Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

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16 Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Ratified by the required three-fourths of states on February 17, 1870

Reprinted on GPO Access: Constitution of the United States (Web site)

African American men gain the right to vote

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied … on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Once the slaves were freed by the North's victory in the American Civil War (1861–65), white abolitionist (slavery opponent) William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) thought his work was done. At the May 1865 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison urged the group to disband and celebrate its success. Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), a leading African American abolitionist, said that would be a huge mistake. "Slavery is not abolished [ended] until the African American man has the ballot," said Douglass, as recorded in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. After a heated debate, members decided to keep the group and replace Garrison, who had been the society's president.

The squabble underscored a larger debate: What did it mean to end slavery? Some people, including many white Northerners, thought it was enough to simply outlaw the practice of owning slaves. Others, such as Douglass, recognized that African Americans would remain powerless and mistreated—a condition similar to slavery—unless they had the right to vote for people who would protect their interests.

Whites gave several reasons for denying the ballot to African Americans. Most of the freed slaves had little or no education, the whites argued, so how could they make an informed decision at election time? Some whites, such as U.S. representative Benjamin M. Boyer (1823–1887) of Pennsylvania, also believed African Americans were "by nature inferior in mental caliber [ability], and lacking that vim [energy], pluck [courage], and pose of character which give force and direction to human enterprise," according to a speech reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. In a separate speech reprinted in the same book, Douglass dismissed that argument:

It is said that we are ignorant; I admit it. But if we know enough to be hung [for crimes], we know enough to vote. If the negro knows enough to pay taxes to support the Government, he knows enough to vote—taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag, fight for the Government, he knows enough to vote.

The question of African American suffrage, or granting African Americans the right to vote, was almost as controversial in the North as in the South. White voters in Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin defeated proposals in 1865 to give African Americans the ballot in those states. Their counterparts in the South did not have that choice, however. The 1867 Reconstruction Act by Congress (see Chapter 10) required the ex-Confederate states to give African American men the ballot, while taking it away from certain members of the "rebellion" against the North. In an 1868 letter to Congress, reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints, the Democratic Party of South Carolina summed up the feelings of many white Southerners: "A superior race … is put under the rule of an inferior race—the abject [degraded] slaves of yesterday, the flushed [excited] freedmen of to-day. And think you that there can be any just, lasting reconstruction on this basis?"

The Fourteenth Amendment (see Chapter 9), which required states to give African Americans the same legal treatment as whites, did not specifically grant voting rights to African American men. It simply said that states could lose some of their seats in the House of Representatives based on the number of men turned away from the polls. The careful language was aimed at the South, where denying the ballot to the large African American population would mean losing dozens of congressional seats. The North was largely off the hook, because its African American population was so small that denying them the vote would scarcely affect its number of congressional districts, which are based on population.

Then came the presidential election of 1868. Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77), the Union general who led the North to victory in the Civil War, seemed like a strong Republican candidate. Out of nearly 6 million ballots cast, however, Grant won by only three hundred thousand votes. It was safe to assume the 450,000 African American voters in that election supported Grant over Democrat Horatio Seymour (1810–1886), whose running mate, Francis Preston Blair Jr. (1821–1875), made racist remarks throughout the campaign. That meant the African American vote had decided the presidential election in Grant's favor. "This election showed how essential it was that the Negro vote be secured permanently for the Republican Party," in the North as well as the South, as pointed out in The South During Reconstruction. Failure to protect the African American vote could mean losing the White House to a Democrat in 1872.

At the same time, there was a group of so-called Radical Republicans who had long pushed for giving African Americans the same rights as whites. They recognized that the 1868 election results would bring the rest of the Republicans on board for their cause, albeit for political reasons. As pointed out in The Presidency of Andrew Johnson, "It would be too cynical to say that the Republicans were devoid [lacking] of idealism in thus conferring the vote on the Negro. On the other hand it is naive to claim that their main motive was anything other than political self-preservation."

