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”No Force bill! No Negro Domination in the South!”: President Grover Cleveland and the Return to Power of the Democratic Party

. . . but I say to all oppressors, “Have a care for how you goad and imbrute the colored man of the South!” He is weak, but not powerless. He is submissive to wrongs, but not insensible to his rights. He is hopeful, but not incapable of despair. He can endure, but even to him may come a time when he shall think endurance has ceased to be a virtue"--Fredrick Douglass

The right of franchise has been practically annulled in every one of the former slave States, in not one of which, to day, can a man vote, think or act as he pleases. He must conform his views to the views of the men who have usurped every function of government who, at the point of the dagger, and with shotgun, have made themselves masters in defiance of every law or precedent in our history as a government. . . . . To day, red handed murderers and assassins sit in the high places of power, and bask in the smiles of innocence and beauty.-–T. Thomas Fortune, 1884

Increasing racial violence accompanied by a rise in pseudo-scientific and intellectual theory-building in white supremacist circles marked the decade of the 1880s. Hysterical cries of the threat of “Negro rule” and “Negro domination” clenched the sympathies of a good part of the white electorate in the South. Democratic candidates for president rode with this sentiment, endorsing it implicitly or explicitly. Republicans candidates bent to this sentiment allowing the wholesale disfranchisement of their own constituency while attempting to demonstrate to the southern white voters they desired as supporters that they held no regard for black rights. In the North, support for black civil rights sunk to a new post-Civil War low. The 1883 Supreme Court decisions negating much of the 14th amendment and supporting the increasingly segregated state of public accommodations helped tamp down the aspirations of yet another generation of African Americans. These events accompanied a marked decrease in northern white anger at the deeds of the Confederacy. Indeed, there was an increasing tendency to laud the courage and bravery of the Confederate soldiers and ignore the secessionists’ goal of eternal black enslavement not to mention the war which cost over 600,000 lives. So dire was the situation for African Americans that the young writer T. Thomas Fortune lamented that there “are no ‘Liberators’ to-day, and the William Lloyd Garrisons have nearly all of them gone the way of all the world."

The 1884 GOP candidate, James G. Blaine used the strategy of ignoring blacks and tried to lure southern protectionists favoring a high tariff into the party. This was all for naught, however, after he unwisely failed to denounce a remark by a clergyman supporter who termed the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” alienating Irish Catholics especially, as well as, southern whites. This ended the long twenty-four year reign of Republican presidents since the Civil War. Not since James Buchanan won the presidency in 1856 had there been a Democrat in office but a bitter campaign marked by personal attacks and turning on questions of honesty and morality in government yielded victory for the New Yorker Cleveland. African Americans overwhelmingly supported the Republican Party’s nominee James G. Blaine, whose rhetoric, at least, promised blacks “freedom and equality” and condemned violations of voting rights in the South. New York editor T. Thomas Fortune, who later founded the Afro-American League in 1890, forecast disaster in the event of Cleveland’s election. His editorial entitled, “Colored Men Keep Cool,” written in the aftermath of the Cleveland victory reflected the unease blacks felt with the Democratic return to the White House.

Following Cleveland’s electoral victory, he named two stridently anti-African American southerners to his cabinet, Lucius Q. C. Lamar of Mississippi as the Secretary of the Interior, and Augustus H. Garland of Arkansas as the Attorney General. In part, this was a reward for helping restore white political, social, and economic supremacy during Reconstruction while simultaneous advocating industrial development in the South. Later, Cleveland nominated the Mississippian Lamar for the Supreme Court prompting outrage among many of those who remembered Lamar’s role in the “Mississippi Plan” that violently drove blacks out of the mainstream of political life. In 1879 Lamar opposed a measure that affirmed the legality of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. New Hampshire’s Senator William E. Chandler stressed that the issue was not that Lamar was a former Confederate it was that “he still advocates the doctrine of secession as right; and is a bull dozer. . . .” Despite these criticisms Lamar was confirmed.

An 1885 speech by Frederick Douglass analyzed the meaning of the Democratic return to power for blacks. Douglass saw the quandary African Americans faced, as neither party made any effort to sincerely represent their interests and a kind of “silence” prevailed that was reminiscent of the Madisonian-imposed “silence” of the antebellum era. Douglass saw in this “silence” both parties’ convergence:

While it was painfully evident that the Republican party, during the late canvass, had little or nothing to say against the outrages committed upon the newly enfranchised people of the South, it was equally plain that the Democratic party had nothing to say in defense of these outrages. Nevertheless, Douglass commented that it was “strange,” that blacks were still alarmed by the Republican defeat. Clearly, Douglass was not optimistic that Cleveland would enforce the laws guaranteeing black civil rights. Douglass stated that while he was not making “threats,” and he respected only peaceful methods the frightful specter of class and racial violence was invoked if justice was not forthcoming:

. . . but I say to all oppressors, “Have a care for how you goad and imbrute the colored man of the South!” He is weak, but not powerless. He is submissive to wrongs, but not insensible to his rights. He is hopeful, but not incapable of despair. He can endure, but even to him may come a time when he shall think endurance has ceased to be a virtue. . . .

