Edward Ralph May
|Edward Ralph May|
|Born||May 10, 1819
|Died||August 2, 1852 (aged 32)
Saint Paul, Minnesota
|Alma mater||Amherst College
|Spouse(s)||Nancy C. Orton|
Edward Ralph May (May 10, 1819 – August 2, 1852) was an American lawyer and politician. He was the only delegate to the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1850 to cast a vote in favor of permitting African American suffrage.
May's early life and education
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, May entered Amherst College at age 14, then transferred to Yale University, where he graduated in 1838. After teaching school and practicing law in Norwich, Connecticut, he moved in 1843 to Angola, Indiana, a newly founded town in Steuben County with a reputation for anti-slavery sympathies. He was the county's prosecuting attorney for two years (1847–1848). A Democrat, May was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1849 and in 1850 as the joint representative for Steuben and DeKalb counties. Under the law adopted for calling the Constitutional Convention of 1850, May's election to the legislature in 1850 automatically made him a delegate to the convention.
Voting rights under the Constitution of 1816
Although Indiana's first constitution, adopted in 1816, did not specifically bar voting by African Americans or other persons of color, it guaranteed the right to vote only to white male citizens over the age of 21 who had lived in the state for one year. Although the Convention of 1850 adopted an article specifically prohibiting African Americans from voting, it nonetheless debated the issue of letting them vote.
May's stand in favor of African American suffrage
On October 28, 1850, the Convention took up two petitions on behalf of African American rights: one from "certain persons of color residing in Allen county;" and one "from certain inhabitants of Steuben county on behalf of the colored race."  Determination of what to do with the petitions was tabled until the Convention could dispose of a proposal by delegate Schuyler Colfax (a future Vice President of the United States) to have a committee inquiry regarding "the expediency of separately submitting the question of negro suffrage to the people."  Delegate George Berry of Franklin County moved to amend Colfax's motion to make it a direct instruction to the committee to approve a provision "making negroes and mulattoes voters at all elections in this state."  May then rose to propose amending Berry's amendment to allow the committee to propose "such restrictions and qualifications" on African American voters as the committee "might deem necessary."  On its face, May's proposal does not appear to be a particularly strong endorsement of African American voting rights, but it permitted him to launch into a speech in which he ridiculed what he saw as the hypocritical attitudes of most of the delegates on racial questions.
Although May defended giving the voting franchise to African Americans subject to qualifications such as, perhaps, property ownership, he compared the possible restrictions to those placed on immigrants from Sweden and Germany, who were not immediately allowed all of the rights of citizenship. The main point of May's speech, however, was not to propose voting restrictions as such but to force the delegates to step back from an uncompromising opposition to African American suffrage. May said:
“ I have said, sir, that under certain restrictions, with certain qualifications, I would give the colored man the right to vote. I am not now prepared to say what those restrictions should be. I do not desire to tell this Convention under what circumstances the negro shall be allowed to vote. It would be but labor lost, for it is only too clearly to be seen that his Convention have already determined that the negro shall never vote in the State of Indiana. To that decision I of course submit, but it does not accord with my notions of right.  ”
After challenging the Convention "to declare under what circumstances, coupled with what restrictions, they [African Americans] shall enjoy the rights and privileges of men,"  May made an ironic observation about the majority's apparent willingness to tax African Americans without giving them the vote:
“ Then, sir, let us prove our superiority by assisting, or rather our magnamity by allowing, the negro to rise above his present, degraded sphere. We already allow him the privilege of supporting our government by paying his taxes with the rest. Gentlemen see no danger in that. Then let us grant him the right to vote, and thus participate in the government which he assists to support.  ”
May's amendment to Berry's proposed amendment failed on a voice vote. When Berry's amendment came up for a recorded vote, even Berry deserted it, leaving May, in a vote of 122 to 1, as the only delegate to support the principle of unqualified suffrage for African American males.
African American suffrage in the Constitution of 1851
On August 4, 1851, Indiana voters ratified the new constitution in a referendum.  Article 2, Section 5, as approved, read: "No Negro or Mulatto shall have the right of suffrage."  The 1851 document also contained an article, adopted as a separate question by voters in the referendum, barring new African American immigration into the state. May opposed the immigration ban  and May's home county of Steuben was one of only three of Indiana's 92 counties to vote against excluding African Americans from the state.
After the Convention
May returned to Angola and married Nancy C. Orton in 1851. He did not seek re-election to the legislature. In 1852, May and his wife moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where both of them died, apparently of cholera.
