Crafting an Identity 

All of the 19th-century black Congressmen were Republicans, recognizing and appreciating the role that the Republican Party played in obtaining their political rights and—for many—their emancipation.27 Most remained lifelong Republicans and encouraged their black constituents to vote for white GOP candidates as well. “We are not ungrateful or unappreciative people,” Robert Smalls said on the House Floor. “We can never forget the Moses who led us out of the land of bondage.”28 In 1872, Liberal Republicans ran their own candidate, newspaper editor Horace Greeley, against incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant, testing the black Congressmen’s loyalty to the GOP. The Liberal platform embraced the enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments, amnesty for former Confederates, and a laissez-faire economic policy. Prominent advocates for black civil rights, including Senator Charles Sumner, joined the Liberal camp. Despite their agreement with most of the Liberal Republican platform, black Representatives generally allied themselves with the GOP. Jeremiah Haralson of Alabama told a meeting of prominent black New Orleans politicians, “I have been a slave all my life and am free on account of the Republican Party, and if it comes to an issue, I for one am ready to let Charles Sumner fall and let the Republican Party stand.”29 Grant handily defeated Greeley—who also ran as the Democratic candidate.30

P.B.S. Pinchback/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_pinchback_lc_dig_cwpbh_03863.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress In a unique case of double contested elections, African-American Pinckney B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana was elected simultaneously to both the Senate and House. Pinchback lost the contested House seat and, citing claims of fraud in the state legislature, the Senate denied him his seat as well. Serving as provisional governor of Louisiana at the time, Pinchback signed his own election certifications.
Factionalism was an even larger problem for the GOP in the South than it was on a national scale. Propped up by military rule under Reconstruction governments, southern Republicans recognized early on that their majorities depended on courting both black and white constituencies—especially as former Confederates regained the right to vote. Various Republican factions disagreed on how best to accomplish this, pivoting on several fulcrums in the Reconstruction South. The foremost was geographic origin, dividing between carpetbaggers and scalawags. Carpetbaggers were white Republicans from the North, who were primarily Union veterans seeking new political and economic opportunites in the South. White GOP partisans native to the South, many of whom were Unionists during the Civil War, were known as scalawags. Initially, scalawags were typically elected on more conservative platforms—they favored leniency toward former Confederates and focused on the economic rehabilitation of the war-torn South. Carpetbaggers tended to run more radical campaigns, advocating forceful civil rights legislation protecting black southerners.31

The nominating convention system used to select candidates only exacerbated GOP factionalism. In a practice born in the 1830s, voters elected delegates, who then attended local conventions to elect candidates for Congress as well as for other state and local offices. Delegates elected candidates by voice vote; if a single candidate did not receive a majority of votes, the convention chair would call for another round of voting (or balloting) and continue this practice until a majority was obtained. The convention system initially consolidated party power and allowed party leaders to control the flow of the conventions. However, in the Reconstruction South, party conventions were often contentious, violent, and inconclusive in the face of several factions. Those not officially receiving the party nomination often ran as third-party “Independent Republican candidates.32 Race was a second fulcrum on which GOP factions balanced, and white Republicans losing nominations to black candidates frequently ran as Independent Republicans in the general election, effectively splitting the GOP vote.

carpetbagger/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_carpet_bagger_harpers_Nov-9-1872_-LC-USZ62-77793.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Referencing the trend of northerners moving to southern states to run for elective office, Harper’s Weekly illustrated the “carpet bagger” in another drawing by Radical-Republican-sympathizing cartoonist Thomas Nast, its November 9, 1872, issue.
White Republican leaders were careful to maintain hegemony, even in states with black majorities, such as South Carolina, which had the largest black population (60 percent) concentrated in the low country—coastal areas with pre-war rice and cotton plantations.33 A series of strong, white Republican governors came to power throughout the Reconstruction period, often bolstered by the large black electorate. Carpetbagger Robert Scott (1868–1872), scalawag Franklin Moses (1872–1874), and carpetbagger Daniel Chamberlain (1874–1877) all served as Republican executives.

