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How a Nation Recovering from Total War Completed the Nation’s ‘Second Founding’

The Fifteenth Amendment, the last of the Reconstruction amendments, recognized Black male political equality and opened the path toward equal voting rights for all.

Collage of images relating to the passage of the 15th Amendment
Library of Congress, National Archives, Bettmann/Getty

This is an excerpt from The People’s Consti­tu­tion: 200 Years, 27 Amend­ments, and the Prom­ise of a More Perfect Union. The book tells how the Amer­ican people have taken an imper­fect consti­tu­tion — the product of comprom­ises and an arti­fact of its time — and made it more demo­cratic.

In the five years follow­ing the Civil War, Amer­ic­ans added three Recon­struc­tion amend­ments to the U.S. Consti­tu­tion, amend­ments that served as the corner­stone for the nation’s “second found­ing.” The Thir­teenth Amend­ment, which abol­ished slavery in 1865, was a power­ful affirm­a­tion of the indi­vidual liberty and human dignity of four million Black people held in bond­age in Amer­ica — a consti­tu­tional reform that forever changed their fate and that of their descend­ants. The Four­teenth Amend­ment, enacted three years later, guar­an­teed equal citizen­ship and provided strong new protec­tions for civil rights. But what about the polit­ical rights of the newly freed? With defi­ant white South­ern­ers already taking steps to restore soci­ety as it exis­ted before the war, there was a renewed sense of urgency to safe­guard the newly-bestowed consti­tu­tional rights, increas­ing the pres­sure on Congress to act. Yet even many of the most ardent congres­sional support­ers of equal rights ques­tioned whether the coun­try was ready to extend the fran­chise to the former slaves.

To address this press­ing concern, lawmakers would have to revisit one of the crucial comprom­ises made by the Consti­tu­tion’s Framers. While one deleg­ate to the Phil­adelphia Conven­tion remarked, “The people will not read­ily subscribe to the new national Consti­tu­tion, if it should subject them to be disen­fran­chised,” most of the men who devised our system of govern­ment back in 1787 believed that voting should be restric­ted to males who owned prop­erty or paid certain taxes. In the end, the Framers made the fate­ful decision to leave it to each state to determ­ine who qual­i­fies as a voter. Through­out the nation’s history, states would exer­cise this power to exclude African Amer­ic­ans, women, Indi­gen­ous people, immig­rants, reli­gious minor­it­ies, and others from equal parti­cip­a­tion in our demo­cracy. Even today, many states continue to use this power to erect barri­ers to the ballot box that dispro­por­tion­ately impact voters of color.

It was 1869, and the clock was tick­ing. The 40th session of Congress would soon come to a close. Would lawmakers seize the moment to take bold action to protect voting rights?

Back in the spring of 1866, as the Senate was making the final set of changes to the Four­teenth Amend­ment, Charles Sumner proposed adding a provi­sion to outlaw racial discrim­in­a­tion in all “civil or polit­ical” rights “whether in the courtroom or at the ballot-box.” The proposal was voted down over­whelm­ingly. As Jacob Howard later explained on behalf of the Joint Commit­tee on Recon­struc­tion: “It was our opin­ion that three-fourths of the States of this Union could not be induced to vote to grant the right of suffrage . . . to the colored race.” Apart from Sumner, few polit­ical lead­ers were will­ing to cham­pion Black suffrage publicly. In an 1865 letter to the governor of Louisi­ana, published after his death, Pres­id­ent Lincoln indic­ated that he would support voting rights for “some of the colored people” in the state, “for instance, the very intel­li­gent, and espe­cially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.” Even Pres­id­ent John­son privately conceded that liter­ate, prop­erty-owning African Amer­ic­ans should be enfran­chised. But when the suffrage ques­tion arose during the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1866, its drafters made sure the bill had “noth­ing to do with the polit­ical rights or status of parties.”

The People's Constitution cover

The Repub­lic­ans’ resound­ing victory in the 1866 midterm elec­tion spurred a new will­ing­ness to confront the suffrage issue. In the brief legis­lat­ive session that followed the elec­tion, before the new class of lawmakers was seated, emboldened Repub­lic­ans passed a meas­ure to extend voting rights to African Amer­ican men living in the District of Columbia. The law took effect in Janu­ary 1867, after Congress voted to over­ride yet another of Pres­id­ent John­son’s vetoes. That same month, lawmakers intro­duced Black male suffrage in the United States territ­or­ies. Then, in Febru­ary 1867, they admit­ted Nebraska to the Union “upon the funda­mental condi­tion” that its eligible Black resid­ents not be denied the right to vote.

