original meaning of ‘bulldozer’: a racist bully

Note: This article mentions offensive language.


The noun bulldozer is first recorded in 1876, in the plural, in the sense of Southern members or supporters of the Democratic Party who colluded to disenfranchise African-American voters; after the American Civil War (1861-65), the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on 3rd February 1870, granted Afro-American men the right to vote:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The bulldozers, also known as regulators, used threats and acts of violence in order to prevent Afro-American voters from casting their ballots for candidates of the Republican Party.

The earliest instances of the plural noun bulldozers and of the verb bulldoze, in the past-participial form bulldozled, that I have found are from More Murder, published in the New Orleans Republican (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Tuesday 20th June 1876; I reproduce this article in its entirety:

The lawless people of the Feliciana and Baton Rouge parishes have not ceased their outrages, though the dispatches received omit the customary conclusion to the killing of negroes of “All is now quiet.”
This time the affair culminated at Port Hudson. The accounts are conflicting but the following is probably an accurate statement of the events of the week.
Monday or Tuesday night W. Y. Payne, a colored man, of East Baton Rouge, was taken from his home, at Holt’s place, at night, from his bed, and was afterward found hung to a tree, two miles above that place, on the plank road near White’s bayou. He had committed no offense; all had been quiet, but he was the secretary of the Third Ward Republican Club of that parish. He was therefore “bulldozled,” which is of late the local name of the actions of the “Regulators.” Besides this many other negroes have within a few days been taken from their homes and brutally whipped and beaten, a milder means of correction sometimes adopted by the bulldozers. These outrages were especially aggravating because, though the majority were of course white, all faces were blacked, and it was more than suspected that some negroes were of the party.
Saturday there was a mass meeting, a picnic or barbacue [sic] at Port Hickey, and these matters were discussed among those present. One colored man was imprudent enough to boast that he had taken part in the whippings, and this caused some indignation. With the examples of the white citizens fresh in their minds, the negroes were foolish enough to think they could punish one of their own race in the same manner they had been treated. Some of them found him and beat him severely. They did not kill him.
If this negro had been a Republican nothing would have been done more than to chronicle the fact as “another negro row.” But he had said he was a Democrat; had said he was a “bulldozer,” and this was probably true. His white friends immediately arrested all the innocent negroes they could lay their hands on. Failing to fix any act of violence on any of them, they armed themselves, as usual, with the extra artillery of a warrant, and went hunting for more.
The negroes were collected together. The whites demanded the surrender of those named in the warrant. Past experience of the amount of protection such documents afford unfortunate negroes, who imagine it puts them in the custody of the law, made them refuse. They had no desire to see their friends “rescued” by a greater force than the ostensibly legal posse, and strung up or filled with lead.
Firing then commenced, and a singular circumstance varied the monotony of similar previous conflicts. Several whites were wounded and the report says no colored man was. By some it is stated the negroes were ten to one and had a cannon. All agree that the horse was shot, and the whites stampeded and sent to Baton Rouge and Bayou Sara for reinforcements to—using the word of the commander of a detachment of sixty men, that came down on the Katie—“complete the business in hand.”
The only official information on hand yesterday afternoon at the State House was the following dispatch from Sheriff Foreman, of East Baton Rouge:
Rumors of serious trouble at Port Hudson. I am just starting up with a posse to ascertain what the trouble is.
By later but more vague reports it seems that not only he, with a posse, but the sheriff of East Feliciana with a posse and reinforcements of various independent posses, together with all the posses that had previously assembled, marched on the negroes, on the favorite day for such work—the Christian Sabbath. The accounts all agree again that the negroes fled to the swamp and the whites were in full pursuit, thus ending the affair in the orthodox manner. Some were captured, and, it is said were not harmed, but the best evidence of that will be their future existence. One circumstance casts doubt on it. A negro was taken from a boat and hanged. Who he was no one knows.
Associated Press dispatches last night detail the return of the sheriff of East Baton Rouge from Mount Pleasant with fourteen prisoners. It is said no negroes were killed or wounded. Thirty passed Baton Rouge on the opposite side of the river going toward Plaquemine. An armed body of whites started on a tug to capture them, but returned on being informed the negroes had been disarmed by the whites at Brusle Landing, five miles below Baton Rouge. The dispatch ends, “All quiet now.”
The results seem to be, two negroes hanged, thirteen taken prisoner, thirty unarmed wandering in a strange parish, and twice as many more in the swamp now being hunted down. Probabilities—Terror among the blacks, their homes abandoned, their summer labor lost, their families destitute and the parish abandoned by hundreds.

