Francis Ellen Watkins Harper was a 19th Century black woman poet. She was one of the founders of the American Woman Suffrage Association along with Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. Harper's poetry focused on the evils of slavery and occasionally on religion. In this 1872 poem, Aunt Cloe's Politics, Harper addresses the consequences of political corruption for the black community.


It is difficult for us today to understand why the idea of a woman citizen going into a polling place to vote could be considered a social scandal to 19th century sensibilities. The truth is, much of local American politics took place in the neighborhood drinking hole or barber shop. The post Civil War period brought a boon to the capitalists of the Industrial Age along with a rise in corrupt political party bosses. Ballots were bought openly, often marked by someone other than the voter and handed over to an election officer - without the voter ever handling the ballot himself. Voting, especially in the cities, was a rough and tumble business associated with drunkenness, brawling and blatant corruption.

The Temperance Movement, a movement toward promoting sobriety gathered momentum after a group of women in Ohio protested against the selling of liquor. Women were especially attracted to the movement for several reasons.

Women were given no legal protection against abusive husbands. Men prone to violence were legally in their rights to beat their wives. Alcoholism often aggravated violent situations, just as it does today.

Working class married women often found themselves the family breadwinner. Married women had no legal right to their earnings. Alcoholic husbands were in their right to take their wives' earning and spend it in the local watering hole - possibly the same one where these men cast their votes. Adding to the injury, a married woman's wages could be garnisheed by liquor sellers to pay for her husband's liquor debts, leaving the woman unable to provide for her children who of course legally, and solely, belonged to her drunken husband, not to her. Having no redress at law, women took to confronting the sellers of liquor directly.

Liquor lobbyists had great influence over state legislatures, as well as urban politics, and often literally controlled what went into the ballot boxes. When suffragists were confronted with the argument that no respectable woman would be seen in a polling place, they could legitimately say that it often was no place for a respectable man either, and no place to which they would want to send their young 21 year old sons.

Liquor interests continued to wield a vast amount of power in American politics throughout the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Liquor lobbyists contributed much support to the anti-suffragist movement right up to the final campaign in Tennessee, where it aligned with railroad interests and manufacturing lobbyists to block the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Nowhere was voter corruption more evident than in New York City. During the 1870's, Thomas Nast, the American political newspaper cartoonist, established his reputation lampooning the evils of New York City's Mayor Hoffman, and especially his chief henchman, Boss Tweed and their Tammany Hall Ring.

Tweed had engineered the passage of a new city charter which secured their control of New York City's politics. Honest voters were intimidated into staying away from the polls while "repeaters" were escorted from polling place to polling place around town. Tweed freely bestowed gifts to the clergy in order to secure the support of their following, especially Catholic immigrants.

Nast's exposure of ring practices led, in March of 1870, to the introduction into the New York State Legislature of Assembly Bill 169. The bill denounced Nast and the newspaper for which he worked, Harper's Journal of Civiliazation. Nast was singled out by religious newspapers the "Nast-y artist of Harper's Hell Weekly - a Journal of Devilization."

Realizing the threat Nast posed for his political machine, Tweed tried to lure Nast out of New York by offering to pay him to study art in Europe. Nast refused the offer. Despite the danger (the political machine was not above murder), Nast persisted in launching an effective anti-Tweed campaign with his political cartoons. It was Nast who depicted the Tweed machine as a vicious tiger preying on the people.

In 1870, The New York Times went on record in support of Nast's fight against Tweed's corrupt ring. Nast's cartooning was so effective it eventually mustered the forces together that brought down the Tweed ring.




Here, in an article from the Woodhull & Claflin Weekly of November 26, 1870, the corruption regarding election politics in New York City is addressed. Henry Ward Beecher, as the pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, was the most influential minister in the country. As a Beecher, he was a member of one of the most influential families. His congregation was the largest and wealthiest in the country. Ferries taking people from Manhattan to Brooklyn on Sunday mornings for his services where over 2,000 people were in attendance were called "Beecher Boats."

Victoria Woodhull, whose lifelong attempts for acceptance among the respectable were constantly thwarted by personal and family scandal, was one of the editors of the newspaper in which this article was published. She and her co-editor and sister, Tennie C. Claflin, were established on Wall Street as the first women brokers through the auspices of Colonel Varnderbuilt, the railroad mogul with whom Claflin had an affair.

In 1870, Woodhull announced she would run for president of the United States in the 1872 election. She became the president of a spiritualist organization and catapulted herself, for a short time, to the forefront of the suffrage movement by becoming the first woman to address Congress. She argued that women already had the right to vote based on the 15th Amendment. Her association with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the suffrage movement became convoluted. It also was brief. It appears the suffrage leaders suspected Woodhull was using them for her own purposes and was probably hurting their cause more than it was helping.

