In this article, David Brown argues that the supposed democratization that swept across the antebellum South in the 1830s did not result in universal suffrage. Using state-specific works, he shows how each state south of the Mason-Dixon line responded differently to calls for universal white male voting rights. Though proslavery politicians often equated whiteness as the “bedrock of universal suffrage,” this was not the case (85). He says that “to characterize citizenship as solely a matter of whiteness is to ignore ways in which elites remained influential (100). Brown shows that the newer states along the Gulf and in the trans-Appalachian region were more likely to institute more democratic measures, beginning with Alabama’s state constitution in 1819 (86). Local politics, however, remained in the hands of the elite regardless of the state, as few democratic reformed applied at the local level (87). This was especially true in North Carolina, as one historian called local politics a “squirarchy” (97). Though not dealing specifically with black disfranchisement, this article is important to my thesis. Because reading this article, I assumed that Tennessee and North Carolina had similar democratic structures since Tennessee was once a part of North Carolina. Yet elites exerted less control on Tennessee politics, which Brown says was due to the lack of a “black belt” region, than in North Carolina (88). The discussion of North Carolina is relevant because it shows that elites took away black voting rights and did not really grant universal white suffrage either. Also local elite actually determined who could or could not vote, another reasons why I need to look at black suffrage in the local context (101). The article is a goldmine of sources, as well.
This article published in 1969 by Harold J. Counihan explicitly addresses the North Carolina state constitutional convention of 1835. Counihan address the reasons offered by legislators on whether or not to hold a convention (336-337), the Convention Act which that called for a convention to be held (337-338), the various constitutional reforms enacted, and the eventual passage of the amendments in a popular vote (361). Counihan’s analysis is important for my study, as he categorizes convention delegates in three different ways in order to see voting patters: for/against internal improvements, eastern/western, Whigs/Democrats. Some of the conclusions he comes to regarding the disfranchisement of African Americans change my perspective (346-348). First, he shows that thirty-five westerners and twenty-six easterners did not vote on the issue at all (347). Second, that all of the delegates agreed on some form of black suffrage; no one wanted to continue the status quo (346). Third, 62 percent of advocates of internal improvements voted against disfranchisement (348), and fourth, forty-nine eastern votes were the “backbone” of the resistance to black suffrage (348). I think it is going to be important for me to look closer at this break-down to see how urban easterners voted because I have been thinking that politicians in urban areas might see the black vote as an important demographic. This assumption goes against Counihan, though, as he asserts that “being labeled the Negro’s choice was one of the surest ways to end a promising political career (346).
Counihan’s article is certainly useful in that it offers an analysis of the convention and the new constitutional amendments. I think, however, that it won’t be particularly useful as a framework. I need to go back to the primary documents relating to the proceedings of the convention, so that I can offer my own analysis of the same sources. This article is also an example of the political history that excludes race or class, two aspects that I think will be of utmost importance if I am going to craft a good thesis about antebellum black suffrage.
This book highlights the transformations of the legal culture in North Carolina and South Carolina from the Revolution to 1840. Edwards’ argument is really interesting as she claims that local laws, although mostly ignored by legal scholars, were actually had more impact on people’s daily lives than did state laws. She uses the term “keeping the peace” to describe the working of local laws. Unlike those at the state level, maintaining the peace was of utmost importance by whatever means were necessary. This means that there was little precedent in the interpretation of laws or that they differed based on locality. Edwards again contends that state laws were much more abstract and focused most on issues of property because the white men in the legislatures had more property than other residents of the state. As the nineteenth century wore on, these state laws began to come more into play at the local level. As a result, more concrete interpretations and rulings occurred at the local level than previously.
As a source base, Edwards relies on court cases and other legal documents from three counties in both North Carolina and South Carolina. By comparing all these cases to one another, she is able to prove the discrepancies of local law interpretation and enforcement and that keeping the peace was the ultimate goal regardless of a legal basis.
I think this book will be influential in how I explore the topic of black disfranchisement. Although Edwards only touches on issues specifically relating to the North Carolina convention of 1835 and subsequent state-wide revocation of suffrage for African Americans, her argument will make me more aware that what laws were passed in Raleigh did not necessarily represent the practices of the entire state. Because of this, I think I will have to look at the actual practice of black suffrage in localities where it occurred and was prohibited. Court cases might also be a good source base. Maybe a free person of color sued for not being allowed to vote, or because of intimidation or violence because of his voting behavior. Thus, this work only confirms that I cannot simply rely on the debate in the Journal of the Constitutional Convention but must go outside the boundaries of state politics.
In this article, Emily West discusses the citizenship of free people of color in the antebellum South. She specifically focuses on what she calls “voluntary enslavement,” meaning when free African Americans would petition wither the state legislature or county courts to allow them to become slaves of a particular master. These petitions “blur the lines” between slave and free black (70), and demonstrates different conceptions of citizenship. For example, some free people of color realized that they could not financially support themselves or their families, alluding to the idea of an economic aspect of citizenship (72). West then explores some of the reasons why free people would chose slavery. First, they could have done so to remain close to their family since state legislatures were debating on the forced expulsion of African Americans from states (69). This is particularly likely because petitions “clustered” around times of these debates. Second, they might have been threatened or tricked into slavery (71), or, and the most likely reasons West gives, is that free people of color chose enslavement to for family reasons (73). Maybe a black man’s family were slaves and their owner was about to take them west, or a free black woman wished to remain in a relationship with a white man. Regardless of the reason, this demonstrates that free people of color did not think of slavery and freedom as polar opposites. They were sometimes more motivated by familial concerns, rather than trying to fight for citizenship (77). My takeaway from this article is that freedom for African Americans might not have been preferable to slavery, that as the nineteenth century wore on the status and toleration of free people of color diminished, and that I need to keep free black women in mind as I undertake my research.