Democrats shouldn’t repeat mistakes from Kansas’ 1860s battles over suffrage

T.A. Barnhart

Diane Eickoff, author of Revolutionary Heart, from Quindaro PressThe following piece was written by Diane Eickoff for the Kansas City Star. Diane is my sister-in-law, married to my brother Aaron, the tv writer for the Star. Diane is an author and editor, and "Revolutionary Heart," her acclaimed biography of Clarina Nichols, a sadly underknown leader of the suffrage and abolition movements, was developed in conjunction with her portrayal of Nichols for the Kansas Territorial Sesquicentennial Chautauqua . "Revolutionary Heart" is self-published by Diane and Aaron and is in a second printing from Quindaro Press.

As the primary season nears its end, Democrats should be feeling joy at having settled on a historic candidate. But many are beset with hard feelings instead. Supporters and opponents of the African-American male contender and his white female rival have raised divisive issues, ones that tap into racial and gender resentments among the voters. Many in the party now fear these unhealed wounds will damage their nominee in the fall campaign.

While a painful scenario to consider, it would only be the latest addition to a sad chapter in American politics. The race-gender clash is almost as old as Kansas, and claimed its first victims in a bruising suffrage campaign held here after the Civil War.

In February 1867, the Kansas legislature passed two amendments. One gave African-American men the vote, the other granted suffrage to all women. Both amendments needed a majority vote from the white male electorate to become law. The election was set for November.

At first, prospects were bright for the passage of both acts, which would make Kansas the first state with "universal suffrage." Women's rights leaders flocked here to join Clarina Nichols, who had laid the groundwork for suffrage a decade earlier.

As the campaign rolled into summer, however, underlying tensions bubbled up. Republican Party leaders, who supported black male suffrage, claimed that the women’s suffrage campaign was hurting their cause. This was the "Negro’s hour," they declared — time to enfranchise those men who fought bravely for the Union Army during the Civil War.

The white middle-class supporters of women's suffrage felt betrayed. They had supported antislavery politics even longer than they had agitated for their own rights. They set aside their own agendas during the Civil War with the understanding that afterward, the Republicans would champion their cause. Instead, party leaders told them to wait; worse, they now claimed women's suffrage would undermine the African American cause.

By the time Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton arrived in Kansas in the fall of 1867, both campaigns were in disarray. Newspaper writers furnished voters with reasons why neither group should win suffrage:

If black men gained the vote, large numbers of African-Americans would swarm Kansas. Women's suffrage would increase support for temperance and dry up the liquor supply. It was too soon to usher either group into full political citizenship. Such an "experiment" should be tried in more established states.

Anthony and Stanton made a fateful decision. Short on cash and desperate to win, they teamed with a wealthy racist copperhead named Francis Train, who bankrolled their campaign and engaged in vicious verbal assaults on black people. Anthony and Stanton rationalized this misalliance, saying that supporters of black male suffrage denigrated female suffragists. While true, this did not justify a racist response.

In November, the white male electorate soundly turned back both amendments.

The 1867 universal suffrage campaign showed how two disenfranchised groups could be pitted against each other to deny progress to either one. It was a lesson the supporters of status-quo politics would apply again and again in the future. Are we finally ready to turn the page?

Diane Eickhoff is the author of “Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights.” She lives in Kansas City.

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    About 200 years before the Kansas fight we have this from Howard Zinn:

    In 1676, seventy years after Virginia was founded, a hundred years before it supplied leadership for the American Revolution, that colony faced a rebellion of white frontiersmen, joined by slaves and servants, a rebellion so threatening that the governor had to flee the burning capital of Jamestown, and England decided to send a thousand soldiers across the Atlantic, hoping to maintain order among forty thousand colonists. This was Bacon's Rebellion.........It was a dry summer, ruining the corn crop, which was needed for food, and the tobacco crop, needed for export. Governor Berkeley, in his seventies, tired of holding office, wrote wearily about his situation: "How miserable that man is that Governes a People where six parts of seaven at least are Poore Endebted Discontented and Armed."