Fisk was one of the two notorious figures of the Erie Railroad whose dealings on Wall Street made him very wealthy at the expense of investors during the gilded age of the robber barons. Fisk and his partner Gould epitomized the ruthless capitalists who saw their rise with the advancement of the Industrial Age after the Civil War. They, along with Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall Ring, controlled New York State politics as well as New York City politics.

Moguls such as Fisk were known to roam the New York State Capitol with pockets full of money which they would openly give to legislators to forward their interests. Judges were equally corrupt and were able to issue injunctions in districts throughout the state. Injunctions issued by a judge for the benefit one interest would be met by a counter-injunction issued by another judge (or even the same judge) for the benefit of another interest. The result was that if you happened to be a party named in one of the injunctions, it could be impossible for you to pursue any course of action legally. The whole system was so morally corrupt, that even those participating in it complained that the judges wouldn't stay bought. This buying of judges would have its negative consequences for the women of our country.

While Tweed and his ring were Republicans, this article shows that the Democrats were working hard to reach a parity in corruption with the Republicans. This corruption of New York City politics was so invasive, that in addition to controlling the politics of New York State, it also had its effect in Washington.

U. S. Senator Roscoe Conkling was working with the railroad interests to have corporations granted the rights of persons under the 14th Amendment to ease the ability of railroads to set fees. Senator Conkling did not seem to feel women should be granted the rights of persons, but felt very strongly that corporations should. Ward Hunt was appointed as a U. S. district judge through Conkling's influence. It would be Hunt who would preside over Susan B. Anthony's trial.

"Rev. Henry Ward Beecher implies that the proclamation of A. Oakey Hall, Mayor of New York, advising citizens to register only on the last two days of the registry, was unfair to the Republican party, as the party discipline of the Democrats is more strict than that of the Republicans, therefore a large proportion of the last would register only as directed; and also because the Democrats can poll a larger fraudulent vote than the Republicans, and were therefore desirous of crowding the business of registration. Mr. Beecher says he believes the action of the Federal Government in the New York elections, was 'an honest attempt to purify the elections and secure the proper observance of naturalization laws.' On this point we think few honest men will disagree with Mr. Beecher. In 1869, at one place a line of Democratic repeaters extending far down the street, voted until after sunset, without a single challenged vote, it having been given out that any one challenging more than once should be arrested 'for obstructing the elections;' and the polls were kept open ten minutes later than the law allowed! In 1870, although crowds of sullen, would-be 'repeaters' hung around the booths, nearly the whole legal vote was in by 3 o'clock, and yet it lacked a large percentage of the registered number!

"In the Fourth Ward in 1860 the vote was ..........5,062
In 1870 it was ...................................3,334
In the Sixth Ward in 1860 the vote was............5,863
In 1870 it was ...................................3,874

"We fancy that the protection given by the General Government against the frauds of "repeaters" was united with the self-esteem of the more respectable members of the party, which forbid their calling 'Jim Fisk, Jr.,' a 'brother Democrat,' and so kept them from the polls, constituted the causes which mitigated against the Democrats being able this year as last to poll a larger vote than there were inhabitants to poll it! It is said that the 'full measure of the indebtedness of the American people to Fisk, Jr., and his gang is not yet generally apprehended.' Well, the Democrats will in good time 'apprehend' him. His connections with their New York election, and his speech, if such gibberish can be so called, at the Cooper Institute, may yet lose to that great political party who have affiliated with him and his 'Erie Ring' the next Presidential contest. A very high authority we have for saying that though 'hand join in hand yet the wicked shall not go unpunished,' and the aid of Mr. Fisk, of Fiskville, and his 23,000 railroad employees did not prevent the majority of Democratic votes in New York State in 1868 from being reduced by 17,000 in 1870!"


After the Civil War, the natural issue for debate concerned the political status of the newly freed slaves (then known as freemen). This, of course, could not be answered without bringing attention to another class of disenfranchised people - women. It was a perplexing situation. From Harriet Beecher Stowe to Anna Dickinson, from Dorthea Dix and Clara Barton to Harriet Tubman, from Anna Ella Carroll, to Mary A. Livermore, from Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell to the countless number of volunteers of the Sanitary Commission, to say that women had willingly and ably towed the line during the war was an understatement. Women were fighting their way into the professions and demanding a larger role for themselves. But enfranchising women and the freemen proved intolerable to the sentiments of many. The solution resulted with the introduction into the U. S. Constitution the word "male" for the first time. No longer would women have only to educate the world into practicing a more just application of democracy, they would now have to erase the word "male" from the Constitution.