If the black man continued to be ”driven from the ballot-box, the jury-box, and the schoolhouse, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators. . . .“ fearsome consequences could result, Douglass warned.

Cleveland had but four possible courses of action on civil rights, according to Douglass. First, he could follow Hayes in adopting of a policy of studied indifference, ignoring violations of black civil rights and the Chief Executive’s obligations to enforce the law. Second, he could “pursue a temporizing policy” of “half-hearted” moderation. Third, he could put into effect the “Mississippi plan” facilitating anti-black violence and terrorism, pushing African Americans out of the political arena. Fourth, perhaps the least likely, Cleveland could be faithful to the requirements of the Constitution.

What Cleveland did was to pursue a course between the second and third courses, between the moderation of a violent and repressive anti-black status quo and an even more extreme policy of repression. Cleveland basically endorsed, by his actions and inaction, the policy that had been practiced throughout the 1870s. These actions included driving blacks from the polls in numerous cases, assassinations of southern black political leaders and mass terror and intimidation. President Cleveland’s policy ensured that the federal government would not interfere in these events and processes. The November 1885 massacre of twenty-eight Chinese miners by members of the Knights of Labor in Wyoming forced Cleveland to indict the suspected murderers under the Ku Klux Force Act of 1871. No one was convicted, however, and the trend under Cleveland was that only a handful of convictions each year were from the South and the bulk of prosecutions were for alleged northern violations.

Cleveland continued what had become the tradition of appointing prominent blacks to a few token mid-level federal posts, such as Minister to Liberia, Minister to Haiti, and the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia. Unsurprisingly, President Cleveland also asked for the resignation of Republican Frederick Douglass as the D. C. Recorder of Deeds in 1886. During the Cleveland administration, however, a controversy erupted over its lack of intervention in the case of John L. Waller, a Kansas black Republican appointed as the American consul to Madagascar by President Harrison in 1891. Following his tenure at his diplomatic post, Waller remained to conduct business in the country. When the French established their heavy-handed colonial rule, Waller was sentenced to twenty years in prison being convicted by a military tribunal for the crime of undermining the French authority in the colonial nation. Black Americans were outraged that the Cleveland administration allowed the former diplomat to languish in prison. Led by one George L. Knox, an Indiana editor and businessman, black protests were successful in persuading President Cleveland to help secure his release within a year.

There was little in the background of President Stephen Grover Cleveland that would lead one to expect that he would play a progressive role in American politics on black interests. Cleveland grew up in areas only sparsely populated by African Americans, and his parents shared the hostility many had toward abolitionists who sought to emancipate enslaved blacks. The future president was born on June 18, 1837 in Caldwell, New Jersey amid modest circumstances. Later the family moved to Fayetteville, New York, where in 1853, the Reverend Richard Cleveland, Grover’s father, died of peritonitis. This forced Cleveland to enter the labor force at the young age of sixteen. Following his move to Buffalo to work for an uncle, he entered politics on the strength of his law and business connections, and won election as District Attorney partially due to the success of the tactic of branding his Republican opponent an abolitionist. In his mid-twenties at the beginning of the Civil War, Cleveland prospered during the war years when the vast majority of able-bodied men his age were in the army. He was a man on the move during the war and advanced his career politically during the period.

As a prosperous lawyer he had the means to escape the war not only could he claim to financially support his family members who had gone to war, he could afford to buy a substitute for $150 to replace him. He had no motivation to join the army, he was raised in a pro-slavery family atmosphere and he demonstrated a distinct lack of concern with slavery or blacks.

President Grover Cleveland

Stephen Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President

1885-1889 and 1893-1897

Birth: March 18, 1837, Caldwell, New Jersey

Death: June 24, 1908

Education: Fayetteville Academy and the Clinton Liberal Academy

Religion: Presbyterian

Profession: Lawyer

Political Party: Democratic

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Politician

Important Online Works

Life Portrait of Grover Cleveland Aug 13, 1999, CSPAN

As a War Democrat he maintained, however, that “the government has a right in time of war to resort to every possible method in order to protect itself.” While some would hold that Cleveland’s war record or lack of hampered him politically, it may be that this was precisely what he needed to be elected, as a nonparticipant in the Union Army, he would have greater appeal in the South and in the North its Democratic, urban and anti-black image would also aid him.

leveland’s private life was the subject of widespread gossip related to a diverse array of scandalous behaviors. Cleveland’s barroom escapades and womanizing was highlighted by his fathering of a child to unmarried Maria Halpin. Despairing over her situation and drinking heavily Halpin neglected her child to the extent that Cleveland felt obliged to help her by placing their child into an orphanage. Later in the White House Cleveland would marry twenty-one year old Frances Folsom, a young woman whom he had acted as guardian for since her father died when she was twelve years of age.

