The End of Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania

Publication Year: 1998

Smith, Eric Ledell. "The End of Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania: African Americans and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837-1838." Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Vol. 65, No. 3, African Americans in Pennsylvania (Summer 1998), pp. 279-299.

Source note

Eric Ledell Smith was an African American archivist and historian who wrote and edited several books and articles on African American history and performing arts history. This article won a prestigious Pennsylvania history prize in the year it was published. 

Partisan politics are a key ingredient in what happened at the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837-1838 and related events, especially the court case in Bucks County about whether it was legal for black people to vote in Pennsylvania. In the 1830s, the two main political parties were the Whigs and the Democrats. The Whig Party came out of the tradition of the Federalists, but was formed in the 1830s specifically to oppose Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party. Supporters included industrialists and the urban middle class, and advocated for modernization and greater powers of congress over the president. The Democratic Party on the other hand appealed to immigrants and working-class white Americans as well as southern slaveholders, and advocated for an agrarian society and weak central government. In this article, Smith refers to a coalition between Anti-Masons and the Whigs that gained political power in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. The Anti-Masonic Party was formed in the late 1820s to oppose Freemasonry, a secret society mostly comprised of wealthy and powerful men. It soon merged with the Whig party, however, to oppose the policies of the Democratic Party. 

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Reading questions
  1. Who wrote this article, and who is the intended audience? 
  2. What have other historians overlooked in their studies of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837-1838 (page 280)? 
  3. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 did not explicitly forbid African Americans from voting. Why is it that so few African Americans voted in Pennsylvania between 1790 and 1837 (page 281)?
  4. What happened in the anti-black riots of 1834 and 1835? 
  5. How did the economic depression of 1837 affect the decision to revisit voting rights in the Pennsylvania Constitution (page 287)? 
  6. A Bucks County delegate at the constitutional convention, E.T. McDowell, stoked fears about what could happen if the convention decided to remove the taxation requirement for voting in Pennsylvania. What were those fears, and how did McDowell’s words change the views of other delegates (page 288)? 
  7. How did Judge John Fox’s decision in the Bucks County voting case support Democrats at the constitutional convention (page 292)? 
  8. How are the Pittsburgh Memorial, the Gardner-Hinton Memorial, and the Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens similar? How do they differ? What role did each play at the constitutional convention (pages 293 and 295)? 
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Source type
Scholarly article
History Topics
African American History
Black Voting Rights
Civil Rights
Time Period
Slavery, Sectionalism, and Social Reform (1815-1861)