William Pitt Fessenden.
The Power of Portland’s Black Voters
By 1835, Black businessman and activist Reuben Ruby had become a relatively well known actor in Maine politics and a passionate advocate for abolition, civil rights and temperance. Maine was one of only a few states that granted Black citizens the right to vote, and Ruby took his duty very seriously. At the age of 21, he participated in Maine’s first election. In the late 1820s, he joined the National Republican Party, and later its successor, the Whigs, in 1834, both of which supported a strong central government and a national bank, positions known back then as federalism. They also vigorously opposed pro-slavery Democratic President Andrew Jackson.
In the early 1830s, there were only about one or two hundred Black voters in Portland, but because of their concentration in a city of roughly 13,000 people, they exerted political influence. As historian Van Gosse writes in his book, The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War, while many New England federalists and others supported formal equality for free African Americans, that position had had particularly strong support in Maine since the state’s founding in 1820.
At a time when states like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania either banned or restricted Black suffrage, Northern New England stood out as a region where Black men could exercise their democratic rights. Gosse describes Maine Anti-Slavery Society founder Samuel Fessenden as the most “visibly pro-Black Whig in the North.” Fessenden befriended Black residents, met them in their homes and convinced them to join the National Republican Party and, subsequently, the Whigs. Democrats reacted with anger that Black people not only voted in Maine — they were voting for their rivals.
Democratic Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who famously debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858, believed white Mainers were out of their minds for allowing Black men to vote. In Maine, he said, “they have decided that a negro shall have the rights of the elective franchise on an equality with the white man. I do not concur in the good sense or correct taste of that decision on the part of Maine,” but if a white Mainer “think[s] the negro has the right to come and kill his vote by a negro vote, I have no disposition to interfere,” he snidely remarked.
In a racist screed published in 1836 by the Washington Globe, a mouthpiece of the national Democratic Party, it was asserted that the Whigs were “notoriously in favor of free negro suffrage” for an “obvious reason.”
“These lowest and most degraded voters, who are destitute of property, are always subject to the moneyed aristocracy,” the Globe wrote. “They hire them and command their votes. Hence it is that in Boston, in Portland, and other northern cities, where the free blacks vote, they go en masse for the federal party.”
A few days before the election of 1832, Fessenden caucused with a group of Black men in Portland, and the following Tuesday, Nov. 6, the National Republicans squeaked out a victory in the municipal election, winning by just 21 votes. It was clear Black voters had made the difference, and the Jacksonians were furious.
The Globe fumed that the “Portland Nationals” won by forming a coalition “with a body of real Ebonies,” whose votes were “obtained by the influence of an orthodox preacher.”It accused Fessenden and other local Republicans of bribing Black voters with dinner and liquor “at the grog shop.” The white Republicans reportedly gave the Black men “three cheers” as they entered the party caucus.
“The company of 58 blacks were prepared to march to the polls,” the Globe wrote, “and carried a majority of 21 votes over the free white population.”
In the anti-Jackson Portland Advertiser, Republicans vigorously denied there was any impropriety in the election, noting that the attack “in the government organ” was appropriate for “the region of negro slavery, and the White House of Andrew Jackson,” but was “ill fitted for free, happy, and independent New England, where the soul of a colored man is believed to be as white and as pure as that of a king on his throne, or the President. … By our constitution, the vote of a colored man is as good as that of a white man.” The Advertiser added that Fessenden “has done nothing that he would not willingly do over again. … He never has been taught to set himself above one of his fellow citizens, nor to think a man of different complexion from himself beneath his attention. … The same God that made them, made him.”
The National Republicansdenied that Black voters had made the difference in Portland’s election. They clarified that the reason Black men had received boisterous applause when they entered the caucus was to drown out a group of racist Jacksonian hecklers. The Black men “were received with approbation in our caucus, on Saturday evening, chiefly because a few noisy obstreperous Heroites [Jackson supporters] who came there for a disturbance began to hiss upon their entering, which hisses were drowned by bursts of acclamation from every quarter.”
In a post-election editorial, the Democratic-leaning Weekly Argus accused the National Republicans of “threatenings, misrepresentation, and even revolting forgeries.”
“Who can recall the heartless and hypocritical attentions paid to the black population in this city, by such men as Samuel Fessenden, without feeling a thrilling sensation of disgust and contempt?” the Argus blustered. “The blacks were frightened on the one hand, with the story that if Jackson should be re-elected they be in actual danger of subjection to a state of slavery!”
