The Redemption of Delaware

Delaware - Wikipedia

If Joe Biden wins the presidential election in 2020 he will be the first president from the state of Delaware. His state has had a long and difficult history on racial issues but the contrast between 1860s and Reconstruction Delaware and civil rights era Delaware is tremendous. Delaware had been a slave state, and although most blacks in the state were free by the Civil War, the slave owners in the southern portion of the state held a lot of power and the support of the state’s two leading political families: the Bayards and the Saulsburys. Both were staunch defenders of the institution of slavery. Senator James Bayard Jr., for instance, had represented a group of slave owners suing an abolitionist for helping their slaves escape, which brought the man near bankruptcy. He believed that not only should the South be allowed to secede, but that Delaware should as well. Bayard had backed John Cabell Breckinridge, the pro-slavery Southern Democratic candidate, in the 1860 presidential election. Willard Saulsbury, on the other hand, could be considered a “War Democrat”. His effectiveness, however, was hampered by a drinking problem and he wrote racist treatises on blacks. In the 1860 election, the state voted for Breckinridge and Democrats won big largely through campaigning for slavery and against racial equality.

With Bayard out of the Senate by the vote on abolishing slavery in 1864, Senators George Riddle and Willard Saulsbury voted against. However, Delaware’s At-Large Congressman, Nathaniel Smithers, voted for. After the abolition of slavery, the state’s leadership and voters doubled down on antagonism to equal rights, and the state until the late 19th century. The Saulsbury brothers and the Bayards wielded influence throughout the 1870s and 1880s. However, as the rule of the Saulsburys and Bayards was approaching its end, more and more black residents were moving into the middle class and gaining the vote and Republicans were gaining in power. The racial tensions eased, but segregation remained a reality of life until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. However, even as early as the 1920s the black vote was proving important: in 1922, Democrat William Boyce defeated Republican House incumbent Caleb R. Layton, with the primary factor behind his defeat being his vote against the Dyer Anti–Lynching Bill as many black voters crossed over to back Boyce.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Senator John J. Williams of Delaware stated his opposition to the decision as it was “judicial activism”, but he urged compliance as opposed to leaders in Southern states, who pushed defiance. This was credited with preventing civil disturbances in the state. In a marked contrast to the record of the days of the Civil War and Reconstruction, Delaware’s federally elected officials all voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the constitutional ban on the poll tax, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Williams, however, did vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1968. In that period, their officials were: Republican Sen. John J. Williams (MCI: 95%), Democratic Sen. Joseph Frear (MCI: 63%), Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs (MCI: 66%), Republican Rep. Harry Haskell (MCI: 69%), Democratic Rep. Harris McDowell (MCI: 5%), and Republican Rep. William Roth (MCI: 79%).


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