Yesterday I caught an interesting program on C-SPAN’s “In-Depth” which featured Frank J. Williams and Howard University historian, Edna C. Medford discussing Lincoln’s legacy. I don’t remember how it came up, but at one point early on in the broadcast the two guests discussed Reconstruction and the political in-roads made by African Americans in southern state legislatures. Williams made it a point to emphasize that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write or had no training for the demands of political governance. This is a very sensitive point that was emphasized by white Southern “Redeemers” who worked vigorously to overturn Reconstruction governments and reimpose white supremacy. Recent scholarship has successfully challenged this important narrative thread of the Lost Cause. Historians such as Eric Foner have documented the wide range of legislation that benefited both poor black as well as white Southerners. On the other hand there it is indisputable that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write.
Professor Medford immediately countered by pointing out that white men had been voting, regardless of their capacity to read and/or write, since the 1830s. By the 1830s qualifications such as property had been overturned as the country continued to push west and in turn challenged traditional notions of privilege. Most white men were eligible to vote and just about all presidential electors were chosen directly by the people. With this in mind it is curious to me that we continue to feel the need to point out that blacks were illiterate at a time when literacy ceased to be a factor in determining the suffrage as well as the right to run for office. We tend to think of the expansion of the franchise in the 1830s as an important step in the evolution of American democracy so why do we continue to feel a need to point out that recently-freed slaves could not read or write?