Suffrage for White Men Only: The Disfranchisement of Free Men of Color in Antebellum North Carolina

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Virginia Tech

This thesis explores the disfranchisement of free men of color in 1835 North Carolina through the lens of antebellum citizenship and within the context of the racial turmoil of the 1830s. Citizenship and the evolution of southern racial ideology converged in the 1835 North Carolina Constitutional Convention. On the one hand, free men of color voted, a right permitted in North Carolina for all taxpaying men regardless of race and one of the most crucial components of citizenship in the early republic and Jacksonian periods. But on the other hand, some North Carolina white slaveholders saw free people of color as instigators of slave uprisings and a threat to their social order and economic system. As convention delegates debated disfranchisement, they drew on their notions of citizenship and their fear of people of color, and a majority ultimately decided that free nonwhites did not deserve a voice in the political arena. My explanation of why delegates disfranchised free men of color is twofold. First, members of the convention supported disfranchisement because of the perceived connection between free people of color and slave violence. Disfranchisement also came about because the majority of delegates determined that political citizenship was reserved exclusively for white men, and the elimination of nonwhite suffrage in North Carolina was one of the most explicit representations of the ongoing transition of citizenship based on class to a citizenship based on race in the antebellum United States.

North Carolina, Suffrage, Citizenship, Constitutional Convention, Nat Turner, African Americans, Jacksonian Democracy