Henry Winter Davis Calls for Black Suffrage
May 27, 1865

In this letter from May 1865, former Congressman Henry Winter Davis supported "universal suffrage and equality before the law." He hoped that Black voters would form the backbone of a southern Republican Party, which would ensure "national peace and safety."

Baltimore, May 27, 1865

MY DEAR SIR, Please accept my acknowledgements for your kind note.

I wish I could give you a short and satisfactory answer to your brief and pregnant question touching our prospects under President Johnson.

The future of the nation is summed up in the restoration of political power to the States lately in rebellion.

Of what the President’s policy is on that topic I know nothing.

The conditions of the problem are plain, and the consequences of the several possible solutions follow with logical certainty. It rests with the President, in the state in which Congress has left the question, to take the initiative, and the mode in which that is done will determine all that follows. Whatever State governments he allows to be organized, and to elect representatives and senators to Congress, will be recognized by Congress in December in all probability.

None exist now in any State which rebelled; none can be organized legally without the assent of the United States, and no steps to secure that assent can be taken without his permission.

The President’s only power over the question rests in his right to refuse permission for any Convention or election to be held, unless on terms satisfactory to him; but that power is decisive. If he refuse to permit any election or any Convention to be held, things will await the solution of Congress.

If he permit the aggregate white population of the South, qualified to vote under the old governments, that installs the revolutionary faction in power in the States, and fills Congress with their representatives and senators.

That is to place the sceptre in the hands from which we have just wrested the sword.

If the President attempt to discriminate the loyal from the disloyal, and exclude from voting all who have given aid and comfort to the rebellion, a mere handful of the population will remain, wholly incompetent to form or maintain a State government, and sure to be overwhelmed by the political counterrevolution at the next election, which will restore power to the leaders of the rebellion. While it stands under the protection of the United States it will constitute an odious oligarchy, disposing of the lives and property of the great mass of their fellow citizens, without any responsibility, and controlling the national legislation by the people for whom they vote.

The result is unavoidable. The whole mass of the population of the South has given aid and comfort to the rebellion. The war was made by the accession of the Union men to the rebel faction. It is idle to talk of a quiescent mass of loyal men overborne by violence. It was the Union men who passed the Ordinance of Secession in Virginia, and who made it effectual after it was passed. In no State was the rebellion dangerous without the active aid of those opposed to secession.

But the United States had no friends in the rebel States against those States, and they have none today.

The Union men of the South preferred union and peace to disunion; they deplored the outbreak of the war, but they never hesitated a moment which side to take. If there was to be war, they were for their States and against the United States. There was no respectable number of Union men willing to aid the United States in compelling submission to the Constitution, and there are none now. All submit to force. Many are willing to acquiesce in the unavoidable. All are willing to govern the United States again, since independence is impossible; but all were also willing to aid the rebellion; and not an assault and battery was committed for the United States from the Potomac to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Union men of the South did not merely bow to overbearing force, but they hastened to seek places in the Legislature, the Congress, the executive mansions, and gave it a countenance and support, without which it must have fallen in a year; and when its cause was hopeless, they were quiet and submissive, and did not rise to aid the United States.

It is certainly to this class of the white population that we must look for aid in restoring civil government in these States, but it is a great delusion to suppose them either bold or strong enough to meet and defy the united and energetic faction of the revolutionists which drove them into rebellion. If they be in power, they will again do the will of the resolute and reckless men who stood behind and around them, and no legal line discriminates them from the rebel mass.

If this discrimination be attempted by the oath to support the Constitution of the United States, every body will take it, and nobody will be excluded.

If the leaders of the rebellion, civil and military, be excluded, though willing to submit and take the oath, the mass of the rebel faction will be admitted, and that will be the controlling and determining element in selecting representatives and senators, and the practical result is the same as if nobody were excluded.

If either of these forms be accepted by the President and recognized by Congress, it will instantly change the balance of political power in the United States.

It is probable that the people who saved the nation are not content to accept its consequences without a murmur.

