Speech on African American Suffrage

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Speech on African American Suffrage  (1850) 
by Edward Ralph May
A speech made on October 28, 1850, on the floor of the Indiana Constitutional Convention by Edward Ralph May, a delegate representing Steuben and DeKalb Counties. Delegate Schuyler Colfax of St. Joseph County, a future Vice President of the United States, offered a resolution calling for a committee inquiry regarding "the expediency of separately submitting the question of negro suffrage to the people." [1] Delegate George Berry of Franklin County moved to amend Colfax's resolution to make it a direct instruction to the committee to approve a provision "making negroes and mulattoes voters at all elections in this state." [2] May then rose to propose amending Berry's amendment to allow the committee to propose "such restrictions and qualifications" on African American voters as the committee "might deem necessary." [3]

May's amendment to Berry's proposed amendment failed on a voice vote. [4] When Berry's amendment came up for a recorded vote, even Berry deserted it, leaving May, in a vote of 122 to 1, as the only delegate to support the principle of unqualified suffrage for African American males.[5]

On its face, May's failed amendment does not appear to be a particularly strong endorsement of African American voting rights, but it permitted him to launch into a speech in which he ridiculed what he saw as the hypocritical attitudes of most of the delegates on racial questions.

[May first addresses the propriety of submitting "separate and distinct questions" to the voters.] [6]

Mr. MAY said, that he regretted that the gentleman from St. Joseph (Mr. Colfax) had thought proper to introduce the original resolution, which, together with the amendment, had now so long detained the Convention. I, sir, said he, fully concur with those gentlemen who are opposed to submitting the question of negro suffrage as a separate and distinct question to the people. We are sent here for a specific purpose. That specific purpose, as it seems to me, is the formation of a Constitution.

Now, sir, it is not to be supposed that gentlemen who come up here from all parts of the State, entertain the same views of the many questions which are to be submitted to them. On the other hand, it is to be expected that they will entertain very different views of these various questions. But, because there is a difference of opinion amongst ourselves, are we, therefore, to come to no decision? Why, sir, we have come here, as I understand the matter, for the express purpose of making known, interchanging, and, if possible, reconciling these different views. If we find we cannot reconcile them, what then is to be done? Evidently, we are to ascertain the views of the majority, and having ascertained them, we embody those views in a Constitution, and then send it forth to the people for their ratification or rejection.

Now, there have come before this Convention, other questions, quite as important, it seems to me, as this question of negro suffrage. At any rate, questions, and important ones too, have come before us, upon which this Convention is more equally divided. Take, for instance, the question introduced by the gentleman from Tippecanoe (Mr. Pettit,) in regard to the abrogation of the Grand Jury system. There is not a member on this floor who does not know that the Convention is nearly equally divided on that question. Now, if we may, with propriety, refer to the people one question, why may we not, with equal propriety, refer another? And, sir, with how much greater propriety may we refer those questions, concerning which we know there is a great diversity of opinion, as well here as amongst the people? I conceive, Mr. President, that the duty we have to perform is a very plain one. It is to frame a Constitution to the best of our ability, and then submit it to the people. This, it appears to me, is all which we have to do. I conceive it is no part of our duty to evade the decision, amongst ourselves, of any question. We are sent here to decide these very questions, and it is not incumbent on us to submit with the Constitution, a string of questions, to be separately voted upon by the people.

I suppose, Mr. President, that our new Constitution will contain some provision for its future amendment, at such times and as often as the people desire to amend it, and that too without the expense and labor of a Convention, expressly assembled for that purpose. If such be the case -- if such a provision be ingrafted upon it, then sir, I will say that I hardly believe it possible that this Convention will frame a Constitution which the people will vote to reject. They will see in that one provision, as I clearly see it, a germ from which will spring sufficient good to finally overpower and destroy so much of the evil as the Constitution may elsewhere contain. For these reasons, I shall vote against submitting any separate and distinct questions to the people. [7]

[May then turns to the substantive question of African American suffrage.] [8]

But, Mr. President, another question, entirely distinct from this, has been sprung upon us by the amendment which the gentleman from Franklin (Mr. Berry) has seen fit to offer, and that is the question of negro suffrage -- the right of the negro to vote at all. Upon this question, I suppose from what I see and hear, that I differ toto coelo from a large majority of the members of this Convention. I differ, at any rate, with every man who has thus far spoken on the question. Every man who has thus far spoken has been careful to announce that he would not vote to give the negro the right of suffrage in this State. I, sir, however, think it is the duty of this Convention, so far as it can do so -- certainly the duty of the people collectively -- to give to the negro this right of suffrage under such restrictions as may, after a careful view of the subject, seem most wise and for the best.

