Henry Cabot Lodge, a young Republican congressman from Massachusetts and chairman of the House Elections Committee, answered the call. In June 1890, as Mississippi elites debated whether to hold a constitutional convention, Lodge introduced his federal election bill. Rather than having Southern officials certify elections, Lodge would place that power in the hands of federal officials. The bill, he told the House, would make public “all the facts relating to the elections, to protect voters and facilitate the crackdown on fraud.” He continued:
There is absolutely nothing in this bill other than provisions to ensure the widest publicity in elections and to protect the ballot boxes by ensuring the punishment of those who commit crimes against suffrage.
Echoing President Harrison, Lodge said that:
The government that made the black man a citizen is obligated to protect him in his rights as a citizen of the United States, and it’s a cowardly government if it doesn’t! No people can afford to write anything in their Constitution and not support it. The fact of not doing what is right is a punishment proper to nations as well as to men.
Southern Democrats were furious, calling Lodge’s proposal an unconstitutional “draft bill”. In the Senate, John W. Daniel of Virginia declared that he would “strip states” of their “old and avowed right to determine the qualifications of their constituents” as well as “the prerogatives of a state to choose and the right of each. . Chamber to judge the election, the return and the qualification of its members. “
Back in Mississippi, the news of Bill Lodge pushed the white elites into action. “Let us take the warning of Republicans retreating into power, in the hope of permanent control of the federal government,” wrote an editor of the newspaper, according to Pratt’s account. While there are still disputes over the exact form of a new constitution, there was broad agreement on the need to suppress black voters and, as one delegate put it, “to guarantee the State of Mississippi, white supremacy ”.
The convention had several constraints. He couldn’t go against the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited states from denying the right to vote on the basis of race. Care also had to be taken not to deprive too many white men, given the real risk of backlash. The solution was an overlapping set of rules, regulations and reforms, establishing white domination and defusing some class antagonisms (while exacerbating others).
Mississippi’s new constitution would impose a voting tax for voting and a literacy test – called the “Understanding Clause” – for registration. These would deprive a large number of white voters of their rights in the poorest and least developed regions of the state. To account for this and to resolve distribution disputes, delegates created a new population-based electoral system, in which most of the representation went to majority white counties. This was a significant change from the status quo, where seats were based on population, and wealthy whites in predominantly black counties reaped additional representation due to the suppression of black voters.
The convention, held in the state capital of Jackson, also created new predominantly white districts out of several predominantly black counties. Finally, to ensure white control of state policy, delegates set up an electoral college to choose the governor, called a “system of units,” in which a candidate should win a majority of votes and a majority. counties to claim victory.
Mississippi completed its new constitution just as the lodge bill moved from the House of Representatives – where it was passed without a single Democratic vote – to the Senate. And in the debate over the bill, Mississippi’s plan to strip its black population of their voting rights took center stage. “The Southern White Body will forever keep people of color as a lower stratum, without political power or social significance,” said Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire, “until such time as the white masses themselves have enough intelligence to know what true freedom is and to vote this ballot which orders freedom for millions of all races, and not elevation and power for a few.
However, not all Republicans believed the bill was necessary. Some, explains Alexander Keyssar in “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States”, were convinced that “the pro-capitalist, pro-economic development, protariff views” of the party “would attract a new white constituency to the party. the South while strengthening Republican support elsewhere. The party, they argued, did not need black voters to thrive.