Pencils Instead of Bayonets
‘The elections in the United States have been watched with an interest rarely felt in the domestic concerns of a distant country,’ Walter Bagehot and Richard Holt Hutton’s National Review declared in 1857. ‘Not for the first time – perhaps for the last – the terrible problem of Slavery, long the secret haunt, has become the open battle-field of American politics.’ The 1856 presidential election had ‘emphatically declared in favour of extension of slavery’, with ‘disregard of positive engagements both national and international’. Armed bands in Kansas had carried the polling booths ‘at the point of the bowie knife’ and laws had been enacted ‘on behalf of slavery’, ‘suppressing all liberty of speech, of the press, or of political action’. The review feared that Europe (where slavery had come from) was unaware of the gravity of the situation: ‘this very hour’, a special committee was reporting on the ‘reopening of the African slave trade’.
The London periodical press continued to express concerns about American elections after the Civil War, often drawing parallels with Britain. Fraser’s Magazine observed in 1872 that ‘the system of representation prevailing in America and in England throws the whole representation into the hands of the dominant party’, and that gerrymandering was not exclusive to America. In 1876, when disputed returns in three Southern states made it impossible to know who’d won, the Westminster Review reported that Black people were being actively disenfranchised. Sketching the hostile and violent environment, with descriptions of floggings and chain gangs, it observed that the law was ‘in the hands of the whites’, drawing on testimony from a judge who had seen many Black people accused and many hanged ‘but none convicted on trial’. It warned of elections stolen by ‘stuffing ballot boxes’ in favour of anti-Black candidates, of few or no polling places in Black districts, and cases where ‘hundreds of blacks who came to vote were told they must go elsewhere, when it was too late to do so.’ Present-day parallels are striking.
Urging the British in 1895 ‘to watch closely the progress of events in the United States’, the Economic Review warned of registration fraud, voter intimidation and racist murder: ‘It is difficult to believe that in this end of the 19th century a Kansas mob would hang a negro for theft; that ten thousand people of Texas would torture one with red-hot irons, and then burn him to death.’ In a 1903 article on white racial violence, the Nineteenth Century observed that, since Federal troops had withdrawn from the South in 1877, the Fifteenth Amendment had habitually been disregarded. Black Americans were told ‘they would not be allowed to vote, and whites with revolvers lined the polling booths; or else in quieter states the registers were falsified, the ballot boxes were “stuffed” with bogus votes, or negro votes were simply not counted.’ ‘In order to maintain white supremacy’, constitutional amendments were being used to place new restrictions on the franchise, from property qualification and poll taxes to education tests. ‘The entire Negro electorate – all native-born citizens – of the South is disenfranchised by force or fraud,’ the Review of Reviews declared in 1906, reporting ‘an average of three lynchings a week’ in the previous ten years.
Not that British elections were any better. ‘The present Tory government, or that botched piece of cabinet-work which now stands for a Tory government, first obtained office in 1895 on the strength of a social programme they have since made no real attempt to carry out,’ the Westminster Review remarked in 1904. (Campbell-Bannerman had ‘very properly’ termed it a ‘fraudulent prospectus’.) ‘Were the law strictly carried out’, the Edinburgh Review declared in 1853, scarcely a single MP ‘could retain his seat’. And it is still possible, more than 150 years later, to win an election – or a referendum – based on lies. You can also be fined for breaking electoral law, without it having any effect on your right to form a government.
Electoral reform and public trust were live debates around the time of the 1832 Reform Bill. But it was also, as George Eliot wrote more than thirty years later in Felix Holt, the Radical, a time of great hope, ‘when faith in the efficacy of political change was at fever-heat in ardent Reformers’. ‘I hold it blasphemy to say that a man ought not to fight against authority,’ Felix says, stating his intention ‘to work all my life long against privilege, monopoly, and oppression’. Felix’s friend Rufus Lyon, a radical minister, remarks that ‘it is our preliminary work to free men from the stifled life of political nullity, and bring them into what Milton calls “the liberal air”.’ John Stuart Mill similarly urged the moral and cultural imperative of giving people ‘an interest in politics and in the management of their own affairs’.
The secret ballot was demanded by the Chartists from the 1830s. ‘The accounts from the distant counties prove, to all who attend to what has been going on during the late elections, the hopelessness of obtaining real reform in the electoral system, without devising some remedy against the oppression of landlords,’ a ‘Friend to Purity of Election’ wrote in the Examiner in 1833. Large landowners ‘exact from their slaves and vassals (for as such they regard their dependents) the most implicit political obedience’, and any dissenter was a ‘marked object of dislike to the whole body of the aristocracy’. The secret ballot was not, however, adopted until 1872, when it was contested by Mill (initially a supporter) and other radicals, as they thought it would unleash more intense forms of surveillance and suspicion on the part of landlords and employers, and remove accountability for the less vulnerable, ‘shutting the door’, in the words of one of Eliot’s characters, ‘against those influences whereby the soul of a man and the character of a citizen are duly educated for their great functions’.
Some Victorians looked for progress to come from outside Parliament. ‘A new novel,’ the Westminster Review had declared in 1844, ‘is sometimes a political event.’ In 1891, having just published Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy remarked that the welfare of the people was ‘never once thought of’ by hereditary peers and politicians. He regretted that ‘the offhand decision of some commonplace mind high in office at a critical moment influences the course of events for a hundred years.’ Max Gate, his house in Dorchester, was an anti-imperialist base from which he launched his anti-imperialist poems, entertained radical ideas and people, and placed inverted commas round the word civilised when describing the West. ‘Why should not Africa be free, as is America?’ Emma Hardy declared in 1899.
In Britain, suffrage has historically been restricted not by race per se but by class, with a property requirement from 1430 (when it was 40 shillings) until 1918 (for men) and 1928 (for women). The first Black Briton to vote in a British election was Ignatius Sancho, in 1774, when Britain had a Black population of at least 20,000. It was women and the working class – of all ethnicities – who were excluded, though there were plenty of white British middle-class women who petitioned against their own enfranchisement – 20,000 of them by 1909. Many also signed up to eugenics, secure in their privilege, and allied more with their class, and with imperial notions of white supremacy, than their gender.
A long history of marginalisation and oppression now finds expression in a racial democratic deficit in both the UK and the US; organisations such as Operation Black Vote and the Movement Voter Project are seeking to address this. Trump’s unfounded challenges to the election result over the last month have targeted the Black vote, including postal votes at a time when Black voters have opted in higher numbers than usual to vote this way because of the pandemic. Trump also sought to deter millions of Black Americans from voting in 2016.
Democracy has long co-existed with forms of racial exclusion and oppression, as this history shows. It is not a history that Trump wants taught in schools, and the British government, too, has made moves to suppress the teaching of past and present racial injustices, erasing history even as it purports to be on history’s side. Britain has claim to having invented the whole sorry fiction of race – the separating of human beings according to skin colour for the purposes of capital.
For the most vulnerable, the right to representation can be a matter of life and death. And it is always an act of empowerment. When the Tories lost spectacularly in 1906 – the Liberals took four hundred seats, and 29 members of the new Labour Representation Committee became MPs – Hardy observed that it was ‘a revolution in which the weapons are criss-crosses & black-lead pencils instead of bayonets & barricades’.