I know very well Mr. President, that I am broaching doctrine unpopular in his house. I do not forget, sir, than no longer ago than yesterday, upon the floor of this chamber, it was repeatedly demanded, in a tone rather more triumphant than I like to hear in such a deliberative body as this, "is there a delegate in this Convention who dare avow himself in favor of negro suffrage?" And from the fact that no member then rose to his feet in response, the gentleman may really have supposed that no member dared to avow that he held sentiments presumed to be so unpopular. But, Mr. President, let me ask -- and sir, I do it in a spirit of courtesy, not wishing to give offense -- permit me to ask, I say, of the gentleman propounding that singular inquiry, "who constituted him the catechizer of this Convention? By what rule does he thus rise in his place, and in such a peculiar manner order the yeas and nays of this body, that he may ascertain the sentiments of its members?" [9] Sir, I desire to say in this place, and say it distinctly, too, that I am neither his nor any other gentleman's catechumen, neither here nor elsewhere. And, sir, I deny that either he or any other gentleman has the right to propound questions and to infer from my silence what are my views upon any subject within the range of the discussions of this Convention.

I have said, sir, that under certain restrictions, and with certain qualifications, I would give the colored man the right to vote. I am not now prepared to say what these restrictions would be. I do not desire now to tell this Convention under what circumstances the negro shall be allowed to vote. It would be but labor lost, for it is only too clearly to be seen that this Convention have already determined that the negro shall never vote in the State of Indiana. To that decision I of course submit; but, sir, I hesitate not to say, that it does not accord with my notions of right.

Mr. President, I hold to this doctrine -- I believe this to be true: Either the negro is a man constituted like ourselves by nature, or else he is only an animal -- a mere brute. If the negro be but the mere brute, then, sir, let us treat him as one in all respects. Let us treat him as men treat him in the slave-holding States. There we know men both class and treat him as other brutes. There the laws designate him as a chattel -- as mere personal property. Let us also efface the divine stamp of immortality and the evidences of manhood from his features, and write, yes, brand the word, "chattel" upon his brow. Let us at least be consistent. Let us declare him subject to our control, and divest him by force, if need be, of every human right, deny to him all right of liberty and property, and finish the task by trampling to the dust his social as well as his political rights.

But if we decide that the negro is a man -- that he has the attributes of humanity -- then let us for our own sake, if not for his, for consistency's sake, ever recognize him as a man and treat him as a man.

Now, sir, it does not follow that because we recognize the African as a man, as belonging to the human species, that therefore we must at once bestow upon him all the privileges, social and political, which we bestow upon other men. We recognize all those foreigners from the old world, who are thronging to our shores, as men. We acknowledge the German, the Swede, and others as component parts of the same human family to which we belong. We do not, however, make them inmates of our families, nor at once bestow upon them the elective franchise as soon as they touch our soil. But we give them a cordial welcome to this land of freedom. We then say to them, "acquire a knowledge of our language, our laws and our institutions -- satisfy us that you appreciate the political blessings that we enjoy -- that you will be safe depositories of the elective franchise -- and then you shall enjoy all the political rights we possess."

And so, sir, say I in regard to the negro race. I contend that it is due to the African and to ourselves, to declare under what circumstances, and coupled with what restrictions, they shall enjoy the rights and privileges of men.