Notes and references
- Amherst College Biographical Record, (Centennial Edition, 1921), Class of 1837 .
- Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980, v. 1, p. 267.
- The name "Angola" derives from the region in Africa (now the Republic of Angola) from which many slaves were taken. See History of Northeast Indiana, Chicago & New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1920, v. 1, p. 311. The town was founded in 1838 by Thomas Gale, a native of New York who was also a Spiritualist and vocal abolitionist. See Cindy Bevington, Angola: pioneers, progress and passionate beliefs. Steuben County also had an active Underground Railroad movement in the 1850s. Id., pp. 191-192. By 1862, however, a reaction to the anti-slavery movement began to show itself in Steuben County. Invited to speak in Angola, Sojourner Truth was arrested for violating Indiana's constitutional ban on African Americans entering the state. Narrative of Sojourner Truth, pp. 139-143 at . She was acquitted. See Reconciling Truth: The Ordeal of Sojourner Truth in Indiana at 
- History of Steuben County, Indiana, Chicago:Inter-State Publishing Company, 1885, p. 334.
- See History of DeKalb County, Indiana, Chicago: Inter-State Publishing Company, 1885, p. 319, col. 2. Representatives were elected for one-year terms under the Indiana Constitution of 1816. See Indiana Constitution of 1816, Article III, Section 3.
- The Indiana Historian, Indianapolis, IN: Indiana Historical Bureau June 2002, p. 4, col. 2. May's Senator-delegate counterpart was Robert Work of DeKalb County, who was also a Democrat. Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, v. 1, p. 429, col. 1.
- Indiana Constitution of 1816, Article VI .
- Report of the debates and proceedings of the Convention for the revision of the constitution of the state of Indiana, Indianapolis: A.H. Brown, 1851, v. 1, p. 242. 
- Id., p. 244
- Id., p. 245
- Id., p. 246
- Id., p. 253
- Id., pp. 253-254
- Indiana Historical Bureau: The 1851 Indiana Constitution by David G. Vanderstel 
- Indiana Constitution of 1851, Article 13 (as originally adopted)
- Id., p. 454
- The other two counties were LaGrange and Randolph. Logan Esarey, History of Indiana, Indianapolis: Hoosier Heritage Press, 1970 (reprint), p. 460.
- Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly. The 1850 Federal Census shows Nancy C. Orton as a 22-year-old native of Pennsylvania living in Angola in a household headed by her mother.
- The 1885 History of DeKalb County (supra) does not show May's name in the election returns for 1851.
- The Amherst College Biographical Record reports that May died Aug. 2, 1854; the History of Northeast Indiana says that the year was 1852 and gives the cause of death as cholera. The Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly reports that he died July 17, 1854, and that his wife also died in 1854, leading to the conclusion that both died in an epidemic, although the 1854 date is suspect for both of them. There was a major outbreak of cholera in Saint Paul in 1852 (See St. Joseph’s Hospital: Historical Timeline ), a fact that lends weight to the earlier date. Here is May's biographical sketch as it appeared in the History of Steuben County, Indiana, Chicago: Inter-State Publishing Co., 1886, p. 408:
"Hon. Edward R. May graduated at Yale College in 1838, and
although one of the youngest members of his class, he had acquired a reputation which gave promise of future distinction. After leaving college, he was for two years engaged in teaching school in the East. Having, at the same time, entered upon the study of the law, he was in due time admitted to the New London County Bar, in the State of Connecticut. Influenced by the hope of benefit to his health, he removed to Angola, this county, and was here admitted to the bar in 1843. By skill in his profession, and by heartily identifying himself with the public interests, sustaining and promoting the cause of education, of temperance, and the institutions of religion, he rapidly acquired position and influence. He was a member of our State Legislature. He was also a member of the State Constitutional Convention. He went from here to California in the year 1852, and returned the same year, when his forecasting mind fixed upon St. Paul, Minn., as a point of commanding importance in the future Northwest. He had hardly located there when, Aug. 2, 1852, after only a few hours'sickness, he died of cholera."
"St. Paul probably had few cases of cholera between 1850 and 1854, " wrote John Milton Armstrong in the Minnestoa History Magazine in 1933. But he noted the mention of cholera deaths there in the summer of 1852. John Milton Armstrong, "The Asiatic Cholera in St. Paul," Minnesota History Magazine, v. 14, no.3, 1933, pp. 288-302 at 291.
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