While Republicans “waved the bloody shirt” in the late-nineteenth century by associating the Democratic Party with the Civil War rebellion of the Confederacy, Democrats warned white voters that Republicans were trying to install a regime of “Negro Supremacy” in the South. At the time, most blacks lived in Southern states and most black men voted for the Republican Party, so that the race issue was closely tied to partisanship. This was especially true in the 1892 election when Democrats played on racial fears in order to shore up their Southern electoral base.
This Judge cover cartoon reflects the Republican response in 1892 that the issue of “Negro Supremacy” was a “bugaboo”—an imaginary fear—to distract voters from the important question of protective tariffs. In the center foreground, the buck-toothed Democratic Donkey is dressed in the attire of a British dandy with Irish-shamrock cufflinks and watch fob. He holds a banner revealing the alleged Republican plan to impose “Negro Supremacy” on the south. The banner’s wooden frame looks like a scarecrow, with skeletal pumpkin-head and gloves with waving fingers. Uncle Sam calmly rejects the Democratic scare tactic, and draws attention to the “real issue” of trade policy. Hidden behind the banner is John Bull, the personification of Great Britain, who eagerly awaits to take over American markets should Democratic “free trade” be enacted.
The specific reason for Democrats raising the race issue during the 1892 campaign was the proposed Federal Elections Bill (or “Force Bill,” as critics called it). After the restoration of white-only Democratic governments in Southern states in the 1870s, fraud and intimidation made it increasingly difficult over the ensuing years for black men to cast ballots (usually for Republicans). In the late 1880s, there was a reported upsurge in anti-black violence in the South, which provoked an exodus of blacks to the North and West and renewed calls for federal intervention.
In 1890, the Federal Elections Bill was introduced into Congress by two Massachusetts Republicans, Henry Cabot Lodge in the House and George Frisbie Hoar in the Senate. The measure sought to protect black voting rights in the South by authorizing the national government to supervise federal elections. The Republican-controlled House passed the bill that summer on a strictly partisan vote, all but two Republicans voting aye and all Democrats voting nay. In the Senate, Republicans from Western states were more interested in passing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and Democrats simply filibustered the Federal Elections Bill to death. It was the first major piece of legislation in American history supported by a president (Republican Benjamin Harrison) and majorities in both houses that was defeated by a Senate filibuster. The bill had no hope of passage in the next Congress when Democrats took control of the House following the fall 1890 elections.
However, the Federal Elections Bill remained a potent campaign issue for Democrats during the 1892 election. The opening paragraph of the 1892 Democratic National Platform warned that Republican efforts at centralizing the federal government were “a menace to the reserved rights of the States that strikes at the very roots of our Government under the Constitution…” That general criticism was aimed not only at the Federal Elections bill, but also at the entire legislative agenda of an unusually activist Republican Congress (1889-1891).
The second paragraph of the Democratic platform specifically criticized the Republican Federal Elections Bill at length. It claimed that the proposal was “fraught with the gravest dangers, scarcely less momentous than would result from a revolution practically establishing monarchy…” It also argued that the bill would injure blacks more than whites by subjecting them to the dictates of the Republican Party. During a campaign tour through the Upper South and Border States, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson hammered away at the Republican “Force Bill,” declaring that its defeat was “more important than a hundred tariff bills.”
The Federal Elections Bill was the third point (after protective tariffs and trade reciprocity) in the Republican National Platform of 1892. It demanded, “every citizen of the United States shall be allowed to cast one free and unrestricted ballot in all public elections…; that such laws shall be enacted and enforced as will secure to every citizen … this sovereign right …, and the party will never relax its efforts until the integrity of the ballot and the purity of elections shall be fully guaranteed and protected in every State.” In fact, the Federal Elections Bill was the last major effort at voting rights protection until the 1950s.