New Methodologies on Black Disfranchisement

Historians of antebellum black disfranchisement in North Carolina and Tennessee have traditionally viewed that subject through a political lens. The common reason for the elimination of African American suffrage rests on the development of the second two-party political system. Because free blacks were their constituents, future Whigs did not want to prevent free blacks from voting, but Democrats, on the other hand, had every reason to eliminate oppositional voters from the electorate. I agree with this interpretation, but I think that there were other factors that contributed to disfranchisement, as well. This interpretation also does not sufficiently answer the question as to why even Whigs wanted to limit African American suffrage based on the wealth of free blacks.
In my project, I hope to combine the political interpretation of antebellum black disfranchisement with gender, race and class methodologies. By doing so, I can put the subject in the correct historical context. Previous historians have not discussed how external factors, like racial identity, class tensions, and gender dynamics, might have contributed to white elites’ desire to eliminate the voting rights of free African Americans. For example, poorer whites and those in the less-represented areas of North Carolina petitioned and pressured state legislatures to give them more political power at the state level. Similarly, East Tennesseans occupied a section in the state that was losing power in state politics, as more and more people moved west in search of better lands for agriculture. With regards to gender, many scholars of masculinity stress the idea that a change in financial situation can result in a crisis of masculinity, and in the 1830’s this was happening to North Carolina slaveholders, as the new southwestern lands began producing more agricultural products causing a drain of slaves to these new areas. Race is also key to understanding black disfranchisement. Free blacks constituted an ill-defined place in southern society, somewhere between free whites and enslaved blacks.
My choice of methodology also hinges on the sources I hope to use in my project. Having spent a considerable amount of time both before and during this semester searching for primary sources, I have come to the conclusion that very few records of disfranchised African Americans exist. So far, I have only found the one illegible letter from the black North Carolinian John Chavis to U.S. Senator Willie Mangum. Even though the previous secondary sources on the topic rely on the debates from the constitutional conventions and the manuscript collections of prominent figures in the disfranchisement debate, I fully believe I will be able to read against the grain, so to speak, searching for issues of class, race, and gender. Also, because I am looking at the historical context of disfranchisement and the motivations of those white elites that took the vote away from blacks, I can use sources that have not been used in previous work on southern disfranchisement. Financial documents, letters and petitions from disgruntled lower class whites, voting rolls, census documents, and newspaper editorials are all examples of sources that might be useful in my study. Thus, I hope to use southern disfranchisement as a case study to view larger issues of masculinity, changing class dynamics, and the dynamic social construction of race in the antebellum South.

6 thoughts on “New Methodologies on Black Disfranchisement

  1. Lucas,
    You might want to think about disenfranchisement at the “intersection” of these forces of race, class, and gender. If at the intersection, like in the bedraggled daisy, you create a spot for disenfranchisement that doesn’t treat race, class, and gender as separate issues but as interrelated ones — some groups privileging one set of tensions while others priviledged a different set, but race, class, and gender were always apparent, no matter who was supporting or rejecting black voting rights.

  2. “By doing so, I can put the subject in the correct historical context” You might want to find a different word for “correct,” especially since you say that a political interpretation isn’t necessarily incorrect. A social history approach, it seems, will point to the complex factors that shape political decisionmaking. But race, class, and gender might not necessarily be the only way to complicate the political interpretation.

  3. Sounds like your project is related to my project for Dr. Quigley’s class–since not much has been done on either antebellum black disfranchisement or Northern Confederates, we’ll both have to do some reading against the grain. I think that will actually strengthen your argument as long as you steep yourself in other sources, since reading your own interpretation into the documents will ensure you are writing with your own voice and sharing original thoughts.

  4. Lucas, I think this is really well phrased. I like that you are going to bring in race, class, and gender to what has traditionally been a political discussion. Are there any historians whose frameworks you like for studying gender, race and class?

  5. Yes–good idea to pitch this as a project that will use social history to add new dimensions to a subject that is usually seen only in the political realm. I think you’re onto something with the notion of overlapping crises of economy/race/class/etc. Looking at Andrew Jackson might give you some interesting ideas: his politics seem to have been activated by exactly these kinds of anxieties.

    1. Dr. Quigley, I hadn’t thought of looking at Jackson at all. I just checked out “The Passions of Andrew Jackson” from the library, which might offer a new interpretation of him.

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