Any American schoolchild can tell you that Philadelphia is the birthplace of the nation. As the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was written, we have earned that moniker. Yet, many people do not know that Philadelphia should also be credited as the place where the 15th Amendment was launched. During this important election season, it is worth noting Philadelphia’s significant role in helping universal male suffrage to become the law of the land.
My singular accomplishment during the pandemic so far has been finishing all 764 pages of David Blight’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography-cum-doorstop, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. I was struck by the following sentence: “The Fifteenth Amendment was still three years away, but its momentum swung into motion at Philadelphia in 1866.” Puffed up with civic pride, I decided to dig deeper to see why this renowned Yale professor gave our city so much credit for Black men gaining the right to vote.
During the presidential election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, joined forces with Democrat Andrew Johnson to form what became the victorious National Union Party. In August of 1866, a National Union convention was held in Philadelphia to show support for then President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies in advance of the 1866 Congressional election. Much to the consternation of Republicans, particularly those known as Radical Republicans, Johnson treated the defeated South gently. He gave blanket amnesty to most former Confederates, and he did not object when new state legislatures, elected by all-white electorates, instituted “Black Codes” to keep newly freed people in conditions similar to slavery.
Republicans were horrified by this National Union conclave which called for speedy reunification of the country as a white man’s nation. Thus, a counter convention was organized for early September. The Southern Loyalists Convention, also in Philadelphia, gathered pro-Union delegates from the states of the former Confederacy. Republican governors, senators, and other noteworthy representatives of the South were joined by hundreds of delegates from the Northern states. Note that the rebel-laden state governments formed under Andrew Johnson’s watch had been dissolved by a heavily Republican Congress in 1865. New elections were held in which Black men could vote and former Confederate leaders were barred from holding office, hence the large number of elected Republican officials from the South.
To his surprise, Frederick Douglass was elected as one of New York’s representatives to the Southern Loyalists Convention. In his memoir Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he recalls expecting that many of his fellow Republicans would be displeased with his selection. “They dreaded the clamor of social equality and amalgamation which would be raised against the party, in consequence of this startling innovation,” wrote Douglass. He was correct in predicting this reaction.
On the train ride from his home in Rochester, New York, Douglass was approached by a group of fellow Philadelphia-bound delegates and asked that he not attend the convention, lest his presence alarm attendees and observers. As he describes in his memoir, one of the delegates explained that “there was a very strong and bitter prejudice against my race in the North as well as at the South—and that the cry of social and political equality would not fail to be raised against the Republican party if I should attend this loyal national convention.” Douglass listened in polite silence. He then declared, “Gentlemen, with all due respect, you might as well ask me to put a loaded pistol to my head and blow my brains out, as to ask me to keep out of this convention, to which I have been duly elected.”
When Douglass and the others arrived in Philadelphia, they received an enthusiastic welcome. Bunting and flags adorned buildings throughout the city. The National Union Club at 1105 Chestnut Street, the convention’s headquarters, was adorned with a huge eagle. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the most spectacular decorations were at the recently opened Union League building on Broad Street. “The noble chateau had put on its gala dress of joy. From every window streamed out the banners of the Red, White, and Blue, the lofty flagstaff giving gayly to the breeze a monster stars and stripes, while from the root to the top of the lofty standard waved white streamers bearing the names of all of the states of the Union.”
The first day of the convention featured a huge procession. Delegates gathered at Independence Hall and teamed up in pairs as they prepared to parade through downtown. Douglass was left notably solo until newspaper editor Theodore Tilton took his arm. Members of the Union League wearing silver medals escorted the delegates as they headed east on Walnut Street toward 3rd Street. Various groups had assembled on corners of Walnut Street to join in along the way. Eventually, the procession would include 12 bands, nine fire companies, numerous Republican clubs, scores of Civil War veterans in blue uniforms, and even “crippled soldiers in carriages.”
The growing cavalcade turned left at 3rd and Chestnut Streets. As they made their way up Chestnut Street a remarkable reunion took place. In the crowd, Douglass spotted Amanda Sears, the daughter of Lucretia Auld, his former owner of whom he had fond memories. As he wrote in Life and Times, when Douglass asked Sears what brought her to Philadelphia from Baltimore she replied, “I heard you were to be here, and I came to see you walk in this procession,” an answer by which he was deeply touched.
Although seeing Sears was a highlight of the event for Douglass, throughout the procession he was impressed by the warm reception he received. He recalls that he had been warned that his presence “would so shock the prejudices of the people of Philadelphia, as to cause the procession to be mobbed.” In reality though, “an act for which those leaders expected to be pelted with stones only brought them unmeasured applause. Along the whole line of march my presence was cheered repeatedly and enthusiastically.”