    His phrase "six parts of seaven" suggests the existence of an upper class not so impoverished. In fact, there was such a class already developed in Virginia. Bacon himself came from this class, had a good bit of land, and was probably more enthusiastic about killing Indians than about redressing the grievances of the poor. But he became a symbol of mass resentment against the Virginia establishment, and was elected in the spring of 1676 to the House of Burgesses....In the fall, Bacon, aged twenty-nine, fell sick and died......

    After this little scare, the colony governments began to offer a weapon, money, and land on the Western frontier to White Male indentured servants upon completion of their contracts.

    This set all three groups (poor white, black, and native) against each other and was the beginning of organized rpomotion of racism in North America in the service of the protection of accumulated assets of the ruling class.

  • Mary (unverified)

    Quite interesting post. You have very interesting family members. Can you share some more stories from your brothers or sisters? Nieces or nephews?

  • Eric Parker (unverified)

    For some reason, this post made me recall the age old adage: Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.

    I fear if we do not learn from the Kasas issues above, we will fail to gain the white house.

    We need to quit being so stubborn...

  • Eric Ramon (unverified)

    Thanks for this post. It's disturbing, definitely something I never knew. I'd love to see this get wider distribution.

  • PDX-PLT (unverified)

    IMHO this is potentially dangerous connection to make. The Kansas battle was over civil rights for the two groups in question. The presidential contest is over choosing an individual to be the nominee; said individual happens to be from certain groups. This should be about picking the best nominee; making this into a civil rights issue instead is what's leading to all this divisiveness. It's unfortunate the 2nd-place contender often emphasizes the civil rights aspect, as was done recently in the letter sent to the superdelegates. I don't think you'd ever see the leading contender argue that he should be the nominee because 90 year old members of his group deserve to see one of their own be president before they die.

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    I'm proud to say that I once went to a Cubs game with Aaron and Diane.

    Very interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing it here, Todd.

    And yes, they are fascinating people, those Barnharts. %^>

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    RE: Pat Ryan's comment,

    ...and the beginning of Obama's Appalachian voter problem.

    Once upon a time the lords used stone walls and knights in shining armor to protect themselves and their treasure from the riffraff. Now they use racism, culture wars, public relations, and campaign contributions to the same effect.

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    if you don't think that electing a woman or African-American to the presidency is not a watershed civil rights issue, you miss the significance of why this has been the most hard-fought, impassioned presidential primary in history. Obama sees the big picture about the world & America, but i am convinced that for him, being the first African-American president means as much as being the first woman means to Hillary.

    the lesson isn't about meta-politics anyway; it's about what happens when two groups who are essentially on the same side let themselves become opponents. Obama v Hillary is not AA vs women; it's progressives/libs/Dems vs Those Other Bastards. Diane may be family, but she's also right.

    read her book, btw. it's terrific stuff.

  • Carley (unverified)

    You post assumes that one's refusal to vote for one of the candidates has to do either with race or gender issues. While I once campaigned vigorously for Shirley Chisolm, chose to teach in schools with impoverished African American children (and no, not for more money, but less), I now choose to support Hillary Clinton simply because I believe she is the only candidate with the experience, knowledge and passion for the issues I care about, to be President. Unlike many on this site, I will vote for McCain over Obama simply because I believe he has more knowledge and experience to be President than Obama. And also unlike most on this site, I believe McCain will work well with a Democratic congress, and will not be able to stack the Supreme Court with more conservatives because he'll first have to please the Majority Party, and they won't allow it.

    I am not against an African American becoming President. I am against a very inexperienced (in national politics) person doing so. Give me Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton over Obama any day, and they would get my vote. In fact, if it were now between them and Hillary, I'd have a dilemma on my hands; but I would have no problem voting for any of those three.

    The divide between us right now is greatly due to the assumption that all Hillary voters are racists. Call me late for dinner, but never, NEVER presume I am a racist. That really pisses me off, and does nothing to convince me to vote for Obama. 35% of all Hillary voters feel similarly.

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    actually, Carley, "my" post is my sil's, and is based on her extensive research of that period in Kansas history. she actually knows what she's talking about.

    and there is nothing in her piece that even comes close to insinuating that Hillary voters are racist. nothing. what Diane says it that people who are on the same side should never forget and should not bring each other to defeat. the history of the Kansas vote is what it is. the history of the 2008 Democratic primary is still being created. it will become what we choose to make it. accusing Diane or me or calling you racist is a waste of energy.

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