My own knowledge of the negro race is not great, I confess; though be it great or small, it has been acquired by residence as well in a slaveholding as in a non-slaveholding State. But were it even greater than it is, I have too humble an estimate of my own abilities -- I think too little of my own political discernment, to willingly say what qualifications should be prescribed, and what restrictions imposed upon this class of our population, to which they must submit before they can be recognized as citizens with political rights and franchises. But I know that in one State of this Union, one standing, too, among the foremost, if she is not herself the first, I know that there the negro has had the elective franchise conferred upon him under a property qualification. I confess, that, for my own part, I think very little of such a qualification, and I do not instance it to recommend its adoption. I have instanced the example of New York in order to show gentlemen that there that has been done which I say should be done elsewhere. I have done it to call the attention of gentlemen whose observation seems never to have extended beyond the assumed fact that negro suffrage is unpopular in Indiana, to the fact that other and abler men than myself -- men recognized by all as statesmen -- have held the opinions that I have advanced, and that other, and perhaps greater and more far-seeing States than Indiana, have deemed it the part of wisdom as well as of justice, under certain restrictions, to enfranchise the negro.

And, sir, in thus restricting the exercise of the elective franchise, we are guilty of no inconsistency. We not only refuse at once to enfranchise the foreigner when he lands from the emigrant ship, but we have thrown about our own selves certain restrictions and imposed certain qualifications. We say, for example, that no man shall exercise the right of suffrage until he has attained the age of twenty-one years. This is all right and proper. Now, I do not profess to thoroughly know the capacities of the negro race. I know but little of their mental or social development. Therefore, I will not say that at the age of twenty-one years the black man can be made sufficiently well informed of the laws and institutions of this country, and of the responsibilities and duties of the citizen to make him a safe depository of this trust. But I say, that if the black man has not intelligence and discretion enough at the age of twenty-one, to make him worthy [of] the exercise of the elective franchise, then extend the prescribed age to thirty-one, or forty-one, or, if need be, to ninety-one. (Much laughter.) Draw the line somewhere. Let it be at the most suitable and proper age, whether it be fixed early or late in life.

There are other qualifications which may be mentioned in this connection. As, for example, literary or educational attainments. Gentlemen tell us that the negro race is a degraded and inferior one. I admit that this is true. I acknowledge that, as a people, they are far below the Anglo-Saxon race, both in point of intelligence and social refinement. Then, sir, let us prove our magnanimity by allowing, the negro to rise above his present degraded sphere. We already allow him the privilege of supporting our government by paying his taxes with the rest. Gentlemen see no danger in that. Then let us grant him the right to vote, and thus participate in the government which he assists to support. Confer upon him the elective franchise -- first surrounding it with all necessary restrictions; insist on a property qualification if you please -- require attainment to a mature age; insist the he shall know how to read and write; add other qualifications if you deem them necessary, but still, if you would make him other than the degraded being which you say he is, under some circumstances or other, put within his reach this great privilege.

I do not know, Mr. President, but that I shall be misunderstood in these few remarks. I certainly do not wish to be. I am not, where I am known, deemed an abolitionist, as that term has come to be understood. Neither, sir, am I a free-soiler, at least I am not enough of one to have ever received many free-soil votes; and I have frequently encountered opposition from the free-soil party. But, sir, though this be the case, still I shall never shrink from uttering my conviction that there is much truth in the principles of the free-soil party, and sir, I know that many members of that party conscientiously adhere to them. It seems to me that I would be recreant to the cause of humanity were I to sit silently in my seat and allow such sentiments as have been promulgated upon this floor to go unanswered and uncontradicted. Sir, when the gentleman from St. Joseph (Mr. Colfax) introduced his resolution, I did hope that it would be received in the same spirit in which it was offered. But it was not so received. The dignified and proper spirit in which the resolution was presented was not reciprocated. A very different spirit was at once displayed. I regret to see that there exists here a very decided disposition to crush every expression of sympathy for the negro race, and I have sometimes fancied I saw a disposition in this Hall to crush to the ground every man who ventured to give utterance to such sympathy. I hope I am mistaken. But against all manifestations of such a feeling I have risen to protest, and I do it none the less earnestly because I seem to stand alone.


  1. Report of the debates and proceedings of the Convention for the revision of the constitution of the state of Indiana, Indianapolis: A.H. Brown, 1851, v. 1, p. 244. [1]
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. Id., p. 253 [2]
  5. Id., pp. 258-259. [3]
  6. Id., pp. 244-245.
  7. Although May opposed "submitting any separate and distinct questions to the people," he nevertheless voted for the Colfax resolution, which failed, 62-60. Id., p. 254.
  8. Id., pp. 245-246.
  9. May is referring to a speech by Delegate E.M. Dobson of Owen County. Id., p. 238. [4]
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.