Adam Serwer: White nationalism’s deep American roots
The Framers wrote white-minority government into the Constitution when, in Article I, they granted each white southern voter a slave bonus through the three-fifths clause. At the same time, to ensure dominance in the Senate, the Framers designed the Northwest Ordinance so that it restricted a vast territory to a maximum of five new free states, but they placed no statutory limit on the number of slave states admitted from the Southwest. Control of the Electoral College would thus also flow to slaveholders. Without the three-fifths clause, Thomas Jefferson would have lost to John Adams in 1800.
The Founders, including such titans of liberty as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, were well aware that only by suppressing the majority at the ballot box could white-minority rule be maintained. Although the Constitution would not specifically address voting rights until after the Civil War, the majority of the Founders, including Madison and Hamilton, were on the record favoring that the franchise be limited to white male property holders. The 1790 naturalization law reserved citizenship for immigrants to “free white persons,” a prohibition that would remain largely unchanged until 1952, when the McCarran-Walter Act abolished racial qualifications in applications for citizenship.
In the first half of the 19th century, slave owners fought ferociously to maintain their influence, but eventually they could not save themselves from an appalling and bloody war, which, outnumbered on the battlefield, they decisively lost. After the war, not only was the slave bonus eliminated, but for a few precious years, Reconstruction seemed poised to remake the United States into a genuine majority-based democracy. But white supremacy would not be cast aside so easily. First through terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, then through fraud and ballot-box stuffing, black voting was suppressed and so-called Redeemers gained control of the South.
Eventually, however, white sentiment evolved. As an Alabama legislator told his colleagues, “If we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law—not by force or fraud.” So to encourage honesty and good government, the virtually all-white southern-state conventions, beginning with Mississippi’s in 1890, drafted Jim Crow constitutions specifically to disenfranchise black voters. As James K. Vardaman, who would serve as Mississippi’s governor and later its senator, announced, “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. [There was] no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics … let the world know it just as it is.”
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By 1908, every state in the old Confederacy had drafted a new constitution, effectively purging African Americans from the voting rolls. And even better than in the slave era, five-fifths of a state’s black population was counted for apportionment, which coupled with one-party rule gave the Jim Crow South even more power in Congress than it had enjoyed before the Civil War. And so came another era of white-minority rule, which endured even through the progressive policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.