forget, the USA was built by land theft, genocide, and worker exploitation…that’s the American Way!

  12. Bidens voter rights bill should have been named the voter fraud bill. It would have allowed illegals to vote, felons, an any other outlaws. Add ballot harvesting an no ID anywhere, and I could go on and on. Our country would have become like most other Bannana republics and/or dictatorships under a one party rule. We could end up with more votes than people to vote. It’s amazing that so very little of this is or has been reported correctly. By your comment of trying to compare earlier voting rights acts, you only exacerbate a false narative. Slavery was mostly a Democrat party thing and most all Southerners promoting slavery were Democrats. Aberham Lincoln was a Republican who started the process of freeing the slaves. The KKK was mostly an extension of the Democrat party. The Republicans passed the 1964 Civil rights act, Not the Democrats, So don’t imply they are the ‘bad guys’ by comparing the past. Their past on voting rights far exceed that of the Democrats. Please don’t try to ‘muddy the waters’ without at least showing the other side of the issue. You are too good of a mag to start choosing sides in politics

  13. Actually, it’s not well known now that Democrats are the ones who were against any legislation that gave blacks the same rights as whites as not one of them voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact their history is one of racism against blacks and if you evaluate their principles put into legislation over decades, in all honesty they have ensured the generational poverty of blacks, been instrumental in destroying black families through encouraging women to be promiscuous and have illegitimate children which taxpayer’s support, helping black men escape any responsibility for the children they sire, coddling blacks who are criminals, and in essence, telling blacks they are inferior to whites by not expecting them to excel in school, and in general, treating blacks as a guaranteed slave class which has consistently voted for Democrats to keep them enslaved.

  14. I’ve touched before on the left-leanings of the Saturday Evening Post. They would do well to stay out of politics and keep their liberal opinions to themselves and not subject their readers to the sort of nonsense trash it produces. The Post was once know for positive uplifting articles and cartoons. It’s sad to see their pandering to leftist politics.

    Now to address this issue of voting rights you need to establish a voter id system administered by each individual state. It does not need to be federalized. If such were attempted there would be much corruption nationwide and never again would there be a fair and impartial election. Another level of fraud comes in the form of mail-in ballots. Such should be illegal because it allows activists of one party or another to distributed pre-marked ballots to be mailed at a “convenient” time to where they arrive at a “convenient” time during the election.

    Each state should be responsible for administering their elections at state, local, and federal levels. The federal government busy-bodies need to keep their nose out of it. Each state has rights. Federal overreach is not needed nor is it welcome.

  15. Ridiculous to compare racist resistance to change generations ago to protecting our voting rights from socialist power grabbing disguised per usual by trying to manipulate people the elites consider too ignorant to see through their posturing. Shame to see the Post has been infiltrated as well.

Reply

Your email address will not be published.