Once the 40th Congress assembled in March 1867, the expan­ded Repub­lican major­ity launched its project of Radical Recon­struc­tion in the South. Its first order of busi­ness was to supplant the all-white state govern­ments recon­sti­t­uted from the wreck­age of the Confed­er­acy. Three Recon­struc­tion Acts, enacted in 1867 over John­son’s vetoes, divided the South into tempor­ary milit­ary districts admin­istered by army gener­als and set new terms for the read­mis­sion of the former Confed­er­ate states. First, the rebel states were required to grant the fran­chise to “the male citizens of said State, twenty-one years old and upward, of whatever race, color, or previ­ous condi­tion.” Second, they would have to hold conven­tions to draft new state consti­tu­tions guar­an­tee­ing univer­sal male suffrage, subject to approval by Congress and the states’ voters in a refer­en­dum. And third, as noted earlier, they had to ratify the Four­teenth Amend­ment.

The Recon­struc­tion Acts also laid out proced­ures for regis­ter­ing voters and organ­iz­ing state consti­tu­tional conven­tions. Taken together, these meas­ures dramat­ic­ally expan­ded the elect­or­ate in the ten covered states (Tennessee was exemp­ted). Within a year, more than seven hundred thou­sand African Amer­ic­ans were added to the voter rolls and, by 1868, they were voting in large numbers through­out the South. In five South­ern states—Alabama, Flor­ida, Louisi­ana, Missis­sippi, and South Caro­lina— African Amer­ic­ans made up the major­ity of the elect­or­ate. The Recon­struc­tion Acts resul­ted in the broad­est expan­sion of the fran­chise in a gener­a­tion, since the Jack­so­nian Era push to expand the elect­or­ate to include all white men. One local Tennessee news­pa­per criti­cized the new policy for its tend­ency to “degrade and disgrace our form of govern­ment.” The Repub­lican plan, the paper claimed, would “cheapen the right to suffrage, by bestow­ing it upon ignor­ant, besot­ted masses, exclud­ing there from the bright­est intel­li­gence and polit­ical exper­i­ence.”

This strik­ing expan­sion of the fran­chise in the South stood in stark contrast to what was occur­ring in the rest of the coun­try. By 1868, only seven states outside of the region permit­ted Black people to vote. Most of the others had enacted laws decades earlier to exclude Black people from the rolls, even as they moved toward univer­sal suffrage for white men. When voters in eight North­ern states considered meas­ures to repeal these race restric­tions between 1865 and 1869, the ideal of equal suffrage crashed into a rock of white resist­ance. Voters in Iowa and Minnesota agreed to liber­al­ize their laws. Else­where, though, North­ern Demo­crats rode a wave of back­lash, making big gains in the state elec­tions of 1867. A San Fran­cisco news­pa­per prayed that “the common sense and latent preju­dice of the coun­try may be relied upon . . . to preserve us from the monstrous folly of erect­ing unqual­i­fied negro suffrage into a national ‘insti­tu­tion.’ ” The Repub­lican Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, spoke for many in his party when he wondered if the Repub­lic­ans had gotten “ahead of the people.”

Harper's cover MPI/Stringer
African-Amer­ican men vote in a state elec­tion in the South during Recon­struc­tion in an 1867 illus­tra­tion on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. That year in the Recon­struc­tion states, 703,000 Blacks and 627,000 Whites voted. Original public­a­tion: 16th Novem­ber 1867.

As the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion of 1868 loomed, Demo­crats assailed the Repub­lic­ans for their “unpar­alleled oppres­sion and tyranny” in subject­ing the South “to milit­ary despot­ism and negro suprem­acy.” Their party plat- form pledged to return “the priv­ilege and trust of suffrage” to the states. Repub­lic­ans, on the other hand, attemp­ted to straddle the sectional divide, endors­ing the Recon­struc­tion policy of “equal suffrage to all loyal men” in the South while reas­sur­ing North­ern­ers that “the ques­tion of suffrage in all the loyal states prop­erly belongs to the people of those states.” This two-track approach drew fierce criti­cism. The New England Anti-Slavery Soci­ety denounced the posi­tion as “a prac­tical surrender of the whole ques­tion.” Sumner called the plat­form plank “fool­ish and contempt­ible,” while Stevens lambasted his “skulk­ing” party for its “cowardly and mean” approach to the ques­tion.

The elec­tion results shocked the Repub­lic­ans. The party’s nominee, the former Union general Ulysses S. Grant, won the popu­lar vote by an unex­pec­tedly narrow margin—­about three hundred thou­sand votes out of nearly 6 million cast. During the campaign, Grant barely mentioned Black suffrage, hoping to sidestep a divis­ive issue. But now Repub­lic­ans came to see that their interests lay in enfran­chising this new and poten­tially loyal constitu­ency. They recog­nized too that the former Confed­er­ate states would act to suppress the Black vote at the earli­est oppor­tun­ity. With a sense of urgency, Repub­lic­ans began work on a voting rights amend­ment. They had to get it done before the start of the next Congress, when Demo­crats would be return­ing in force. Over two months of debate, lawmakers put forward more than sixty propos­als. One meas­ure offered by a Pennsylvania congress­man would have insti­tuted univer­sal suffrage with “no distinc­tion of wealth, intel­li­gence, race, family, or sex.” But for the most part, the propos­als focused on male suffrage. The decision led to a rift with woman suffra­gists who had suppor­ted the abol­i­tion­ist cause.