The sense of betrayal felt by women in the suffrage movement was unfathomable. What was particularly disheartening was the desertion by the leading abolitionists with whom so many women suffragists had worked over so many long years. Wendell Phillips, it was thought, did much to hurt the women's cause because he was displeased by Elizabeth Cady Stanton's liberal views on divorce. But he was not the only man who stood against the women in their hour of need. Fredrick Douglass felt women should step aside for "the Negro's hour." By this he meant of course, the male Negroes' hour. There was no place for the woman Negro in this time frame. It would not be the last time black women would find themselves alone in their fight toward equality. Only Robert Purvis felt the injustice and said he did not want to walk into the polling place without his daughter at his side.

It was against this background that many women throughout the struggle decided to take a stand and registered to vote. The notorious Victoria Woodhull was depicted in newspapers at a ballot box during the 1871 New York City election. The following humorous account submitted to the Woohull & Claflin Weekly of a young woman attempting to register to vote occurred during the same 1871 New York City elelction.


"ABBAYE OF THELEME, Nov. 5, 1871.

"Dear Victoria: 'Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.'

"'Faint heart never won fair lady,' nor will a tepid and timid soul ever obtain those rights of women which, like the touch of nature our sex symbolizes, will yet make the whole world kin. Thus soliloquized I, as I determined to register my name as a voter, on the morning of Saturday, November 4, the last day of registration prior to the grand fight against Tammany on the ensuing Tuesday. In this frame of mind I donned my jaunty hat, adjusted to my Byronic collar a killing tie, after the sedulous manner of Beau Brummel, and with a fixed purpose decided to break through the thick array of strong legions of impudent men that surround the polls with blackguardism and tobacco fumes and juices, as if to exclude all decent spirits from voting, like the infernal incantations and vapors with which Heoate and her crew protect their vilest orgies I screwed up my courage to the point of taking. I did not hesitate to consider whether success or failure would attend the attempt, for I had made up my mind that reason and argument would fail, and that only the most captivating smiles, bewitching glances, and sugared speech, would soften masculine force and positiveness.

"I tell the girls that in this fight for our right, reason cold and hard must not be our only logic. I do not wish to see women dangling fawningly round the necks of men and suing to vote. We must take our claims so gracefully, charmingly and naturally that manhood will forever after be ashamed of having excluded truth, gentleness, grace and beauty from the hitherto unchivalric arena of politics. Above everything in the world, do not let us, in assuming rights heretofore held to be exclusively male, forego for one moment the more refining attributes of our sex, nor ape one iota the angularities of the ungracious and awkward monster man. If woman is to acquire more force of intellect, more firmness and determination of purpose, let it be the strength of artistic beauty touches of a sculptor's hammer, yielding at each blow another grace.

"I undertook my morning's expedition with enthusiasm, for however Quixotic my attempt might seem in the eyes of casual thinkers, it was sublime in purport to me who dream of voting as the most exalted of duties to be consecrated hereafter by intellect and art. Nature marked the occasion with one of the halcyon days of the characteristic Indian summer of North America, just cool enough to bring a natural ruby to the cheek, and remind fashionable ladies that the tinge of the Carthamus tinctorius is a superfluity outvied by the delicate blending of warm blood and cool oxygen. I drank in with pleasure and exhilaration the ethereal champagne that seemed floating in the vivifying atmosphere as I hurried along with a gentleman friend who, had, like Parker Pillsbury, determined not to register his name nor vote if mine should be refused.

"The choice of places of registry seems also have been dictated by a desire to exclude all elegance and sensitiveness therefrom. The one in my district was in the aristocratic shaving shop of a Teutonic Figaro, wherein the great unwashed of Third avenue are unbirsuted of their shoebrush appendages. And what more appropriate place for the polls in these days than the place where polls are manipulated?

"Not a whit intimidated, therefore, by the fear of the razor, I opened the door, entering a long, narrow, somewhat dark room, along which were ranged a file of high-backed chairs, in which were seated a corpse-like looking crowd enveloped in white shrouds, with their faces so besmeared with lather that I was not able, with all my psychical, physiognomical and cranioligical acumen, to discriminate the scale of these animals (undergoing their weekly Saturday's toesorial abstersion) in the ladder of Darwinian progress toward a truly conscious ens. (end?) This was not an appalling sight to my woman's nerves, and perceiving no formidable obstacle to my advance, not even so much as a knight of the chestnut club, I tripped along to the rear of the shop with my most graceful teeter, praying my Ariel (I have one, like Belinda of the stolen lock) to suffuse my features with beguiling graces, and touch my tongue with siren-like eloquence and arrived at the very back of the room, running the gauntlet of these night-capped heads, like walking the hospital, I found myself in presence of these guardians of the sacred ballot. There were two men at the register table, with large, open books before them, while several others sat around-one in his shirt-sleeves, a black-eyed, humorsome-looking wight, the barber, as I afterward learned, and who really proved himself the most polite of the company, since when I declared my mission, forecasting some discussion, he offered me a chair.

