Reconstruction began in Federally-occupied Louisiana in the midst of the Civil War. In 1863 African American men in New Orleans called for the right to vote in the new loyal government being organized under Union Army protection. However when President Lincoln announced his new reconstruction policy for Louisiana on December 8, 1863, he restricted the vote to white men. Black political leaders refused to accept the decision and on January 5, 1864 drew up a petition to extend the franchise to "all the citizens of Louisiana of African descent, born free before the rebellion." The petition signed by more than one thousand men, was taken to Washington by Jean Baptiste Roudanez and E. Arnold Bertonneau (who had originally fought for the Confederacy).
Once in Washington, Roudanez and Bertonneau were persuaded by Charles Sumner and other Republicans to transform their petition to Congress into an appeal for universal suffrage, extending the franchise to freedpersons. They presented their revised petition to President Lincoln on March 12, and it was introduced in the Senate by Charles Sumner on March 15.
While Congress debated the merits of the proposal and ultimately rejected it, Roudanez and Bertonneau were invited by Republican leaders in Massachusetts to a dinner in their honor in Boston on April 12, 1864. After an introduction by Governor John A. Andrew, Arnold Bertonneau delivered a speech which reflected his changed attitude about universal suffrage and universal rights. The speech appears below.
BEFORE THE OUTBREAK of the rebellion, Louisiana contained about forty thousand free colored people, and three hundred twelve thousand persons held in slavery. In the city of New Orleans, there were upwards of twenty thousand free persons of color. Nearly all the free persons of color read and write. The free people have always been on the side of law and good order, always peaceful and self-sustaining, always loyal. Taxed on an assessment of more than fifteen million dollars--among many other things, for the support of