None of the white population of the Southern States is interested in paying the public debt or imposing taxes to meet its interest. They hold none of it. It was created to subjugate them to the laws. It has been consumed in their overthrow. It is to be paid, in great part, out of their substance. It has annihilated their public debt. It has filled the land with ostracized officers, with wounded soldiers, with an odious free negro population, lately their slaves, and still under their political control.

If the whites be restored to political power, their representatives are interested in repudiating that public debt, in refusing to pay its interest, in restoring their officers to the army and navy, in placing their wounded on the pension roll, in indemnifying their friends for losses by war, or confiscating or forced tax sales, in restoring slavery under the form of apprenticeship or fixed wages and compulsory service and discriminating and oppressive legislation. The effort has already been made in Tennessee, and the spirit which dictated it pervades the whole South, and will find statutes ready to its hand in every State. In Congress a minority can arrest legislation. A majority of either House can compel submission to any terms, under penalty of arresting or disorganizing the government.

The representatives from the States lately in rebellion will form a powerful and hostile minority, and if they do not find enough enemies of the government from the States now represented to give them a majority in one House for some of the purposes above indicated, the near past throws no light on the near future. The prospect of political disorganization will present few terrors to people still hot with rebellion, smarting with overthrow, and quite as content to ruin as to rule the country.

To expect them to join in electing a Republican President would be an amiable delusion which the first election would dispel; and they might find it some indemnity for emancipation if the increased vote they would cast in the name of their freed slaves should happen to decide the contest and elevate them to power.

If the people are ready for these consequences, then there is no difficulty in restoring political power to the Southern States. Louisiana or Virginia will serve as models, or other forms will grow with mushroom rapidity.

But if it be important that the friends and not the enemies of the government shall continue to govern it, other measures must be taken.

The State governments in the South must be placed in hands interested to maintain the authority of the United States. It is not enough that conquered people are willing to submit to entitle them to govern us. The United States must find friends interested and able to suppress hostility to its authority and to discharge all the functions of government, state and national, in the face of every disloyal or hostile power. And the power of those who rebelled must be curbed by those who did not rebel, aided by those who joined the rebellion reluctantly, and are anxious to atone for their errors or weakness.

This can be done only by recognizing the negro population as an integral part of the people of the Southern States, and by refusing to permit any State government to be organized on any other basis than universal suffrage and equality before the law.

Whatever anomalies may have been winked at during the era of slavery, it may well be doubted if, without a serious blow at our principles, any government can be recognized as republican in form which excludes from suffrage and equal laws a majority of the citizens of the States, as would be the case in South Carolina and Mississippi, or half the citizens, as would be the case in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia, if the negro citizens be disfranchised.

It is certain that governments which declared them equal before the law, and recognized universal suffrage, would be republican in form and substance also. It is equally certain that such a constitution in the Southern States is the only one consistent with the national peace and safety; and Congress has the right, and, I think, ought to refuse to recognize any State governments in those States not on that basis.

But the white people of the States which rebelled will not organize governments on that basis. No considerable portion of the white population of those States is in favor of it. The loyal are as much against it as the rebel leaders.

None will adopt it of themselves, nor will they adopt it on the request and under the influence of the President; but all will submit to it if exacted, and accept it if unavoidable

To submit the question to the loyal voters of the State assumes the existence of a State government and a Constitution defining the right of suffrage, and making loyalty a condition.

But there are no such Constitutions in any State which rebelled. The United States have refused to recognize any State governments in any of those States. There are, therefore, no State governments and no voters in any of the rebel States.

There are States, and people of those States, both known to the Constitution of the United States. And the negroes are as integral a part of the people of the State as the whites. Both are citizens; neither has a right to exclude the other; neither can speak in the name of the State for the other; it is the equal right of both to be heard and represented in constituting their common government, and any proposal to submit the question of the political or civil rights of the negroes to the arbitrament of the whites is as unjust and as absurd as to submit the question of the political rights of the whites to the arbitrament of the negroes—with this difference, that the negroes are loyal every where, and the great body of the whites disloyal every where.

The problem, therefore, is solved by a simple appeal to the people of the State.

No election can be held, no Convention assemble, no political authority be legally exercised in any of those States but by the will of the United States, and for the present, will Congress speak, by the will of the President.

