The Myth of a Southern Democracy

by Keri Leigh Merritt

Photo: Max Sulik

Photo: Max Sulik


With the midterm elections just five days away, and with the specter of the gutted, impotent Voting Rights Act looming over us, right-leaning politicians across the nation are scrambling to disenfranchise as many people of color as they possibly can.

In Georgia, where Stacey Abrams has the opportunity to become the first black woman Governor of any U.S. state, the situation is more dire. Her opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, is actually in charge of overseeing his own election.

Yet such behavior has deep roots in the American South. Even before the 150 years of valiant struggles by African American voters, slaveholders severely limited suffrage in the region, disenfranchising non-slaveholders in an effort to preserve slavery. In the process, they crafted an intricate system of voter suppression, intimidation, and outright election fraud — a system that persists to this day.

Far from a democratic region, the Deep South instead functioned more like an oligarchy or aristocracy. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “Even among the 2 million slaveholders, an oligarchy of 8,000 really ruled the South.” Slaveholders wielded immense and pervasive power as lawmakers, law enforcers, judges, and even jury members. They dominated the region’s politics and devised multiple ways to disenfranchise their fellow countrymen.

While slaveholders in the cotton South occasionally paid lip service to democracy throughout the Jacksonian era, by the 1850s many of the region’s leaders were openly touting the benefits of oligarchy and aristocracy, while condemning the free states for rule by mobocracy. They fully realized that non-slaveholding whites outnumbered them, and thus had the power to challenge slaveholder interests.

By the 1850s, a growing group of incredibly wealthy men, born into slaveholding families of great privilege, were brazenly identifying themselves as aristocrats or oligarchs — they simply did not believe in the benefits of “pure democracy.” As the National Era reported, these Southerners deemed popular suffrage the “root of all the mischief” regarding the preservation of slavery.

The fire-eaters of the slave South, therefore, envisioned something more than just a slave-ridden version of the United States. They actually advocated a return to hereditary privilege, caste systems, and rule by the wealthy few. Some even argued in favor of primogeniture. All hoped that these measures would help curb the “scourge of democracy.” Even female planters like Keziah Brevard, who did not have the right to vote herself, prayed that “some thing be done to check this mobocracy. … Democracy has brought the South I fear into a sad, sad state.”

From poll taxes to residency requirements, the master class easily maintained control over the political privileges of poorer whites. Men who had been previously convicted of certain crimes, or who did not have a long period of continuous residence in a certain state and locality, or could not afford to pay a poll tax of close to a day’s wages, were liable to become disenfranchised. In South Carolina, the most anti-democratic state in the South, paupers were particularly singled out as ineligible for the franchise. A person’s poverty could be used to render them politically impotent.

Widespread illiteracy and semi-literacy among the lower classes — as well as the South’s stringent censorship laws — further prevented poorer whites from involvement in the political process. When the rich did allow the non-slaveholders to vote, they were still able to control the outcome of elections, as one man observed, by “means of the votes of the poor whites whom he owns, in owning all by which they can live for another day.”

A lower-class man who owed money to one of the county’s affluent slaveholders, or was in his employ, or lived as a tenant or renter on his land, surely felt compelled to support the rich man’s political causes. Whether this influence was subtle or overt or even coercive, poorer white men’s voting habits were carefully monitored. In some states like Alabama, a man’s right to vote could be challenged not only by the slaveholding election inspectors, but also by “any qualified elector.”

David Reed, a gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina, cunningly reminded the state’s elite in 1850 that “the landlord will always exercise a sufficient influence over his tenants without having an additional vote,” since “those who do not own land can never … remain here long, unless the land holder permits him to do so.” Tenants and sharecroppers undoubtedly felt this pressure. Slaveholders controlled so much of Southern society that some poorer whites had no choice but to conform. Deference and intimidation clearly dominated Southern politics.

Less devious ways to disenfranchise non-desirable voters also abounded. The structure of two-party politics itself was enough to deprive non-slaveholders a real voice in government. As a New York newspaper opined about the South in 1856, “the poor white men, the great mass of the non-slaveholding people, no doubt possess the right of suffrage, but what does that right amount to? Simply to express their preference as between two, three, or more slaveholding candidates.”

With very few contenders for public office representing their interests, poorer whites had little reason to vote based upon their principles, desires, and beliefs.

“A cunningly devised mockery of freedom is guaranteed to [non-slaveholders], and that is all,” Hinton Helper lamented. “To all intents and purposes they are disfranchised, and outlawed, and the only privilege extended to them is a shallow and circumscribed participation in the political movements that usher slaveholders into office.”

Given this type of political atmosphere, voters either become increasingly apathetic and withdrew from the formal political process completely, or they traded their votes for goods or services.

In the decades leading up to Civil War wealthy slaveholders not only used intimidation, but also courted poorer voters with material favors, plying them with meat, cigars, and copious amounts of whiskey, and providing transportation to and from the polls. Voting Day in the Deep South was a raucous, drunken, hedonistic affair, at least on its surface. Behind the scenes, of course, the area’s most powerful slaveholders maintained complete control of the day’s events.

Challenges to suffrage, therefore, existed everywhere in the late antebellum Deep South, entrenched in both local and state politics in a variety of ways. Laws were specifically designed to disenfranchise as many undesirable voters as possible, but the men in power always found additional, extra-legal ways — including violence and intimidation — to stifle democracy.

Voter suppression and disfranchisement, originally crafted to protect and preserve slavery, were reemployed after the passage of the 15th Amendment. This time, however, the extra-legal tactics became much more frequent and exponentially more violent, as white supremacists terrorized and murdered untold numbers of African Americans, preventing them from ever achieving true political power.

With the complete gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, white Republicans holding public offices in the Deep South immediately reverted back to many of the same tactics that their Confederate forbearers had mastered.

Now, as we stumble toward an uncertain future, we must look to our past to better understand the unjust designs and careful calculations of the people in power. We must reveal their corruption and expose the extent to which they win elections by force and by fraud.

And we must take heed of the beliefs of men like Leonidas Spratt, who championed reopening the African slave trade in the 1850s, and also worked hard to keep poorer whites from casting a ballot. Spratt claimed that throughout history, the most successful societies depended on “the greatest political inequalities.” Today, Brian Kemp and many other Republicans across the South are carrying on the Confederacy’s legacies — birthed in oligarchy, and ultimately dedicated to preserving white supremacy at any cost.

Stolen elections included.

Keri Leigh Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her B.A. in History and Political Science from Emory University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. (2014) in History from the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on race and class in U.S. history. Merritt’s work on poverty and inequality has garnered multiple awards. Her first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.