The Republican Party used freedmen votes to win elections from Grant onward, though the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland demonstrated that more federal election interference in the South was needed to ensure GOP victories. Amid Republican claims that free elections were not being held in the South, Senator Zebulon Vance spoke against the Republican’s 1890 Force Bill and their assertion of electoral purity:
“[t]he supporters of this bill . . . is the same party, which inaugurated Reconstruction. By Reconstruction, it will be remembered one-fifth of the votes in eleven States was suppressed by law. The punishment of disfranchisement was freely inflicted [on Southerners] as a punishment for crime without trial and conviction. Thousands upon top of thousands of other votes were suppressed by fraud . . . [and] there were received and counted the ballots of those who were not entitled to suffrage under any law known to American history or tradition.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Threats of Federal Interference in Elections
“At the end of Reconstruction period the South, which had lost so much in other ways, gained in its representation in Congress through counting all the Negroes in the apportionment. In 1860 it had 108 representatives, in 1880 it had 135. In the same period the three Middle Atlantic States rose from 66 to 73, and the six New England States declined from 41 to 40.
The Southern gain worked for the advantage of the Democrats and the disadvantage of the Republicans. The Republicans, now controlling both houses of Congress, were indignant at a situation which . . . deprived them of votes in the House. This feeling led them to bring in the Federal Election Bill of 1890 . . . On its face the law applied to all parts of the country, but it was aimed mainly at the South and the city of New York.
Candid Southerners did not deny suppressing the Negro vote, but they justified it by saying a great wrong had been done when Negro suffrage was imposed on the South by military force; and they insisted it was necessary to eliminate that vote in order to have good government. Southerners gave clear warning that it would be impossible to enforce a law to put the South in the hands of the Negroes.
The bill passed the House but came to a halt in the Senate. The more it was considered the greater was the unwillingness to enter upon the stormy course its passage would produce. The proposal was finally killed by an agreement between eight free-silver Senators and a group of Southern senators.
The threat to pass the election bill alarmed Southerners greatly, and the defeat of the bill did not altogether remove their fears; for federal interference might be renewed at any time.
Another source of anxiety to the Southern Democrats was the appearance of the People’s [Populist] Party in their midst with a fair prospect of dividing the white vote. These two things led Southerners to pass certain amendments to several State constitutions, in order to exclude the Negro from voting without incurring penalties for violating the Fifteenth Amendment.
To do this it was necessary to word the alterations so that the Negro was not disenfranchised upon the specified grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the only grounds on which at that time the rights of suffrage might not be denied.
It was natural that these amendments should go to the Supreme Court for interpretation. But that tribunal showed a strong unwillingness to pas upon them in fact. To overthrow them would produce a critical situation in the South, where the whites were more determined that the Negroes should not rule either all or any part of the section. The Court showed a desire to avoid precipitating a sectional conflict.
Nevertheless the Fifteenth Amendment is still a part of the federal Constitution; and when the Negro race comes to have the weight of trained intelligence and the substantial possession of property, it will probably find a way to qualify and vote under the present State amendments.”
(Expansion and Reform, 1889-1926, John Spencer Bassett, Kennikat Press, 1971 (original 1926), pp. 22-24)