Lincoln Suggests that Blacks Be Allowed to Vote

March 13, 1864 (Sunday)

Lincoln in 1864
Lincoln in 1864

As Nathaniel Banks’ Army of the Gulf was readying itself to plunge into the heart of Louisiana, and while troops under A.J. Smith and the largest western fleet ever assembled were steaming up the Red River to do the same, in Washington, President Lincoln was concerned about more than just the military situation in Louisiana.

Lincoln had issued on December 8, 1863 a proclamation for amnesty that, with just ten percent of the population true to the Union, would allow a state to reform their government. They could elect new (Unionist) delegates and a governor, basically starting from scratch.

In Louisiana, Unionist sentiment was also higher than many other parts of the South. One of the most prominent Unionists was Michael Hahn. At the outbreak of the war, Hahn was thirty years old. Though he was born in Bavaria on the Rhine, his mother, who was by then widowed, whisked him and his four siblings away to start a new life in America. They stayed in New York for a few years, and then in Texas, before moving to New Orleans. When he was just ten, his mother died of the Yellow Fever, leaving the children orphans.

Still, he lived the life of a normal boy, attending high school and then finally studying law at the University of Louisiana. Upon graduation, he was a lawyer, and by twenty-two a school director. Growing up mostly in the South, it was hardly a surprise that he became a Democrat, though he was more on the Stephen Douglas side of things, caring little for James Buchanan’s views on slavery.

As the rumblings of war grew nearer, Hahn grew more and more committed to the cause of keeping Louisiana true to the United States. In the Spring of 1860, he spoke at a Unionist convention, offering resolutions which the convention adopted.

When Louisiana finally seceded, the state required all its officials, Hahn included, to swear an oath to the Confederacy. Hahn, of course, refused to do so. Through 1861, Hahn probably laid low and did his best not to be noticed. When Benjamin Butler came, taking over the city with the backing of Admiral Farragut’s Navy, Hahn reemerged and was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a sort of trial run for Louisiana. Less than a month later, the congressional session was adjourned, and Hahn made the bold ascertain that Louisiana should not be represented until she was fully back in the Union. He returned to his adopted home to help her come around.

Michael Hahn, the first German-born governor of a US state.
Michael Hahn, the first German-born governor of a US state.

He did this in two ways: by becoming both the head city commissioner and the editor of the New Orleans Daily True Delta. Over the course of his career, including his time in Washington, Hahn transformed himself from a Douglas Democrat to a Republican who favored emancipation. While in the capital, he befriended Lincoln, and by the time he returned to New Orleans not only was he a Unionist, but an ardent abolitionist as well. He and Lincoln kept in close contact through 1863, as the President relied upon Hahn to keep the pulse of Unionist Louisiana in ways that Nathaniel Banks simply couldn’t do.

In early 1864, Banks called for elections to be held in February. Three men came forward: the conservative J.Q.A. Fellows, Benjamin Franklin Flanders, an abolitionist, and Michael Hahn, who won the election and was inaugurated on March 4 – an event attended by both Banks and General Sherman.

In his inaugural address, Governor Hahn put forward that “although the people of a State may err, a State, as a member of the American Union, cannot die.”

Naturally, he soon turned to the institution of slavery:

‘The Union of these States, handed down by our revolutionary ancestors, is of more value than any falsely styled “State rights,” especially when these “rights” mean sectional institution, founded on a great moral, social and political evil, and inconsistent with the principles of free government. The institution of slavery is opposed alike to the rights of one race and the interests of the other; it is the cause of the present unholy attempt to break up our government; and, unpleasant as the declaration may sound to many of you, I tell you that I regard its universal and immediate extinction as a public and private blessing.’

Nine days later, President Lincoln wrote to Hahn, wishing him to take it but a little farther. There would soon be held a state constitutional convention, which, among many other things, would decide who got to vote in elections. “I barely suggest for your private consideration,” Lincoln wrote, “whether some of the colored people may not be let in – as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.”

Inauguration of Governor Hahn.
Inauguration of Governor Hahn.

Lincoln, looking to the future, gathered that the black troops “would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.” As a reward for their service, Lincoln wished for them to be allowed to participate in elections. “But this is only a suggestion,” he closed, “not to the public, but to you alone.”

As it happened, in this Hahn would fail. When the new state Constitution was ratified on September 5, 1864, it contained no provisions for black suffrage. This they would not receive until 1870. From that time on, their rights would slowly be whittled away by bitter Democrats until finally, an entire century after the close of the war, blacks were again given the right – something that the Constitution had allowed them for almost just as long.1



  1. Sources: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 7; Memorial addresses on the life and character of Michael Hahn; Louisiana Governors: Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers by Walter Greaves Cowan; Germans of Louisiana by Ellen C. Merrill. []
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Lincoln Suggests that Blacks Be Allowed to Vote by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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