Douglass was particularly surprised because they “were marching through a city remarkable for the depth and bitterness of its hatred of the abolition movement—a city whose populace had mobbed antislavery meetings, burned temperance halls and churches owned by colored people, and burned down Pennsylvania Hall because it had opened its doors upon terms of equality to people of different colors.”
Philadelphia had changed since the fiery destruction of Pennsylvania Hall by a mob in 1838. A report in the Evening Telegraph describes surging crowds all along the parade route and notes that “windows and balconies along the line were also pressed into service by the ladies, who were even more enthusiastic than their loyal lords and masters.” At 12th and Chestnut Streets the parade turned left toward Pine Street which they followed to Broad Street, eventually ending at the Union League where a lavish reception was held for the delegates.
The Inquirer declared the opening day procession to be a “perfect success.” The deliberations that took place over the following days, in contrast, were more contentious. The delegates were united in their hatred of President Andrew Johnson, and most favored the pending 14th Amendment which would extend citizenship and equal protection under the law to anyone born in the United States. There was, however, significant division on the issue of extending suffrage to Black men. This in spite of the service of nearly 200,000 Black soldiers during the Civil War.
The convention was dominated by representatives from the border states of the upper South (Kentucky, Tennessee, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia) whose delegates feared that pushing for Black voting rights would alienate voters back home. They believed that their electoral future lay in disenfranchising former Rebels rather than in extending the franchise to Blacks. Many Northern representatives similarly feared that support for Black suffrage would lead Republicans in their states to abandon the party.
The push for universal male suffrage, ironically, came from the Deep South, then known as the Gulf States. With so few whites in the Republican camp, representatives from Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and South Carolina knew that their only hope of a political future lay in enfranchising Black voters.
Although the Northern and Southern delegations generally met separately, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Tilton, and Anna Dickinson entered the meeting hall of the Southerners uninvited. Perhaps because of the fame of each member of this trio, they were allowed to speak. 23-year-old Dickinson made a fervent plea for Black suffrage. Philadelphia-born Dickinson had received a standing ovation when she spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1864 with President Lincoln and other civic and military leaders in attendance. At just 21, Dickinson was the first woman to address Congress.
Douglass, by then an internationally known writer and orator, spoke next. “The negroes,” he declared, “should have the right to all the boxes—the jury box, the witness box, the ballot box. With the ballot box, every other right is secured.”
After days of deliberations, resolutions were adopted that condemned Andrew Johnson, supported the 14th Amendment, and thanked the people of Philadelphia for their hospitality. The chairperson of the convention then adjourned the meeting and the majority of border state representatives left town.
Representatives of the Northern states, including Douglass, and those hailing from the Deep South, however, chose to stick around. Dickinson and Douglass again gave impassioned speeches about Black suffrage. Emphasizing military service, Douglass exclaimed, “If the negro knows enough to fight, he knows enough to vote.” Making use of both his keen sense of humor and widespread hatred of Andrew Johnson, Douglass continued. “A negro sober knows as much as a white man drunk. A negro knows as much as Andy Johnson in any condition you can name.”
Discussions continued into the evening. An Inquirer reporter described the scene as “gloomy.” A fraction of the original number of delegates remained and the gas lights were running low on fuel. “The lights flickered and flared” as deliberations continued. Eventually, the rump convention overwhelmingly passed a resolution endorsing suffrage for Black men. This late-night vote buttresses Blight’s premise that the 15th Amendment took a great leap forward in Philadelphia. As a proud resident of this city, I concur with this view.
This does not mean, however, that support for Black suffrage was universal. Although newspapers like the Inquirer and the Evening Telegraph filled columns of print with fawning descriptions of the Southern Loyalist Convention, the short-lived Philadelphia Age had a different perspective. “The cordial and affectionate manner in which the League’s Convention received Frederick Douglass… are marked and decided manifestations of the public adhesion given by the Radicals to the doctrine of negro equality.” Looking forward to the Congressional election of 1866, the article continues, “Upon every banner borne by the Radicals in the pending contest must now be inscribed, ‘negro equality.’ Upon every flag carried by the Democratic and Conservative hosts, will be written, ‘a white man’s government.’ Freemen of Pennsylvania! Choose ye between them!”
Pennsylvania men made their choice. Republicans were elected in 18 of the state’s 24 congressional districts, an increase of three seats over the previous contest. In contrast, Maryland, Kentucky, and Delaware saw Republican Senators replaced by Democratic opponents. Due to these defeats, border state Republicans were finally convinced that they could not politically survive without Black votes.
With states of the Confederacy still not permitted representation in Congress, the Radical Republicans took control of both houses. Among the results were passage of the 14th Amendment and significant progress in the adoption of the 15th Amendment.
As November 3rd approaches, Philadelphia must live up to the reputation accorded us by author David Blight by voting in overwhelming numbers. Let’s make sure that Frederick Douglass would be proud of our efforts.