The Scott and Moses administrations were ridiculed nationwide for their corruption. A former doctor and Civil War colonel from Ohio, Robert Scott arrived in South Carolina as an assistant commissioner in the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866. He soon became a staunch defender of African-American rights in the South, volunteering his medical services and setting up camps and clinics for destitute freedmen. Scott’s popularity catapulted him to the governor’s mansion just two years later, primarily via the black vote. Yet Scott’s administration soon succumbed to accusations of kickbacks and bribes involving the state’s railroad funds as well as corrupt practices by the State Land Commission, created to purchase and resell parcels of land to freedmen. Scott left office in 1872 under a cloud of scrutiny, leaving the state heavily in debt. His successor, South Carolina native Franklin Moses, followed his predecessor’s practices, often steering public money into projects to pay down his personal debt. When creditors attempted to arrest him, Moses called in the state militia to defend himself. Thoroughly discredited by 1874, Moses did not stand for re-election.34Alonzo Ransier, who had earned a reputation for honesty statewide, despite having served as lieutenant governor under Scott, was particularly critical of the Moses administration. He told an audience of constituents, “let every man feel that society at large will hold him and the party accountable for every misdeed in the administration of government, and will credit him with every honest effort in the interest of the people and…of good government.”35 Generally, however, the black Representatives defended their GOP state governments against attacks by Democrats on the House Floor. Josiah Walls noted that, “daily, you hear it loudly proclaimed upon this floor by the enemies of this Government that ‘reconstruction’ in the South caused by the enfranchisement of the Negro “is a failure.’…But they suggest no remedy for evils that are said to exist, nor do they deny the fact that it is the [white supremacists] banded together for the very purpose of overthrowing regularly established State governments by force and fraud.”36

The relationship between black and white Republicans was the “progeny of a simple quid pro quo,” explains one scholar. “Republicans wanted southern black votes to secure their burgeoning political dominance, and, in exchange . . . African Americans wanted protection from discrimination . . . and a greater share of freedom and equality.”37 African Americans eventually expressed a hope that the freedmen constituency would have a choice in party loyalty in the future. Representative John Lynch noted on the House Floor, “I want to see the day come when the colored people of this county can afford to occupy an independent position in politics. But that day, in my judgment, will never come so long as there remains a strong, powerful, intelligent, wealthy organization arrayed against them as a race and as a class.”38

Relegated to a single party, black candidates had the overwhelming task of balancing both factions of the Republican Party. One historian notes that “since [African-American politicians] could neither leave the party, nor control it, black Republicans began to operate as a pressure group within it. . . . In this sense, they were practicing what later became known as ethnic politics. Operating as a group, they tried to barter votes for offices and benefits.”39 Black officeholders saw themselves as advocates for their race, not just their constituents—a political strategy that was later described as “surrogate” representation.40Richard Cain, who served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses (1873–1875; 1877–1879), regularly referred to the “five million people for whom I speak,” indicating the total African-American population in the United States at the time.41


Black-majority districts were essential for electing African-American Representatives, especially in South Carolina, which elected relatively large numbers of black Members. Only one man served a district whose population was less than 50 percent black: James Rapier represented, for one term, a southeastern Alabama district whose population was 44 percent black.42 The rest served districts whose populations were typically at least 60 percent African-American. Reconstruction-Era Republican state legislatures gerrymandered (drew districts that maximized their voting populations) southern states to boost the party’s national strength upon their return to the Union. As speaker of the Mississippi state assembly in 1872, John Lynch reapportioned the state’s six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, creating five Republican-dominated districts. Later that year, he won a coastal seat with a majority-black (55 percent) population.

South Carolina was, arguably, the crucible of black congressional experience in the Reconstruction South; six of the 17 Black Americans to serve in Congress during Reconstruction were from the Palmetto State. This number alone, however, fails to convey South Carolina’s influence on black service in the Capitol during the 19th century. Only one Congress—the 46th Congress (1879–1881)—did not have a black man in the South Carolina delegation between 1870 and 1887; no black men from any state served in the House during that Congress. In the 42nd Congress (1871–1873), all but one of the state’s four congressional districts were represented by black men. Richard Cain’s election as an At-Large Representative (representing the entire state) in the following Congress meant five out of six South Carolina Representatives were black.

