In our current hyper-partisan political environment large-scale political reform has often given way to smaller legislative agendas. President Obama’s signature health care and financial reform bills, which passed without significant Republican support, are cases in point.
In light of the resounding defeat handed to the Democrats in last month’s midterm elections, a slew of opinion pieces have been written relating our present economic and political situation to the one America faced during the Reconstruction.
In a similar vein, I want to look at African American suffrage and its impact on women suffrage during Reconstruction with one critical question in mind: at what point do agendas become bogged down and at what point are their too many moving parts?
As a quick aside, the mythology of Reconstruction has an incredibly adverse impact on race relations in the United States. The ramifications of depictions presenting African Americans as lazy, ignorant, and violent have had far reaching consequences beyond legal discrimination. It explains why Reconstruction and the Civil remain fascinating subjects to the American public at large precisely because their political and social legacies remain with us today.
We are still debating what it means to be a United States citizen and as long as that question remains unresolved the Civil War will remain an unresolved conflict. For anyone hoping to read more about Reconstruction and its aftermath Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long and Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction are excellent historical accounts to consult.
Before the fourteenth amendment compelled states to enforce the voting rights of male African Americans, the future voting status of these once slaves was very much up in the air. Radicals had long advocated giving Blacks the right to vote as means to expand the Republican footprint in the South. Conversely moderates and certainly Democrats voiced concern at immediately extending this political right to those they feared would be manipulated into filling the congress with unscrupulous carpetbaggers.
As these tense negotiations filled both chambers of the House Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were angling to get women’s suffrage on the legislative agenda. They forcefully argued that the time for large-scale change was now. Fredrick Douglass and other African American political leaders rejected these overtures claiming that this was the “negro’s hour” for change not to shared with any other alienated group seeking redress.
Ultimately, congressional leaders thought guaranteeing women’s suffrage was too radical a step. Remember at this time no state allowed women to vote and the language of fourteenth amendment was implicitly crafted to restrict voting to men.
Elizabeth Stanton was said to have remarked that failure to include women’s suffrage would close to the door to women for at least fifty years. Sure enough it took a little more than fifty years for the nineteenth amendment to be ratified.
Leaders need to be able to gauge the environments they operate in. This inherently requires one to be pragmatic and assess the situation not as we would like it be, but as it is.
Within the realm of this example it means asking oneself: Should radicals have risked women’s suffrage at the expense of potentially endangering the ratification of the fourteenth amendment?