Fifteenth Amendment (Framing And Ratification)

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FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT (Framing and Ratification)

In January 1869 adult black males could vote in only twenty states. Blacks had received the franchise in ten states of the South under the Reconstruction Act of March 1867 as part of the price of readmission to the Union set by the Republicans in Congress. Because Republicans also controlled the state government of Tennessee, blacks were enfranchised there. But many lived in the ex-slave border states that had been loyal to the Union, and they were not enfranchised. In the North, most blacks did not have the right to vote; however, there were minor exceptions in those states where the black population was small. The New England states except Connecticut allowed black suffrage, as did four midwestern states, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa. But especially in the lower North, where most northern blacks lived, white voters in referendum after referendum had rejected their unrestricted enfranchisement. Indeed in 1868 the issue of black suffrage was thought to be so dangerous and debilitating to the Republican party that at the party's national convention the framers of the platform devised a double standard by endorsing black voting in the South while trying not to antagonize white voters in the North: thus each northern state could decide black suffrage without federal interference, but southern states must accept black voting as a matter of national policy.

In the presidential election of 1868 Republican candidate ulysses s. grant captured most of the electoral vote and the Republicans retained control of Congress. But beneath the surface the situation was not reassuring. Grant's electoral victory was much greater than his popular vote (only 52 percent). Without the southern black voter Grant would have lost the popular, though not the electoral, vote. In state after state Grant squeaked by with narrow margins. Indeed, a switch of a mere 29,862 votes out of the 5,717,246 cast for the two major party candidates (.52 percent) would have made the Democratic candidate president. Moreover, the Democrats gained seats in the house of representatives in Washington. And Republican majorities in state after state were slim indeed. Finally, Republican politicians throughout the South reported that little reliance could be placed on the southern black voter in the long run because of strong white influence and intimidation and because of black poverty, illiteracy, and inexperience. Danger signals in the South, defeats in state referenda in the North, and a narrow escape from defeat in the presidential election of 1868 taught the Republicans that their platform pledge to the North had to be ignored. Something must be done by the final session of the Fortieth Congress before the Democrats arrived in force.

The Republicans decided it was necessary to augment their strength by enfranchising more blacks, who could be expected to vote Republican en masse. Although egalitarians had begun the advocacy of black enfranchisement, politicians had made its achievement possible. Two years before, Congress had enfranchised blacks in the South because the Republicans then needed southern black votes to counter southern white votes. Now the Republicans also needed the support of northern and border blacks, especially in closely balanced states, and were willing to run limited risks and promote political reform in order to maintain power.

Therefore, during early 1869 the Republicans in the lame-duck Congress pressed for a constitutional amendment to secure impartial manhood suffrage in every state, thereby avoiding further popular rejection in state referenda. They opted for the usual but more indirect method of having Republican state legislatures that were still in session ratify the amendment. Thus they avoided the risk of possible rejection by special conventions.

The amendment finally passed Congress in late February 1869 after a number of compromises. To secure enough moderate votes, the sponsors had to omit a clause that would have outlawed property qualifications and literacy tests. Such a clause was dispensable because the tests would affect more Negroes in the South than in the North, and because the proponents of the amendment were intent primarily upon securing the northern Negro voter for the Republican party. For the same reasons, they omitted any provision banning racial discrimination in qualifications for officeholding. A provision for federal authority over voter qualifications was defeated, and so the potential for evasion in the southern and border states was left wide open.

The legislative history of the Fifteenth Amendment indicated no triumph of radical idealism but rather served to demonstrate its failure—a fact underscored by the fury and frustration of that band of radicals who had favored idealistic and uncompromising reforms. A moderate measure, the amendment had the support of those who understood the limits of party power and who had practical goals in mind; they took into account the possible difficulties of ratification. Time was short, the pressures were great, and the options were limited.

The primary objective—the enfranchisement of blacks in the northern and border states—was clearly understood, stated, and believed by the politicians, the press, and the people during the time when the amendment was framed and then considered by the state legislatures. As the abolitionist organ, the National Anti-Slavery Standard, declared, "evenly as parties are now divided in the North, it needs but the final ratification of the pending Fifteenth Amendment, to assure … the balance of power in national affairs." A black newspaper, the Washington New National Era, predicted the same for the border states. Indeed, most newspapers both in the North and in the South during 1869 and 1870 unequivocally, incontrovertibly, and repeatedly spoke of the Republican objective of ensuring party hegemony by means of the Fifteenth Amendment. Moreover, congressmen and state legislators, in arguing for passage and ratification, referred again and again to the partisan need for those votes. The southern black, already a voter, was not irrelevant; an important secondary purpose of the amendment was to assure the continuance of black suffrage in the South by forbidding racial discrimination as to the franchise in a virtually unrepealable amendment to the federal Constitution. Still, the anticipated importance of the black electorate in the North and in the borderland was clearly the overriding concern.

To be sure, the political motives of many Republican politicians were not incompatible with a sincere moral concern. The idealistic motive reinforced the pragmatic one: there was no conflict at the outset between the ideal and the practical or between the interests of the black electorate and those of the Republican party. A radical Republican congressman declared, "party expediency and exact justice coincide for once." A black clergyman from Pittsburgh observed that "the Republican Party had done the negro good but they were doing themselves good at the same time." Indeed, the amendment as framed was both bold and prudent: bold in enfranchising blacks despite concerted opposition and in ordering change by establishing constitutional guidelines; prudent in adapting methods to circumstances so that the amendment would not only pass Congress but also be ratified by the states.

Although the struggle over ratification lasted only thirteen months, it was hard going and the outcome was uncertain until the very end. To be sure, ratification was easy in safe Republican territory (New England and most of the Middle West) and in the South where Republican legislators did their duty. But the fight was especially close in the Middle Atlantic states and in Indiana and Ohio, where the parties were competitive and a black electorate had the potential for deciding victory or defeat. In the Democratic border states and on the Pacific Coast, where racial feeling ran high, Republicans feared that pushing the amendment would lose them votes; so they refrained from pressing for ratification in these regions. Nevertheless, in clear-cut conflicts of interest between state and national Republican party organizations, the national party was everywhere victorious. Mutinies in Rhode Island and Georgia were suppressed. The amendment had the backing of the Grant administration, with its rich patronage. By endorsing the amendment in his inaugural address, Grant placed the indispensable prestige of the presidency behind it; he then went beyond pronouncements by swinging Nebraska to ratify it. Those Republican politicians who held or aspired to hold national office added the weight of their influence. As one Ohioan advised, "By hook or by crook you must get the 15th amendment through or we are gone up."

The Fifteenth Amendment became law on March 30, 1870. Republican euphoria followed the hard battle for ratification. Grant, in his message to Congress, wrote that the amendment "completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life." Blacks everywhere celebrated; they regarded the Fifteenth Amendment as political salvation, as a solemn written guarantee that would never be abridged. They now felt secure, protected by both the vote and the "long strong arm of the Government." Whites believed that since the Negro was now a citizen and a voter, he could take care of himself. Antislavery societies throughout the country disbanded, now confident that equality before the law was sufficient and that in any event, "no power ever permanently wronged a voting class without its own consent." But subsequent events made a mockery of such predictions in the South where Democrats denied blacks the franchise for almost a century.

William Gillette


Gillette, William (1979) 1981 Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869–1879. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

——(1965) 1969 The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mittrick, Robert 1985 A History of Negro Voting in Pennsylvania during the Nineteenth Century. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University, chap. 5.