Publication Date


Document Type


Last Page



Few causes in American history have proved more enduring than the effort to ensure all citizens the right to vote. From the enfranchising of African-Americans after the Civil War to the granting of women’s suffrage and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the country has struggled to live up to its image as the guardian of the ideal that every citizen has a guaranteed right to vote. The prolonged presidential election of 2000 and the vote-counting debacle in Florida once again focused national attention on the issue of enfranchisement. Democrats argued that the Florida election, whether by accident or design, was hopelessly flawed. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations produced evidence of confusing ballots, scrubbed voter lists, and lost registration forms, all of which, they believe, conspired to deny African-Americans and other minorities their voting rights. Calls for federal action and electoral reform have reverberated through the halls of Congress ever since. The arguments of reformers today resonate with the language and concerns of an earlier time. In 1889-1890, advocates of electoral reform, most of whom were then Republicans, made a valiant, but ultimately abortive, effort to protect the voting rights of African- Americans in southern states. At a time when southern redeemers were seeking to obliterate the memory of Reconstruction and deny blacks any role in the political life of the South, the leadership of the Republican party was determined to strengthen the federal government's role in protecting the rights of its citizens. Maine Congressman and Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed presided over this burst of congressional energy for electoral reform and black suffrage. This paper traces Speaker Reed’s commitment to that effort and examines the formidable skills he brought to bear to win passage of a federal elections bill in the House of Representatives in 1890. The bill was ultimately defeated in the Senate—a watershed moment that signaled the end of the Republican party’s and northern politicians’ concern for issues that had dominated national politics since the end of the Civil War. It was to be the last sustained effort to protect African-Americans’ voting rights until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's, the march on Selma, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Reed's efforts throughout the long and highly charged debate between 1889 and 1890 rank among the greatest of his long and extraordinary career. Wendy Hazard is an assistant professor of history at the University of Maine, Augusta where she specializes in twentieth-century American political history