Sunday, January 10, 2021

“The Destruction of a Free Ballot”

Joseph H. Rainey (1832–1887)
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

Portrait of Joseph Hayne Rainey, 2004, oil on canvas by American artist Simmie Knox (b. 1935), who set the scene in House Connecting Corridor on the second floor of the Capitol. Rainey is seated in a distinctive House Chamber chair designed in 1857. The half-finished Washington Monument is visible through the window, both situating the scene historically and representing the nation’s incomplete journey toward equality. Image and caption courtesy of the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.
During the summer and fall of 1876, Democrats organized “rifle clubs” to intimidate and terrorize Republican voters across the state of South Carolina and on July 8, in the town of Hamburg, six black men were killed. Upon hearing of the incident, Ulysses S. Grant wrote the state’s Republican governor Daniel H. Chamberlain: “The scene at Hamburg, as cruel, bloodthirsty, wanton, unprovoked, and as uncalled for as it was, is only a repetition of the course that has been pursued in other Southern States within the last few years—notably in Mississippi and Louisiana—Mississippi is governed today by officials chosen through fraud and violence, such as would scarcely be accredited to savages, much less to a civilized and christian people.” In September, after thirty African Americans were killed in an even more brazen incident in Ellenton, Grant sent troops to the state to help ensure a free and fair election.

The presidential election that year, between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford Hayes, proved to be a debacle, resulting in disputed electoral counts from conflicting returns in South Carolina and other states. In January Republicans introduced a bill, passed by Congress and signed by Grant, to create a fifteen-member electoral commission. Made up of three Republican and two Democratic senators, three Democratic and two Republican representatives, and five associate justices of the Supreme Court, the commission issued a series of 8–7 rulings that reflected the partisan affiliations of its members and awarded all the disputed electoral votes to Hayes, giving him a majority of one, 185–184. A joint session of Congress declared Hayes the victor on March 2 and he was sworn in the next day, followed by a public inauguration on March 5.

For several years, the presence of federal troops at the polls had been anathema to white southerners. A series of three Enforcement Acts passed by Congress and signed by Grant in 1870 and 1871 made the denial of suffrage on racial grounds through force, fraud, bribery, and intimidation a federal offense; established federal supervision over congressional elections in cities with more than 20,000 people; authorized prosecution in federal court of individuals who conspired to deprive citizens of their rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; and gave the president the power to call out federal troops to protect the franchise. In opposition to these laws, Democrats argued that it was the responsibilities of the states, not the federal government, to protect the constitutional rights of individuals. In response, Benjamin Butler, a Republican congressman from Massachusetts, asked, “If the Federal Government cannot pass laws to protect the rights, liberty, and lives of citizens of the United States in the States, why were guarantees of those fundamental rights put in the Constitution at all?” During the floor debate over the third of the Enforcement Acts, commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, South Carolina congressman Joseph H. Rainey (who had become the first African American member of the House of Representatives only months earlier) told his colleagues, “I desire that so broad and liberal a construction be placed upon its provisions as will insure protection to the humblest citizen, without regard to rank, creed, or color. Tell me nothing of a constitution which fails to shelter beneath its rightful power the people of a country!”

Rainey was born into slavery in 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina. His father, a barber, saved enough to buy his family’s freedom in the early 1840s, and Rainey learned the trade and during the 1850s became a successful barber at the 180-room Mills House Hotel in Charleston. During the Civil War, he fled to Bermuda with his family. Returning after the war, he became a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1868 and then a state senator. In 1870, following the resignation of a congressman accused of selling appointments, Rainey was nominated to fill the remainder of the term in the House of Representatives, and that fall he won landslide victories in both the special election to fill the partial term and the regular election to fill the following full term. Six years later, thanks in no small part to the federal troops that protected black citizens while they voted, Rainey won a fourth full term in Congress in 1876, defeating the Democratic candidate John S. Richardson with 52% of the vote.

Because of the chaos and outcome of the presidential and gubernatorial elections, however, Rainey’s final election victory proved bittersweet. As Brook D. Simpson notes in the anthology Reconstruction, “The resolution of the disputed Hayes-Tilden Presidential contest through the series of agreements styled the Compromise of 1877 marked the end of an era in Reconstruction policy, while the restoration of home rule to white southerners paved the way for the era of disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and widespread lynching.” The effects were immediate. In the weeks following the disputed 1876 election, South Carolina Republicans and Democrats established rival state governments. On April 10, five weeks after he became president, Hayes ordered the withdrawal of federal troops from the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia and Governor Chamberlain surrendered his office. The Democrat, Wade Hampton, a former Confederate lieutenant general, became governor the next day.

“It had always been Hayes’s intention,” Simpson notes, “to adopt a new approach to Reconstruction that shelved federal intervention in favor of encouraging cooperation between southern whites and blacks. This optimistic vision proved a flat failure.” Hayes himself admitted defeat in a diary entry shortly after the mid-term election in November 1878: “By state legislation, by frauds, by intimidation, and by violence of the most atrocious character, colored citizens have been deprived of the right of suffrage—a right guaranteed by the Constitution, and to the protection of which the people of those States have been solemnly pledged.” Hamstrung by a Congress now controlled by Democrats, Hayes could do—and did—nothing.

One of the targets of the southern campaign of voter suppression and intimidation in 1878 was Rainey, who lost his rematch against Richardson. On the final day of his congressional career, March 3, 1879, Rainey obtained leave from the House to have his remarks on his election loss printed in the record, and we present them here as our Story of the Week selection.

Notes: The gentleman from Louisiana quoted by Rainey is Ezekiel J. Ellis, a Democratic congressman, whose statement is from the majority report of the Committee on Elections, May 18, 1878. The reference to Zulus fighting in Africa is to the Anglo-Zulu War, January–July 1879, which ended in the defeat of the Zulus. At the end of the speech Rainey refers favorably to a “colleague,” John H. Evins, a freshman Democratic congressman from South Carolina during Rainey’s last term.

Portions of the above introduction were adapted from the Chronology and Notes sections of Reconstruction, edited by Brooks D. Simpson.

*   *   *
MR. SPEAKER, much has been said on this floor regarding the presence of soldiers at or near the polls on election day, . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.