As early as November 1876, attempts were made to explain the origin of the new terms bulldozer and bulldoze. There were two conflicting theories: both posited bull-dose as the original form of bulldoze, but one theory said that it meant a dose fit for a bull, while the other said that it meant a dose of the bull, bull being an abbreviation of bull-whip, denoting a whip with a long heavy lash, used for driving cattle. On Tuesday 28th November 1876, The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) recapitulated both theories:

We gave from a northern paper the other day the definition of the new word coinage “bull-doze.” The authority quoted from was of the opinion that it originated from “bull-dosing” negroes in Louisiana, that is giving a whipping (a bull-dose, or a dose fit for a bull,) to induce them to vote the democratic ticket. The Charleston News and Courier now rises and says the word is of negro parentage, and that last spring in the parishes of East and West Feliciana and East Baton Rouge, large numbers of negroes began to join the democratic party. The republican leaders determined to put a stop to it, and formed societies for the purpose of whipping in the backsliding negroes. Democratic colored men were seized and made to join the republican societies. Usually terror made them comply, but if they refused they were whipped with a bull-whip until they consented to join the league or leave the state. In every obstinate case the brethren were in the habit of administering a bull’s dose of several hundred lashes on the bare back. When dealing with those who were hard to convert, active members would call out “give me the whip and let me give him a bull-dose.” From this it became easy to say “that fellow ought to be bull-dosed, or bull-dozed,” and soon bull-doze, bull-dozing, and bull-dozers came to be slang words.

However, those theories might be folk-etymological rationalisations because the spelling with z predates the spelling with s, and because, in their early occurrences, bulldoze and bulldozer did not always refer specifically to whipping.

The noun bulldozer and the verb bulldoze soon became generic terms for coercion, intimidation; for example, the following is from the New Orleans Republican (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Wednesday 31st January 1877:

It is a very common belief among students of Roman history that the so-called liberties of Rome had been in some danger from the ambition of Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Julius Cæsar and the other prominent bulldozers of the city, while Augustus was yet a boy, and only known to a small domestic circle as Octavius.

From the sense of intimidation that the word conveyed, bulldozer came to be applied to a type of firearm, as mentioned in The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Thursday 8th February 1877:

The bulldozer pistol has made its appearance in market.

Among the military toys that Levy’s Palais Royal, 137 Canal street, advertised in The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) of Tuesday 4th December 1877, were:

Bulldozers, or marching soldiers, made of metal and operated with a stick.

From the sense of forceful manipulation that it originally expressed, bulldozer was also applied to a machine that The St. Joseph Sunday Herald (St. Joseph, Missouri) mentioned on 30th June 1889 about a factory in that city:

The Steel Car works, the largest and most complete manufactory of its kind in the world, started their machinery yesterday afternoon and are now prepared to turn out steel cars, besides being able to build complete locomotives and do all kinds of bridge work.

The Machinery.

Another piece is what is known as the bulldozer, the only machine of its kind ever built. It is used for bending the ribs for the cars.

On Thursday 4th July of that year, in an article about the same factory, the St. Joseph Weekly Gazette (St. Joseph, Missouri) gave the following details:

The “bulldozer” is a large machine, built to bend iron other than sheet steel into various shapes for manufacturing.


The first vote, by Alfred Rudolph Waud (1828-91)
from Harper’s Weekly – 16th November 1867
image: Library of Congress

The first vote, by Alfred Rudolph Waud - Harper’s Weekly - 16 November 1867

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