How the Black Vote Shaped American History:
From the Three-Fifths, to “Slave Power,” to Civil War, to Black Codes, to Voting Rights 1965, to Voter ID and the Modern Black Belt
The immigrant vote, or women’s votes, or workers’ votes, or the poor white vote, or any other “minority” historically barred from voting are also important. In fact, all those are a directly related to the conversation. All of the minority voting issues are related to the oldest and most consistently consequential of those struggles, the black vote in America (or black suffrage).
Of all the social issues that had a direct impact on the policies of the United States, none is perhaps more notable than those of black Americans. This isn’t because black people are inherently more or less special than another group, but rather because for one reason or another they tend to vote lock-step and, like the closely related Socially Conservative Solid South, this has historically had a major impact on elections.
Below we summarize the history of black suffrage and its impact of national politics to describe what we mean when we say “the black vote.” We also bring up telling, but problematic terms like “slave power.” This is a historic term with a specific and broad meaning that speaks to the negative feelings poor whites expressed about the black vote and its impact on politics.
We are not talking about the morality of voter suppression and slavery, but The effect of the black voter on the balance of power in the two-party system.
A Quick History of Black Suffrage and National Politics
Below is a description of a few eras in which national politics and policy were shaped by the black vote. Remember, black men were some of the first with voting rights in America; the devil’s in the details with that one.
The Three-Fifths Compromise and Connecticut Compromise: Our Federalists founders wanted to move away from the Articles of Confederation and form a more perfect Union. At that time the northern-dominated Aristocratic Federalists like the abolitionist Alexander Hamilton and the framer of the Constitution James Madison, who was then a federalist, had to strike deals with the southern-dominate Populist Anti-Federalists like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. One such deal was that slave owners could count their slaves, who were almost all of African Heritage, as 3/5ths a person. This led to the Anti-Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, and then Democrats dominating the two-party system until the Civil War. That is “slave power” in an ironic sense, the power of a slave owner to use the black vote to stay in political power and ensure slavery. TIP: Don’t go thinking the founders were “pro-slavery.” If you haven’t read Calhoun’s arguments or the Founders’ thoughts on slavery, you probably have a skewed view on the real story here. The party that fights for Civil Rights and against slavery is always morally right on that issue. We can’t question that, but that doesn’t mean the other side is wrong on every issue or that their arguments are purely based on prejudice. History and people are complex.
The many other Compromises like Clay’s Missouri Compromise of 1820, Tariff Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850: As America started expanding there was a political problem. Every slave state meant the Democrats would dominate politics locally and nationally, thus shifting the balance of powers even further. Thus, States’ Rights and Expansion are in this sense are first and foremost about slavery and the vote. They are not just race, slavery, and the vote, but also about states’ rights “small government,” and about the right of a state to expand and say no to “big government.” They also reflect the South’s concern about being crushed economically by the citied, bank-friendly, trading, factory heavy north. The compromises of Henry Clay and the Great Triumvirate were able to stave off the Civil War for a time, but each is a notable testament to the Black Vote and “Slave Power” and “Southern Power.” In this sense, slave power, as described above, speaks to soon-to-be-Republicans (then Whigs and Free-soilers) who feared that expansion meant “southern slave power.”
Civil War and Reconstruction: The country entered into a Civil War over this issue. If we take a sympathetic neo-confederate perspective, we can see that the northern aristocrats never cared that, taking slavery away from the South was going to destroy the southern way of life. It would make, in the word’s of the old Southern segregationists like Clymer, “the Radical “AKA Socially Progressive Anti-Confederate” Republicans want to make both the African American and the poor white American the economic slave of the rich northern white man. This is why people hated the Tyrant Lincoln and didn’t much like Grant, the general who fought against the South.” Calhoun, the Confederates, and the others who bought into this expressed a valid concern. Immoral as slavery was and is, it is legitimate to think that Freemen were going to stop voting the Democratic Party ticket and start supporting Republicans. This is what the “slave power” argument meant at the time. Of course, that is exactly what happened. All that “Southern Slave Power” was set to become “Northern Freedman Power,” but radical Confederate factions, the compromise of 187,7 and Plessy vs. Ferguson saw to it that the story was not as simple as this in the South. The second that Freedmen could vote in the Deep South, they voted Republican for a brief time, in between black codes, Poll taxes, and KKK lynchings. The Deep South wouldn’t reflect the will of the black voter until a time in the future that hasn’t happened yet. See the black belt, but remember MLK is part of the Freedom Democrats of Mississippi, so there is more to this.
Bryan, the Progressive Era, and the Welfare State: One might assume that once Blacks vote Republican, they never changed. However, this is not the case at all. They turned away from the old, suspiciously chosen Donkey icon. The donkey, carrying another man’s load up a hill, was selected by “Gilded Age” Republican Thomas Nast to stand in opposition to the old and wise elephant. Instead, the Gilded Age and Progressive era came along. This is a giant story, but essentially, The progressive populist Bryan pushed back against the Gilded Age and fought for equal rights for all, special privileges for none. Not to be outdone, both major parties turned from Gilded Age pro-business Baronism and Cronyism to Progressivism. Despite this, the Solid South still voted Democrat, and the black vote (when and if it can be cast given Plessy) typically went to Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy, in a rage against the conservative wing of his party, quit the Republicans and formed the Progressive Bull Moose Party. That left a big hole in the Republican party. They shifted to the socially conservative small-government right-wing from Harding, to Coolidge, to Hoover. Then we got FDR as a Democrat and decades of a push and pull between the Solid South Conservative Democrat and Liberal Progressive Populist Democrats and Bourbon Liberal Big State Democrats. After all that pushing and pulling, not everyone was left standing. In fact, what happened was that those Teddy Progressives (like Lincoln) found a new home in the Democratic Party as the Solid Conservative South started to leave over Civil Rights 1964 and Voting Rights 1965. This ended the Jim Crow era, or at least a solid chunk of it. Liberal Democrats like MLK, Kennedy, and Humphrey with the help of the more solid, but still progressive in some senses, Gores and LBJs (and even, unconformably, but tellingly, Byrd) pushed for this. Given that the Dixiecrats like Thurmond eventually joined the Goldwater Republicans, the Democratic Party (in its new form) since then earned the majority of the black vote.