If, therefore, the President will declare that no election shall be held unless the negro population have a free and equal voice, that no Convention shall assemble which they have not helped to elect, that none shall proceed to frame a government unless in the beginning universal suffrage and equality before the law be declared its fundamental basis, the problem is solved.

If those conditions be accepted, the Constitution will be presented to Congress and the government recognized which it forms.

If they be not accepted, the President will hold the States till Congress declare how they shall be governed.

If the problem be not dealt with in this way, or in some such way, it will be solved in an adverse sense.

If it be not solved rightly, it threatens to generate a barren and bitter agitation, sure to result disastrously to those who propose the political enfranchisement of the negroes, and to consolidate the union of the enemies of the government in the loyal States into an irresistible power, which must wrest the government from the hands of those who saved it. This coalition is probable in any event; but on this question it is certain and fatal.

The negro population must be recognized by the President and Congress as an integral part of the people of the State in the view of the Constitution of the United States, without whose concurrence and full participation of power no State government will be recognized in any State which rebelled, or it will remain ostracized and outcast for another generation, and the enemies of the government will wrest it from the hands of those who saved it.

To permit the whites to disfranchise the negroes is to permit those who have been our enemies to ostracize our friends. The negroes are the only persons in those States who have not been in arms against us. They have always and every where been friendly and not hostile to us. They alone have a deep interest in the continued supremacy of the United States, for their freedom depends on it. On them alone can we depend to suppress a new insurrection. They alone will be inclined to vote for the friends of the government in all the Southern States. They alone have sheltered, fed, and pioneered our starved and hunted brethren through the swamps and woods of the South, in their flight from those who now aspire to rule them.

The shame and folly of deserting the negroes are equaled by the wisdom of recognizing and protecting their power.

They will form a clear and controlling majority against the united white vote in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

With a very small accession from the loyal whites, they will form a majority in Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia.

Unaided in all those States, they will be a majority in many congressional and legislative districts, and that alone suffices to break the terrible and menacing unity of the Southern vote in Congress.

If organized and led by men having their confidence, the negroes will prove as powerful and loyal at the polls as they have already, in the face of equal clamor and equal prejudice, proved themselves under such leaders on the battlefield.

To those who say they are unfit for the franchise, I reply they are more fit than secessionists.

If they are ignorant, they are not more so than large masses of the white voters of the South, or the rabble which is tumbled on the wharves of New York and run straight to the polls.

However ignorant, they know enough to be on the side of the government, and the intelligence of the master has not yet taught him that wisdom.

They may be influenced by the master, but the master must touch his hat to them at least, and it will be an open question whether they will vote with the master any more than they fought on his side. It is certain the Northern immigrant will find the negro a safe ally, and arguments on his lips will lose no weight by their Yankee origin.

It is said not to be safe for masters to visit their plantations in Georgia; when they do they will hardly carry much influence politically.

I repeat that in this problem are involved the issues of life and death.

If the negro population be recognized as an integral portion of the people of the States which rebelled, and governments can be organized on the basis of universal suffrage and equality before the law, Congress ought to recognize them, and the problem solved forever.

If governments be allowed by the President to be organized on the basis of the exclusion of the mass of the negro population, then Congress ought to refuse to recognize them; but I fear it will not refuse them.

If the question is submitted to the vote of any portion of the white population, the negroes will be excluded from power.

That result entails on us a barren agitation instead of a beneficent settlement. If carries with it a division of the friends of the government, and threatens to elevate its enemies to power.

For premature agitators I have small sympathy. They are cocks which crow at midnight; they do not herald the dawn, but merely disturb natural rest by untimely clamor.

But this is a question of political dynamics, which presses now for solution, and on it depends the chief fruits of the war.

If it be not rightly solved now, it will find no solution for a generation, and possibly none then without renewed civil commotions. Over the result I have no power. I can only hope and fear.

Your obedient servant,

H. Winter Davis


Speeches and Addresses Delivered in the Congress of the United States, and on Several Public Occasions, by Henry Winter Davis (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1867).