June 26, 1998

THE TRIAL OF DEMOCRACY. Black suffrage and northern Republicans, 1860-1910 411pp. By Xi Wang. Athens: University of Georgia Press; distributed in the UK by Eurospan. Pounds 51.95. - 0 8203 1837 X.

This study is a thorough interpretation of the origins, development and eventual failure of the Republican Party's attempts to enforce African-American male suffrage in the South after the Civil War. Xi Wang confirms the accepted view that enforcement declined after 1875, but he also demonstrates that Republicans retained a commitment, although diminished, to black political rights until the early 1890s. United by a belief in free-labour ideology, the Republican Party never resolved its initial division over whether African-American freedom should also entail political rights. Idealism and pragmatism dictated Republican support for enfranchising southern blacks after the Civil War; their votes had become necessary to prevent Democrats achieving power not only in the South, but also, by virtue of their appeal in both sections, the federal executive and legislature. Southern whites sought to reduce the freedmen to peonage, and the Ku Klux Klan used violence to intimidate black voters. To maintain their own power and black freedom, therefore, Republicans passed a series of enforcement acts in the early 1870s that protected voting rights. Racism, growing doubts about the political capacity of the freedmen, constitutional reservations about extending federal authority and an attempt to woo Southern white voters created factionalism among Republicans that undermined their effectiveness in protecting black suffrage, and the legislation finally succumbed to Democratic congressional majorities in 1894. In his careful analysis of factional divisions among Republicans, Wang gives full weight to idealistic and pragmatic motives, and the extensive timeframe enables him to place developments in perspective. The Trial of Democracy is, however, at times repetitious, and Wang's desire for inclusiveness gives rise to some exacting detail. MN

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