TIP: When black America gained voting rights as a result of the rise of progressivism, the right-wing responded with their current strategy which brought together many socially conservative factions to push back against Civil Rights and Progressivism (to return or conservative back to 1900). People call the southern aspect “the Southern Strategy,” but it is way more than this. It is what I’d call “the Republican Sixth Party Strategy” or what Hillary Clinton called “the Vast Right-wing Conspiracy.” You can read about it on our page on conservatism (as modern social conservatism is the result of the strategy).
How the South Went Republican: Can Democrats Ever Win There Again? (1992).
TIP: Don’t confuse economic inequality (a national problem) with socially conservative policies that hurt blacks more than whites. The first problem is one that both neocons and neoliberals share. It is the classist divide in any country occurring once again. It is complex, but not identical to socially conservative policies like a ban on Muslims or telling trans individuals that they can’t use a bathroom or making a black person sit in the back of a bus. One is a problem of globalism and the welfare state; one is a part of the fear embedded in the human condition expressing itself as a policy of prejudice. Neither is of positive social value, but they aren’t “the same.”
Viewing this From a Modern Lens
Only recently have black Americans been able to vote freely, and most freely cast their votes for the Democratic Party. This is not as ironic as it seems at first because today “the parties have switched” and most of the old Solid South is voting for Small-Government Socially-Conservative Republicans.
Today, the alt-right might say “the same Democratic party is still exploiting the black vote, now they are just using the welfare state instead of the plantation.” I am not saying that one should dismiss business interests and their special interests. There is a conversation where the subjugated individual isn’t of a skin color but socio-economic class. There is class-based, but not fully party-line conversation on this topic that we will not enter into here. It is a subject that is more about Marx’s class revolution and populism than the black vote.
The Democratic Party usually has the women’s’ vote, workers’ vote, black vote, immigrant vote, etc. This isn’t because of some welfare state plan for enslavement (save that a few business-minded folk will leverage any system that springs up). It is because our forefathers like Jefferson, Bryan, the Roosevelts, Henry A. Wallace, Kennedy, MLK, LBJ, Humphrey, Carter, Clinton, and Obama put hard work into the Democratic party. The progressive liberal Democratic party wing prevailed from Wilson to Obama. Some Southern Dixies stayed around, but the majority of them “switched” as you can see on a voter map over time.
To see the relationship of prejudice to political parties, we can look at Clinton’s Republican-inspired Crime Bill, Bush’s NINA loans, the great migrations, opposition to desegregation and busing and the effects that has had on inner-city schools, opposition to Brown v. Board of Education, the Southern Manifesto, the States’ Rights Democratic Party of 48′, Lee Atwater, the war on drugs, and the private prison system and mass incarceration. The issues of guns, money-based legal systems, the ceilings that welfare creates, and the obstructionism of the Republicans in welfare implementation remain. Prejudice is not limited to one party. We are talking about factions and party platforms, not some saintly attitude of a base of 60 million.
There are countless places to point to tell the full story. It can’t be told here; this piece is just about the one core concept of “the black vote.”
One party has valid concerns about the black vote being used against them because it has historically suppressed it. It is both a moral issue and an issue of practicalities that began before any of us were born.
There are traces of the past in both parties. The Republican party isn’t the party of Lincoln concerning social policy, and we can see this in the solid Socially Conservative and black votes.
The point here is this:
To remind us that Black America is, at heart, the story of the American experience.
That people and parties can change.
That, social and economic issues both tear us apart as a nation. Sometimes it is a matter of “vote getting.”
The “slave power” or “southern power” argument isn’t something we should be interpreting as “the argument that was widely used by the Republican Party that formed in 1854–55 to oppose the expansion of slavery.” Instead, it can be seen as an important way to remind ourselves that the argument over the three-fifths, “Southern Power,” “Slave Power,” the Black Vote, etc. are all part of the same issue. The fact is that there are legions of black Americans. Alienating them has, historically, been an immoral move. The issue of discrimination may be “about votes” to the aristocrats and oligarchs.
Let us end by reframing the first point made above. In some respects, the only group more influential in American politics than the monied aristocracy and oligarchy who have power through wealth and heritage is Black America.
That the Conservative South made being anti-black their main voting issue for centuries and you can see how this has shaped modern politics. Black America is powerful. They aren’t only a voting mass, but they drive the policy of another large voting mass.
The problem here is that while “race” is still a major voter issue, there is much more to politics aside from that. We must move away from the issues of racism, xenophobia, or fear of others. Divisive social issues are one of the most powerful, yet destructive parts of politics. All our intentions aside, ethnically divisive issues distract us from pressing problems like economic issues that are seldom helped by party politics.