After succeeding in winning over key Democratic kingmakers, Cleveland was a cinch to win the 1884 Democratic nomination for the presidency representing the Bourbon Democratic forces who had coalesced as a conservative anti-labor southern political force. He won the Democratic nomination partly by default, an outcome facilitated by the lack of other viable candidates. Part of Cleveland’s appeal derived from his response to the increased demands of large cities for improved city services especially improvements in sanitation, and public health systems. In addition, Cleveland’s Bourbon-Mugwump program promised voters an end to then rampant corruption plaguing municipal and state governments.

Following the nomination of Grover Cleveland and Illinois’ Adlai E. Stevenson in 1892 as the Democratic nominees for president and vice president, the party searched for an issue that would unite members favoring opposite policies on tariffs. Taking advantage of an opening provided by the inclusion of a platform in the Republican party supporting legislation to have federal enforcement of fair elections–a bill aimed at guaranteeing the right of southern blacks to vote. Labeling the measure the “Force Bill,” Democrats skillfully used the virulent racism of the era to cruise to victory in the electoral contest of 1892. ”No Force bill! No Negro Domination in the South!,” became the battle cry of Cleveland and the Democrats as the unemotional issue of the tariff was almost completely dropped. The editor of the New York Sun Charles A. Dana, who had occupied the lofty position of assistant secretary of war in the Lincoln administration, celebrated the success of this southern strategy in declaring that the “supreme duty of this canvass and this election is to beat the Force bill and Negro domination; . . .”. Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland repeatedly hammered away at this theme stressing that the free elections bill was “a most atrocious measure” that directly threatened the future prosperity of the South. His running mate Adlai Stevenson raised the alarm with the business community alerting them to the dire threat to their welfare.

Many African Americans and Republicans blamed Harrison’s defeat on the Republicans themselves. Many concluded that a party that willingly allowed its own key constituency to be disfranchised or merely put up token resistance to it did not deserve to win the presidential election.

Following Cleveland’s victory in the 1884 presidential election, there were unverified rumors that African Americans in Washington, D. C. had targeted him for assassination. After he learned of the anxieties African Americans had following his victory, Cleveland sought to assure blacks that it was “absurd” that “the rights now secured to them under the laws and Constitution of the United States” were threatened in any way. An alteration in the black legal status, he said, could only follow a change of the Constitution “which would be absolutely impossible to make.” He committed himself to maintaining every citizen’s civil rights without regard to race.

The Cleveland administration’s “states’ rights” policy removed the question of federal enforcement of black civil rights from the policy arena. In practice, this was scarcely different from the policy of his Republican predecessors, despite their African American constituency. Under Cleveland there were no prosecutions for violations of election laws despite rampant electoral fraud, corruption, and irregularities. In one instance in Carrolton, Mississippi, twelve African Americans were murdered inside a courtroom but, President Cleveland, when informed of the incident by black leaders merely seemed surprised that the local authorities had shown no interest in the case and failed to endeavor to prosecute the murderers. Regarding it as a local matter, Cleveland did not move to intervene and left the matter as it stood.

In the spring of 1886, President Cleveland named James C. Matthews as D. C. Recorder of Deeds replacing Frederick Douglass. Many Democratic leaders flew into a rage, believing that a white should be Douglass' replacement. President Cleveland stuck by his nominee against attacks from his own party and defended his nominee as one of his “personal appointments.” Cleveland maintained that he knew personally that the charges of “offensive partisanship” against Matthews were false. Brushing aside objections from his own party concerning the appointment President Cleveland said:

There are nearly as many colored people as white ones in the District . . . .You can’t ask them to take some of the odium and incur some of the danger of being Democrat and then deny them all official recognition. The Republicans would like nothing better than that. Democrats who ask me to do that are short sighted.

The Senate, however, rejected the nomination of Matthews. President Cleveland thereafter appointed him as Recorder during the August congressional recess. Defending the appointment as recognition of African Americans’ great strides since Emancipation, this token move was intended to bolster the Democratic vote among northern blacks. After Matthews had occupied the post for several months, Cleveland again sought confirmation from the Senate. This effort too, was unsuccessful but Cleveland did reap a political dividend from this defeat since many African American voters were disturbed by the Republican refusal to confirm Matthews.

During President Cleveland’s 1888 reelection bid, the Democrats tried to present a racially liberal image to the black voter. Cleveland’s acceptance letter included a “guarantee to our colored citizens” civil rights and vague promises of aid. Cleveland received the majority of the popular vote, but Benjamin Harrison carried the election by garnering 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168.

President Cleveland nominated James M. Trotter, a politically active African American of Hyde Park, Massachusetts, to fill the D. C. Recorder of Deeds post. Cleveland’s motive in appointing another black was to encourage further defections from the Republican fold. Following a tough battle, Trotter was confirmed by the Senate. Temporarily, at least, the two parties fought for the allegiance of the black voter, and as a consequence black political power was slightly increased for a brief moment.

©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.