Blanche Bruce: Speech in the Senate Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Blanche Bruce was one of the many courageous and determined African Americans who held a position in the federal government during Reconstruction. In fact, he was the only black American to complete an entire session in the US Senate before the 1960s (Patler 24). Unfortunately for him and his goals of achieving a fair playing field for Southern blacks, he was in office at the very end of the period and even for a few years after Reconstruction officially ended in early 1877. Yet, his protestations in this document–concerning the intimidation used by whites in the 1875 Mississippi state elections, which led to the Democrats “redeeming” the state–showed that African Americans at all levels were active in the attempt to change the South after the Civil War. In addition, the fact that Bruce was elected to the US Senate in 1874–when a number of other Southern states had already shed any remaining attachment to Reconstruction–and remained in office until early 1881 revealed that in some parts of the South, Reconstruction had positive effects that lasted longer than the official end of the era itself.

Summary Overview

Blanche Bruce was one of the many courageous and determined African Americans who held a position in the federal government during Reconstruction. In fact, he was the only black American to complete an entire session in the US Senate before the 1960s (Patler 24). Unfortunately for him and his goals of achieving a fair playing field for Southern blacks, he was in office at the very end of the period and even for a few years after Reconstruction officially ended in early 1877. Yet, his protestations in this document–concerning the intimidation used by whites in the 1875 Mississippi state elections, which led to the Democrats “redeeming” the state–showed that African Americans at all levels were active in the attempt to change the South after the Civil War. In addition, the fact that Bruce was elected to the US Senate in 1874–when a number of other Southern states had already shed any remaining attachment to Reconstruction–and remained in office until early 1881 revealed that in some parts of the South, Reconstruction had positive effects that lasted longer than the official end of the era itself.

Defining Moment

The context surrounding Bruce's speech is very important to keep in mind when analyzing it. Mississippi was one of the Southern states in which the Democratic “redemption” came later, and this meant that there was still a relatively strong Republican Party there in 1874 to elect Bruce to the United States Senate. Within a year, however, the events he protested in his speech had occurred, when Democrats took over the Mississippi government again using voter fraud and intimidation. This had happened in several other Southern states already and Northern interest in reconstructing the South and supporting black civil and political rights was clearly fading away by the mid-1870s, especially owing to the Panic of 1873, which distracted many Northerners and made them focus on labor issues instead of the plight of African Americans in the South. Indeed, Bruce's speech came earlier in the very year that a disputed presidential election would signal the death knell of Reconstruction officially, although Reconstruction had already become relatively ineffective in most areas of the South by that time. Yet Bruce still believed that he had to try to convince the federal government, and in effect Northerners, to investigate white Southern violence against African Americans and the violation of black rights.

Elected by the Mississippi Legislature to the Senate in 1874, when that body was still controlled by white and black Republicans, Bruce perhaps recognized his own precarious position after the 1875 Democratic victory in Mississippi and, therefore, tried to help out his friend P.B.S. Pinchback, an African American from Louisiana who had been fairly elected in 1873 to the US Senate, but who had been blocked from assuming his seat (Patler 36). Shortly thereafter, Bruce gave his more famous speech, in order to achieve his goal of a federal investigation into the 1875 elections in Mississippi and, while he did convince the Senate to pass a bill that would do so, the House of Representatives, which was again controlled by Democrats, did not likewise pass the bill (“Bruce, Blanche Kelso”). Therefore, it was in the context of flagging Northern support for Reconstruction and black rights in the South, the Democratic “redemption” of Mississippi, and an overall atmosphere of intimidation of any remaining African American legislators from the South that Bruce stood up and delivered his speech.

Author Biography

Bruce was born in 1841, the child of a white master and female slave, and lived in several states until he ran away to freedom in 1861 (Patler 29–30). During and immediately after the Civil War, Bruce worked in several places, trying to enhance educational opportunities for African Americans before he traveled to Mississippi in 1868 to begin a political career in the Republican Party at the height of Reconstruction (Patler 30). Rising through the party ranks, he achieved election to the US Senate in February 1874 and served his term fully until early 1881. After he left Congress, Bruce twice received votes at Republican conventions to be the party's vice presidential candidate, and he remained in various federal government positions under both parties, even providing advice to presidents on various issues, although he only actively supported Republican candidates (Patler 38–40). After a long and distinguished public career, he died in 1898 from diabetes (Patler 40). His ongoing attempts to help African Americans and other minorities led one of the best scholars of his lifetime, Nicholas Patler, to note that Bruce exhibited “skillful and strategic uses of power by a leader under some of the most formidable conditions in American history” (Patler 40).