The Argus went on to allege that the Whigs had promised to financially support the local Black church (the Abyssinian Meeting House), and “deceived” Black voters by offering them positions in state government. This was totally false. Black Whigs were, in fact, awarded with patronage positions for their party loyalty and ability to marshal votes, as was the custom of both parties in those days. After the election of 1832, for example, Ruby landed his first city appointment as one of 16 “tithing men,” who enforced laws barring travel and work on the Sabbath. Abyssinian church member Titus Skillings — a sexton, musician, window washer, and owner of a local smoke house — also served in various patronage positions in the 1820s and ’30s, including as a tithing man and one of the city’s measurers of corn and other grain.
The Argus condescendingly referred to Black voters as “uniformed clans of men” who had been cheated and deluded by the federalists. It even alleged that voter fraud had occurred. “In this city the majority against the democratic party was made up entirely by the black voters, such as never before were known to be qualified voters; whose names, in fact were never before borne on the list of voters!” the paper claimed. “And we fearlessly assert, that a very considerable majority of the white male citizens of Portland, above the age of twenty one years, are in favor, OPENLY AND DECIDEDLY, of the re-election of ANDREW JACKSON.”
Former Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster made a similar claim 180 years later when he asserted, with no evidence, that there was potential voter fraud because “dozens, dozens of black people” voted in parts of rural Maine where “nobody in town knows anyone who’s black.”
African American men didn’t need to be tricked or bribed to vote against the “white man’s party” and the rabidly anti-abolitionist slave driver Andrew Jackson. Many Northerners were appalled by Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, which forcibly exiled 60,000 Native Americans from at least 18 tribes from their ancestral homes in Southeastern states, causing thousands of deaths by disease and starvation, in order to expand slavery and strengthen white supremacy in the South.
In 1834, a Whig Party caucus was held at the Abyssinian Meeting House during which Ruby and two other Black men were selected to be delegates to the state convention of the newly formed Whig Party.
African American mariner and Abyssinian co-founder Abraham Niles, who was the child of enslaved parents in Castine, was appointed to the City of Portland’s Vote Distribution Committee.
Out-of-state Democrats again seethed that Mainers were letting Black men into politics. “The Bank Party in Portland, as one of the desperate means of carrying the election, deliberately called upon the colored Wigs to organize themselves, and choose three delegates to meet the Bank Wigs without color in convention, and make the Wig nominations,” the Ohio-based Delaware Gazette wrote.
After the election, the Ohio paper repeated the unsubstantiated claim that the Whigs committed voter fraud: “Negroes who had not been six weeks in Portland, and who were there only as sailors … were permitted to vote in that city, and did vote the Whig ticket.”
In the lead-up to the election of 1840, Black voters and white abolitionists were infuriated at Democratic Congressman Albert C. Smith of Portland. Smith had voted to renew the “gag rule” banning anti-slavery petitions from being heard in Congress after previously pledging to repeal it. Whig voters turned out in force to support his opponent, William Pitt Fessenden, Samuel’s son, who ultimately prevailed.
Although the younger Fessenden was not a hardline abolitionist like his father, Southern newspapers falsely claimed William was the Maine Anti-Slavery Society’s founder. They called William Fessenden a leading abolitionist who’d defeated a “firm and uncompromising friend of Southern Rights” by just 70 of 13,000 votes cast, with the “aid of 100 negro votes.”
The Globe claimed Samuel Fessenden “led the black troops in the polls for federalism, precisely as the British led them to battle during the last war. In Portland they were indebted for their triumph to the blacks on one of the hardest contested conflicts.”
But while Smith and the Democrats complained of voting irregularities, the Rev. Amos Gerry Beman, a Black man who briefly served as pastor of the Abyssinian church, pointed out that “any man” who “has been here three months, paid his tax, is entitled to vote, a right of which a very large majority of the colored people avail themselves. The most of them vote the Whig ticket, and through their influence and the abolitionists, the Hon. Wm. Pitt Fessenden, is elected in place of Albert Smith, who trampled upon the right of petition.”
Two centuries later, white supremacist voices in the media continue to accuse African Americans of voter fraud and being duped by wealthy liberals. From the racist tirades of the Eastern Argus in the 19th century to Webster’s “dozens and dozens” of mysterious Black voters and Republican attempts to restrict voting rights and disenfranchise thousands of Black Democratic voters in the aftermath of the 2020 election, racism has always featured prominently in this country’s politics.
Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach him at email@example.com.