Freedmen's Bureau/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_freedmen_bureau_LC_USZ62_105555.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress A.R. Waud portrayed the agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau as peacemakers between blacks and whites in this 1868 print.
Several factors account for South Carolina’s dominance in black representation. Union forces captured some of the South Carolina Sea Islands as early as 1861, emancipating the large slave populations and introducing them early to the educational and economic benefits of Reconstruction—as well as political organization. Led by a mixed-race elite, black Charlestonians also organized quickly after the war’s end. Protesting the Black Codes—a series of restrictive laws dictating black employment, movement, and lifestyle approved by the state legislature in September 1865—black South Carolinians organized a statewide Colored Peoples Convention in November. Several future South Carolina Members of Congress cut their political teeth at the convention, including Joseph Rainey, Robert De Large, Alonzo Ransier, and Richard Cain. Their protest proved successful; in early 1866 the new military commander of South Carolina, Union General Daniel Sickles, nullified the Black Codes. After the 15th Amendment became law, the Republican Party quickly marshaled the large, organized population on the South Carolina coast into a dominant voting bloc.43 Unlike other states, whose black participation succumbed to white Republicans by the 1870s, black South Carolinians maintained a majority in the state legislature from 1868 to 1876. Black presiding officers reigned in the state house of representatives from 1872 to 1876; Robert Elliott resigned his seat in Congress to take over the state speakership in 1874.

Black candidates still faced monumental electoral obstacles, despite the majority of black and Republican voters in their districts. Violence and intimidation were commonplace during congressional campaigns. A variety of white supremacist groups existed, the most notorious being the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Red Shirts and Rifle Clubs operated out of South Carolina. White Leagues flourished throughout the South.44 White supremacists threatened black voters and attacked the candidates during campaigns. The irregularities and confusion resulting from violent campaigns led to an influx of contested elections, and the House Committee on Elections handled an unusually heavy caseload during the Reconstruction Era. Established in the 1st Congress in 1789, the committee was charged with rendering judgments on disputed elections based on evidence and witness testimony. Members of the panel heard each candidate’s evidence asserting his right to the seat. The committee voted for its choice candidate and reported its findings to the whole House for a final vote. Usually, the candidate representing the majority party had a distinct advantage because votes within the committee and on the House Floor were often decided along party lines.45 Sixty percent of cases heard by the committee between 1867 and 1911 were from the former Confederacy—a percentage that is even more impressive given that Confederate states constituted around 25 percent of the House.46

Revels Credential/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_revels_credentials_nara.xml Hiram Revels’soriginal election certificate, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration. On January 25, 1870, the provisional governor of Mississippi certified that the Mississippi state legislature elected Hiram Revels to the United States Senate.
Though every southern state experienced violent elections, Alabama was the center of KKK activity. In September of 1868, Klansmen forced James Rapier to flee his home for a Montgomery, Alabama, boarding house where he lived in obscurity for a year. Seeking re-election in 1874 to his southeastern Alabama district, Rapier faced stolen and destroyed ballot boxes, bribery, fraudulent vote counts, armed intimidation, and murder. Frightened black voters stayed home and Rapier lost the election.47 The inability of his central Alabama neighbor Jeremiah Haralson to garner more than 700 votes in a district whose population was more than 80 percent black led the New York Times to observe in 1884, “the Democrats will always win in Alabama, no matter how great the preponderance of the black voting population.”48

When Mississippi Democrats vowed to recapture the state government in the spring of 1874, Representative John Lynch’s re-election campaign nearly succumbed to the pressure. “The Democrats were bold, outspoken, defiant, and determined,” Lynch remarked. “I noticed that I was not received and greeted.” Mississippi Democratic clubs were converted into “armed military companies” that raided his Republican meetings.49 At an evening speech in Vicksburg, lights were extinguished and Lynch was nearly crushed in a riotous stampede.50 Lynch was the only Republican to survive a Democratic sweep in the polls in Mississippi. “It would be a source of personal pride and congratulation if I could declare upon the floor of the House of Representatives today that mob-law and violence do not exist in any part of the South and are not tolerated by any portion of its citizens,” Lynch said. “The circumstances are such that the facts would not sustain me in making this declaration.”51 Senator Blanche Bruce made a similar observation. Having witnessed White League intimidation, Bruce warned his colleagues that “violence so unprovoked . . . is a spectacle not only discreditable to the country, but is dangerous to the integrity of our free institutions.”52