"With a Semiramis-like resolution, I was prepared for the worst; though not for the perpetration of so naughty a deed - no, not I - as that the Duchess of Devonshire, who threw aside her dignity to grant to a huge and uncouth butcher, for his vote in favor of her candidate - oh horrors! - a kiss. The register who represented the Republican party, an exceedingly good-looking and gentlemanly person, smiled amiably as I told him I came to register my name. He said that it was the first call of the kind that had come before them and required consideration. I took from my pocket the law of New York on the subject, which provides that every citizen, without any male qualification shall be entitled to vote, and handed it to him to read. He seemed to have already considered the matter, and consented most willingly, as far as he was concerned, to accepting my name. But he could not do so, he said, without the approval of his coadjutor, a youthful and obtuse agent of Tammany, who sat opposite, with his face turned sullenly away, and whose sturdy and obstinate features reminded one of what Schiller says: 'The lightning of the intellectual gods plays ineffectually upon the head of the Dummheit;' his head being manifestly a non-conductor of thought. At this juncture the polite barber offered me a chair. I sat queen of the occasion. But how to millify Tammany, in the person of my Hibernian antagonist, was my now perplexing thought. I looked at him entreatingly. I could not catch his glance. Unconsciously to himself, he instinctively shunned my psychological eye. Now to my wits, thought I. What the eye cannot accomplish, the tongue of blandiloquence must.

"'For when success our policies attends,

Few ask if fraud or truth attain of the ends.'

"I told how the Democrats had favored the cause of women; that we expected more from them, in the way of our demands, than from the Republicans. Five years ago, in Kansas, when Stanton, Anthony and Train were there, the Democrats were willing to give them the vote. This concession to Democracy enabled me to engage the attention of my Irish opponent, and a faint smile diffused itself over his stolid features. My Republican friend, well-versed in political history, and familiar with the numberless demonstrations since given to the woman's cause by the Republicans, talked eloquently for his party. Inwardly please with his arguments, I could not deny them, yet with Talleyrand strategy I questioned his statements and sustained the Democratic side, manifestly to the mollification of the bucolical juvenal of the Tammany tribe, who shook his head with milder dissent. "Enough of argument," said the Republican; "will you take the lady's name?" "I am opposed to woman's voting," he answered. I asked, in my most dulcet and winning accents, "Why are you opposed?" He was silent. Men either are without reason or boast too much. Fie on men's powers of ratiocination! Where is the man whose reason has taught him that there is for humanity no progress until woman's thorough freedom is established. Lais, a Corinthian courtesan, one of the most famous musicians of antiquity, and a favorite of Diogenes and Aristipus, used to ridicule the wise men of her day. 'I do not understand what is meant by the austerity of philosophers,' she said, 'for, with this fine name, they are as much in my power as the rest of the Athenians.'

"The old Rosicrucians held that to think of a spirit was to invoke and obtain its magnetic influence, and perhaps it was this vision of the fascinating Lais in my mind, which the occasion had called up, that may have instilled some sense of gallantry into the souls of the bystanders. "Put the lady's name down," said several of them, reiteratedly. I leaned over and looked coaxingly into the face of the savage of Tammany and said, 'I will allow the gentleman to reconsider his decision.' More argument ensued and discussion. The Republican decided, in these words, 'I shall take the lady's name if even you refuse.' Both gentlemen took up their pens and on their books inscribed my humble cognomen.

"I triumph, I gratefully muttered, and said, "Now, gentlemen, since I have given you my name, I beg to ask for yours, which shall be recorded lastingly in my remembrance. Having received their name, curtseying most profoundly, I bade adieu to the scene of my first public effort to obtain a vote. Frances Rose Mackinley.

"P. S. Nov. 10-Of my after attempt to vote, I have but a few words to say. On presenting myself at the polls the Democratic Inspector of Election told me that my name had been erased from the registry by a majority of the Board, though the Republican said that he had retained it upon his book. It was in vain to protest against this tyrannical act, the only answer I received being, 'In my opinion you are not entitled to vote.' F. R. M.