Document Analysis

Bruce's purpose in giving his speech was to bolster Northern support, which was ebbing rapidly away by 1876, for Reconstruction and black rights in the South and, in this instance, he wanted that support to come in the form of a committee to investigate the fraudulent elections of 1875 that allowed the Democrats to “redeem” Mississippi that year. As noted above, this was particularly important to Bruce and other African Americans because other Southern states had already effectively suppressed black voting and civil rights, and Reconstruction certainly appeared to be ending. Bruce, of course, argued that black Southerners held certain rights based on natural law and the Constitution, yet he also argued for the support of black rights based on their racial egalitarianism, their military service, and their contribution to America's international economic strength.

Bruce was keen enough to understand that, although white Southerners employed race-based intimidation to keep African Americans from voting in 1875, he himself could not appear to be focused solely on race, for fear of being labeled as a man who just wanted to stir up Southern black anger against whites. Bruce was well aware of the fear of whites, both in the North and the South, of slave rebellions during the pre-Civil War era, and he knew that if he presented an image of blacks organizing solely by themselves politically, this image would be raised in the minds of whites. Therefore, he was very careful in his speech to emphasize that black Southerners wanted to work with whites and were only forced to organize in the Republican Party in the South due to Southern white pressure and abandonment of blacks. He continually claimed that parties should not be drawn along racial lines, and he emphasized the colorblindness of black Americans. Amid the sad reality that whites could oppress blacks and then charge blacks with organizing solely along racial lines, Bruce had to tread a very precarious middle ground.

Bruce then went on to invoke the military and economic service that African Americans had provided and would provide to the nation. He eloquently noted that black Americans had served in both the American Revolution and, in much higher numbers, in the Civil War when he stated, “On more than one historic field, beginning in 1776 and coming down to this centennial year of the Republic, they have attested in blood their courage as well as a love of liberty.” After the Civil War, as well as after both World War I and World War II in the twentieth century, African Americans tried to remind the nation that they had patriotically served their country and, thus, deserved to enjoy all the political, civil, and economic rights that belonged to normal citizens.

Bruce also noted that African Americans would “produce the great staples that will contribute to the basis of foreign exchange, aid in giving the nation a balance of trade, and minister to the wants and comfort and build up the prosperity of the whole land.” He was aware of the very real national and international economic benefits that the rest of the United States received due to the labor of black Southerners. Overall, while Bruce argued that African Americans deserved rights based both on their status as humans and on the Constitution alone, he was also savvy enough to realize that he would have to employ other arguments to make his case, including the racial egalitarianism of blacks, their military service, and their contribution to national economic strength.

Essential Themes

Bruce's actions clearly showed that African Americans were actively involved in trying to create a better society in the post-Civil War South. For decades after Reconstruction, historians debated whether or not the North and African Americans had oppressed the South, which was the Southern view most often, or whether the former slaves had become victims yet again at the hands of Southern whites, which was often the African American and then Northern white view. However, in more recent decades, and particularly because of Eric Foner's excellent 1988 Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution: 1863–1877, African Americans have been portrayed as active participants in the events of Reconstruction, which has enhanced their value as historical subjects. Bruce's speech, his career in Congress, and, indeed, his whole life, were part of the black American attempts to shape the context in which blacks found themselves.

Relatedly, the fact that Bruce was elected to Congress in 1874, near the very end of Reconstruction and after a number of other Southern states had been “redeemed” by white Democrats, showed that in some parts of the South, African American and Republican political strength remained strong up until the very end of the period. In fact, it took a massive, widespread campaign of voter fraud and intimidation in 1875 for the Democrats to triumph, which only reveals just how popular and strong Reconstruction was in Mississippi among white Republicans and African Americans. Were it not for the North's abandonment of Southern African Americans, Reconstruction may have succeeded and altered Southern society many decades before lasting changes finally occurred. In addition, the fact that Bruce remained in Congress until his term as senator ended in early 1881 showed that–as was also the case in one North Carolina district that elected African Americans to Congress until 1901–there were some areas of the South where the political strength of African Americans and Republicans lasted many years after Reconstruction officially ended in early 1877.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • “Bruce, Blanche Kelso.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. US House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2014.
  • Patler, Nicholas. “The Black ‘Consummate Strategist': Blanche Kelso Bruce and the Skillful Use of Power in the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction Eras.” Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians, Vol. 1: Legacies Lost. Ed. Matthey Lynch. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2012. Print.
Categories: History Content