Southern Representation in Congress
Bill Long 8/11/05
The "Problem" of Representation after the Civil War
Before the Southern States were readmitted to the Union, the Republican-controlled Congress had to decide how the returning region would be represented in Congress. The technical issue was called the "basis of representation." That the "basis of representation" issue was a major one can be gleaned from even a cursory reading of the Congressional Globe. Look at page 357 of the 1865-66 Congressional Minutes and you will see elaborate charts submitted by Rep. Roscoe Conkling (NY) on how representation would stack up based on various approaches to the subject.
In brief, the 39th Congress (Dec.1865-July 1866) was confronted by the following dilemma: if representation was to be calculated by total population, then the base population on which Southern Representation was counted would soar, since each black would certainly be counted as a full person and, before the Civil War, each black was only counted as 3/5 of a person (this 3/5 number was according to the 1789 US Constitutution). A soaring Southern population might lead to increased white dominance in the South, especially if blacks were forbidden from voting but were fully included in the Southern population. Thus, paradoxically, the effect of the Civil War might have been to entrench and enlarge Southern white power. A quick example will illustrate the problem.
In the 1860 federal census Alabama had a slave population of 435,000 and a white population of 525,000. Because slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person, the total Alabama pre-Civil War (1860) population was 261,000 [which is 3/5 of 435,000]+ 525,000 or 786,000. But, if former slaves after the Civil War were counted as full persons, as everyone agreed they must be (especially after the passage of the 13th Amendment in Dec. 1865, which eliminated slavery by Constitututional Amendment) then the "new" population of Alabama would be 435,000 + 525,000 = 960,000. Since each of the 241 US Representatives had districts of about 125,000 people, under the "old" system Alabama would have 5 representatives, but under the "new" system, Alabama would get 7. And, when you add to this the realization that all were agreed in 1865 that the determination of voting eligibility was a STATE issue, the real possibility existed for the freedom of blacks leading to their deeper enslavement. Whoops! Did we fight for this??
Some Republicans tried to argue that the answer would be to federalize voting rights, thus assuring that blacks would get the vote, and that a new coalition of grateful Southern blacks and Northern Republicans would forever assure the ascendancy of the Union sentiments. However, it wasn't clear that even if you allowed the black vote, a subject that rived the Republican party right down the middle (to the Democrats at the time, of course, the subject was anathema), that blacks would "vote the right way." Indeed, they might be cowed or intimidated by the white power structure in the South. In fact, the size of the regular United States army, before the Civil War, was only 8,000 troops; we can hardly imagine a 1957 Little Rock in 1867 Little Rock, or Birmingham for that matter. We could hardly expect the North to continue to "occupy" the South indefinitely in order for "proper" voting to take place.
Thus, two other solutions came to the fore in the tumultuous months of January -March 1866. First, one could deny voting rights by Constitutional amendment to those who had rebelled against the Union or had supported the rebellion. This might have been hard to determine with great accuracy, since it is hard to limn the motions of the heart, but muster lists of Confederate soldiers would be good indications of participation in the rebellion. There were permutations of this proposal, too, where the Amendment might only prohibit former Confederate leaders from voting privileges in the "new Union." You could define the concept of leader anyway you wanted, but it would be subject to bright line clarity.
Second, you could change the basis of representation from the federal method (total citizens) to legal voters and put in some kind of clause that if certain groups were prohibited from voting, the total number of citizens in the state for purposes of representation would be decreased by the number of those not allowed to vote. Thus, using the example of Alabama, if you made representation dependent on voting-age males* you would have the following. In 1860 there were
[*Susan B. Anthonly and Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued hard for inclusion of females in a right to vote, but issues of women's rights had not assumed the priority during the Civil War as did that of the rights of slaves, and the early feminists didn't make a convincing case for linking the two causes]
118,000 white males over 20 in Alabama while there were 96,000 black males over 20. If blacks were not allowed to vote, then the Alabama number for representation purposes would be 118,000 and not 214,000. Of course, the Congressional Districts would likewise be reduced in size of (voter) population, but it is easy to see how Alabama, under this scheme, would be diminished in their representation.
The next essay will show how Thaddeus Stevens approached the issue.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long