Congress drafted the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869, using short, simple language that mirrored the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery (see Chapter 2). Yet the words were carefully chosen. Voting rights could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." But states could pass laws denying the vote to foreign-born residents, as California would do with the Chinese, and some Northern states would do to European immigrants. The wording also left the door open for literacy tests, poll taxes, and other barriers the Southern states would later use to turn African American voters away from the polls.

Things to remember while reading the Fifteenth Amendment:

  • After the Civil War, whites in the North and South alike were divided on the issue of African American suffrage. Some thought it was enough to simply outlaw slavery. Others argued African Americans would remain in a powerless state similar to slavery if they did not have the right to vote for people who would safeguard their interests.
  • Southern states were already required to give African American men the vote, under the Reconstruction Act passed by Congress in 1867. After the African American vote decided the 1868 presidential election in Grant's favor, however, Republicans realized the need to constitutionally secure the voting rights for all African Americans, in the North and South alike.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment was drafted to prevent discrimination against African American voters because of their skin color. But it was left intentionally vague, to allow western and northern states to turn immigrants away from the polling places.

Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied orabridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, orprevious condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce thisarticle by appropriate legislation.

What happened next …

Congress approved the amendment, and the necessary three-fourths of the states ratified it by March 30, 1870—in plenty of time to ensure African American men could participate in the 1872 presidential election. Once again, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was ready to celebrate. "Nothing in all history [could match] this wonderful, quiet, sudden transformation of four millions of human beings from … the auction-block to the ballot-box," said Garrison, as quoted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. This time, the members of the American Anti-Slavery Society followed his suggestion to disband the group in March 1870, their mission accomplished.

But the victory was a temporary one. The removal of Union troops from the South in 1877, and a series of court rulings overturning some pieces of Reconstruction legislation, allowed some whites to chip away at African Americans' rights. Once the 1896 Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson allowed "separate but equal" racially segregated facilities, some Southern states went one step further and passed literacy tests or poll taxes to prevent African Americans from voting. By then, the Northern states had lost their zeal to interfere in what they viewed as a Southern issue.

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments remained in the Constitution, however, as "sleeping giants," amendments that would have far-reaching legal implications once they were "reawakened" by the civil rights cases of the 1950s and 1960s. Those amendments would provide the basis for ending segregation and outlawing the barriers that had been used to keep African Americans away from the ballot box. Yet only the unique conditions of the post–Civil War era could have paved the way for these amendments that, decades later, would "give the American Negro the ultimate promise of equal civil and political rights," as noted in The Era of Reconstruction.

Did you know …

  • Some leaders of the women's suffrage movement opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, resenting the fact that unschooled African American men would get the ballot while educated white women would not. Another half century would pass before women would get the vote under the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
  • The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1964, outlawed the use of polling taxes. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the use of literacy tests for voters.
  • With the tax and literacy obstacles removed, about a quarter million African Americans registered to vote by the end of 1965. The following year, more than half of the African American adults had registered to vote in nine of the thirteen Southern states.

Consider the following …

  • Why was the Fifteenth Amendment necessary, when Congress had already passed Reconstruction Acts requiring the ex-Confederate states to give African American men the ballot?
  • Look carefully at the wording of the Fifteenth Amendment. Aside from literacy tests and polling taxes, can you think of other ways officials could have discriminated against voters without violating the amendment?
  • What made the Fifteenth Amendment a "sleeping giant?"

For More Information

Castel, Albert. The Presidency of Andrew Johnson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1979.

Coulter, E. Merton. The South During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.

Stalcup, Brenda, ed. Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction. New York: Random House, 1965.

United States Government Printing Office. "Fifteenth Amendment—Rights of Citizens to Vote." GPO Access: Constitution of the United States. (accessed on September 20, 2004).

Abridged: Limited.

Previous condition of servitude: Former status as a slave.

Article: Provision of the Constitution.