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1865: Should Black Citizens Be Allowed to Vote?

By Michael Edmonds
Standards: 8.1, 8.4, 8.5, 8.6; 12.1, 12.2, 12.4, 12.6, 12.18
Grade Level: Secondary
Topic: Wisconsin in the Civil War Era

Lesson Plan Text:

Introduction: The Wisconsin constitution allowed black citizens to vote, provided that the idea was "submitted to the vote of the people at a general election, and approved by a majority of all the votes cast at such election." When in 1849 Wisconsin residents voted on that question, African American voting rights were approved 5,265 to 4,075. But there were several issues on the ballot that day and less than half of all people who went to the polls voted on the black suffrage question. Because "a majority of all the votes cast" that day did not approve black suffrage (the majority had not voted on it at all), most observers believed that African Americans were not permitted to vote in Wisconsin. In subsequent referendums in 1857 and in 1865, the majority of voters (all of whom were white, by definition) rejected black suffrage outright.

When during the 1865 referendum, Ezekiel Gillespie, a leader of Milwaukee's black community, was not allowed to register to vote, he sued the election officials. His suit immediately advanced to the Wisconsin supreme court, where his attorney claimed that the phrase in the 1848 constitution (quoted above) meant that only a majority of votes on the suffrage issue had to prevail, not a majority of all votes cast on all issues that day. The supreme court agreed with him and ruled that black citizens had been entitled to vote in Wisconsin since 1849. At the time, suffrage applied only to men; it would be more than half a century before women, black or white, would be allowed to vote (in 1920).


Background Reading: "Black History in Wisconsin"

Document to Analyze: "Negro Suffrage in Wisconsin." Daily Milwaukee News, Nov. 12, 1865.

Who, What, Where, When, Why: This short newspaper article appeared in Milwaukee immediately after the 1865 popular referendum on whether African Americans should be allowed to vote in Wisconsin. Its author is not identified, but its point of view is very clearly against permitting black suffrage. The "radical leaders" to whom it refers were abolitionist Republicans such as Byron Paine and Sherman Booth.

Related Documents:
"First Colored Voter." The Evening Wisconsin, June 12, 1897.

Huber, Henry A. "Citizenship of Wisconsin. Some History of its Progress." Racine Times-Call, June 18, 1929.

Student Activities:

1. Look at the 1865 "Negro Suffrage in Wisconsin" article. Examine the titles of the other articles that appeared in that day's Daily Milwaukee News (listed in the left column). Can you deduce anything about the newspaper's point of view on race issues, or about its sympathies during the Civil War, without even reading any of those articles?

2. What does the article say has just happened in the referendum? Who won?

3. Why does the author object to the Gillespie lawsuit in the final paragraph? What premises lead up to his conclusion?

4. If the majority of voters in a community choose something, shouldn't their decision be respected? What if the majority want the drinking age to be 30? What if they want red-haired people not to vote, or people who don't speak English, or women, or people who have annual incomes less than $50,000? Should the will of the majority always be respected? If not, list three reasons why it should not.

5. Is there anything in the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights that supports your answer to question number 4?  You can see these at

6. The Gillespie decision relied on interpretation of the state constitution's language. The 1865 "Negro Suffrage in Wisconsin" article interprets the language one way. The decision of the Supreme Court quoted in the last paragraphs of the 1897 "First Colored Voter" article interpreted it differently. Restate in your own words the main points of each of these opposing arguments. Which one do you find more persuasive?

7. How do those argument apply, if they do, to the question of woman suffrage? Take a stand for or against women's right to vote that uses some of the same premises.


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