Contested Elections

Black Representatives in the Reconstruction Era were profoundly affected by contested elections. A contested election prevented the seating of the first black man who won a congressional election. On October 4, 1868, John Willis Menard, an Illinois-born mulatto newspaper editor who had held several GOP patronage positions since 1862, declared his candidacy for a special election to fill a vacant New Orleans, Louisiana, seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Though he won the special election with 65 percent of the vote, his opponent, Democrat Caleb Hunt, contested the results, and the House Committee on Elections declared the seat vacant. Menard defended his right to take office, becoming the first black man to speak before the House while it was in session, on February 27, 1869. Three other black men—Joseph Rainey, Josiah Walls, and Richard Cain—all lost contested elections. Rainey remained in his seat, despite the ruling of the Committee on Elections, because the House never took up his case for a full vote. Five black Members contested six separate elections they lost. Only John Lynch and Robert Smalls successfully contested their 1880 electoral losses before the majority Republican 47th Congress (1881–1883).53

Black Members preoccupied with defending their contested seats lost valuable time needed to introduce legislation or give speeches on the House Floor. As the enormous caseload trickled through the Committee on Elections, the panel often delayed its deliberations until late in the second session. Contested elections and the personal and political turmoil that ensued marred the political career of Josiah Walls. The Ku Klux Klan, entrenched near his northern Florida home, managed to unseat him twice by running ex-Confederate generals against him in contests for an At-Large seat and a district representing eastern Florida. Walls was unable to legislate at all in the 44th Congress (1875–1877), as he was preoccupied defending his seat.

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27Some sources note that Jeremiah Haralson of Alabama ran for Congress as a Democrat in the 1868 election. See Loren Schweninger and Alston Fitts, III, “Haralson, Jeremiah,” American National Biography 10 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 37–38 (hereinafter referred to as ANB). Michael Dubin makes no mention of Haralson’s candidacy for the 1868 general election; it is possible Haralson failed to win the nomination. See Michael Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 213.

28Congressional Record, Appendix, 49th Cong., 1st sess. (30 July 1886): A319.

29Quoted in Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 133.

30For more on the Liberal Republican movement, see Andrew L. Slap, The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

31Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869–1879 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984): 22–56.

32Though the post–Civil War years saw the first interest in popular primaries, the convention system remained in place in the South. For more on this topic, see John F. Reynolds, The Demise of the American Convention System, 1880–1901 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Charles Edward Merriam, Primary Elections (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908): 1–17.

33Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: xii.

34William L. Barney, “Scott, Robert Kingston,” 19 ANB: 505–507; Christine Doyle, “Moses, Franklin J., Jr.,” 15 ANB: 971–972.

35Quoted in Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 103.

36Congressional Record, Appendix, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1875): A166–169.

37Michael K. Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2007): 34.

38Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess (13 June 1874): 4955.

39Perman, The Road to Redemption: 38.

40For a discussion of surrogate representation using modern examples, see Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657.

41See, for example, Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 February 1875): 957.

42Stanley B. Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1843–1883 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986): 146. Ultimately, Rapier left his seat after one term to run against Representative Jeremiah Haralson in a neighboring black-majority district. Josiah Walls also served as an At-Large Representative in Florida—with a population that was 44 percent black—in the 42nd Congress (1871–1873). See Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1843–1883: 99. Senators Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce were both elected to the Senate by Republican majority state legislatures in Mississippi, a state whose black population was more than 50 percent black in 1870. See Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: xiii.

43Okun Edet Uya, From Slavery to Political Service: Robert Smalls, 1839–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971): 32–36; Powers, Black Charlestonians: 81–85; Williamson, After Slavery: 371.

44For more names and state affiliations of white supremacist groups, see Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: 275.

45In response to the growing number of contested elections, the Senate created its Committee on Privileges and Elections on March 10, 1871. See David T. Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789 to 1946, Volume 2 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2002): 253–257.

46Jeffrey A. Jenkins, “Partisanship and Contested Election Cases in the House of Representatives, 1789–1902,” Studies in American Political Development 18 (Fall 2004): 130.

47Loren Schweninger, “James T. Rapier of Alabama and the Noble Cause of Reconstruction,” in Rabinowitz, ed., Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era: 86; Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: 230.

48“The Election in Alabama,” 29 November 1884, New York Times: 1.

49John Roy Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch, edited with an introduction by John Hope Franklin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970): 163–166.

50John Hope Franklin, “John Roy Lynch: Republican Stalwart from Mississippi,” in Rabinowitz, ed., Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era: 47.

51Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (13 June 1876): 3781–3786.

52Congressional Record, Senate, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (31 March 1876): 2101–2105.

53Chester H. Rowell, A Historical and Legal Digest of All the Contested Election Cases (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901). Though Rowell offers one of the most comprehensive sources on the activities of the Committee on Elections for this era, his data are incomplete. At least six contested elections cases involving black men are missing from his volume.