On this day in 1902, Virginia’s new constitution became law, disenfranchising thousands of poor whites and nearly eliminating the state’s African American electorate. It replaced Virginia’s 1869 Reconstruction-era constitution, which had a universal male suffrage clause.
“The right of suffrage is not a natural right,” the convention’s president, John Goode, explained. “It is a social right and must necessarily be regulated by society. Virginia, within her borders, can regulate it according to her own sovereign will and pleasure, provided she does not violate the Constitution of the United States.”
That was the big obstacle, of course: how to deny people the vote without denying them their constitutional rights. The delegates debated how to make it work and, in the end, the delegates concocted a pretty effective mix of poll taxes and other measures that rid the electorate of as many blacks as possible while retaining as many whites as possible. In all, 88,000 fewer voters participated in the 1905 election for governor than in 1901.
The take-away here, though, is NOT that it was soooo bad in 1902 but now it’s better. The take-away should be that it was a lot better before 1902, and then a lot worse after—for, like, sixty years after. And then it got better again.
The last chapter of Our Virginia is titled “Our Bright Future,” but bright futures in which things always get better are for politicians, not historians. In real life, things go back and forth, up and down. A blogger for the Washington Post, for instance, worries we’re entering a new down period in the history of voting rights, and textbook fantasy history isn’t helping.
Some textbook treatments of the franchise in U.S. history treat voting as a gradual but sustained series of victories, taking the nation from propertied white men in the eighteenth century to, eventually, the vote for all adults eighteen and up. That story is wrong.
A more accurate version of the story is that plenty of people who once had the vote then lost it. The most dramatic example of this is African Americans in the post-reconstruction South. But there are plenty of other examples, especially if we properly understand things that make voting more difficult (such as the imposition of the separate step of voter registration in the late 19th and early 20th century) as a form of restricting the franchise. We may be in the process of undergoing a similar restriction right now; indeed, that’s probably one of the key things at stake in the next few election cycles.
The American Historical Association nods. In the meantime, read our entry on the Convention of 1901–1902. What’s remarkable to me is how open the delegates are about their intentions. They felt they were doing the right thing, and maybe some folks today, who are trying to restrict the vote, feel the same way.
IMAGE: Broadside supporting the efforts of delegates to disenfranchise Virginia’s African Americans in 1901 (University of Virginia Special Collections)