There was consid­er­able disagree­ment on what the amend­ment should say. Should it affirm­at­ively recog­nize a funda­mental right to vote? Or should it merely prohibit discrim­in­a­tion in voting? Should the amend­ment outlaw only abridg­ments based on race, color, and previ­ous condi­tion of servitude? Or should it extend more broadly to discrim­in­a­tion based on reli­gion, educa­tion, national origin, and prop­erty owner­ship?

Congress­man George Bout­well, a Massachu­setts Repub­lican, was an early supporter of secur­ing “univer­sal suffrage to all adult male citizens of this coun­try.” Willard Warner, a “carpet-bagging” Ohio Repub­lican repres­ent­ing Alabama in the Senate, concurred, proclaim­ing “it is the duty of the hour to put into the Consti­tu­tion a grand affirm­at­ive propos­i­tion which shall protect every citizen of this Repub­lic in the enjoy­ment of polit­ical power.” Such an amend­ment would have the virtue of making the right to vote expli­cit in the Consti­tu­tion for the first time. But most members of Congress were not ready to embrace such a radical break with the tradi­tion, dating back to the decision of the Framers, of leav­ing voting rules in the hands of the states. Their “dodge” has been to “our collect­ive peril,” says law professor Lani Guinier, leav­ing “one of the funda­mental elements of demo­cratic citizen­ship tethered to the whims of local offi­cials,” free­ing them “to enact restrict­ive voting policies that would block millions of citizens from the ballot box.”

Nativ­ism also figured into the lawmakers’ hesit­ancy. Members of Congress from Pacific Coast states feared the amend­ment would enfran­chise the region’s Chinese Amer­ican popu­la­tion. “They are a people who do not or will not learn our language,” said a senator from Oregon. “They cannot or will not adopt our manners or customs and modes of life.” Lawmakers from the East had anti-immig­rant preju­dices of their own. Warn­ing of an influx of Cath­ol­ics from Europe, Senator James Patter­son of New Hamp­shire asked, “Why should we throw open this portal of polit­ical power and let into the strong­holds of our Govern­ment the emis­sar­ies of arbit­rary power, the minions of despot­ism?” 

For these reas­ons, the lawmakers coalesced around a more tightly craf­ted amend­ment to prevent discrim­in­a­tion based on race. Massachu­setts senator Henry Wilson argued for a broader ban on discrim­in­a­tion “on account of race, color, nativ­ity, prop­erty, educa­tion, or creed.” But Nevada Senator William Stew­art spoke for most when he argued that an amend­ment address­ing race was the “logical” next step. “It is the only meas­ure that will really abol­ish slavery,” he said. “Let it be made the immut­able law of the land; let it be fixed; and then we shall have peace.”

After agree­ing to limit the amend­ment’s protec­tion to African Amer­ican men, some in Congress wanted the meas­ure to protect the right to hold office as well. Advoc­ates of this approach cited an incid­ent in Geor­gia, in which the legis­lature ousted more than two dozen duly elec­ted Black members. Some lawmakers worried that the added provi­sion would complic­ate the prospects for rati­fic­a­tion. Others, like Massachu­setts congress­man Benjamin Butler, rejec­ted the premise that such a right needed to be spelled out. “The right to elect to office carries with it the inali­en­able and indis­sol­uble and inde­feas­ible right to be elec­ted to office,” said Butler.

As the session clock ticked down, Demo­crats raised famil­iar objec­tions groun­ded in states’ rights and white suprem­acy. They were joined by a hand­ful of conser­vat­ive Repub­lic­ans. One decried a “revolu­tion . . . strik­ing at the life of repub­lican insti­tu­tions within the States them­selves.” Echo­ing Willard Sauls­bury’s objec­tion to the Thir­teenth Amend­ment, another lawmaker main­tained that the proposal exceeded impli­cit “limit­a­tions” on the consti­tu­tional amend­ment power, enabling Congress to under­mine “the insti­tu­tions of the State” to put “their local frames of govern­ment, their sover­eignty, and their powers alto­gether within the control of three fourths of the other States.”

Demo­crats further charged that Repub­lic­ans only suppor­ted the amend­ment for their own partisan advant­age: “to main­tain the domin­ance” of the Repub­lican Party “by means of the degrad­a­tion of the suffrage” as one lawmaker put it. At the same time, they looked for ways to put this contro­ver­sial ques­tion before the people in state rati­fy­ing conven­tions. Charles Sumner chas­tised the Demo­crats for their demagoguery, liken­ing them to “the witches in Macbeth”—presid­ing over “a polit­ical caldron, into which will be dropped all the poisoned ingredi­ents of preju­dice and hate,” wield­ing the amend­ment as “the pudding-stick with which to stir the bubbling mass.”

In the session’s final days, the choice came down to two compet­ing meas­ures. The Senate passed a narrowly draf­ted amend­ment to ensure that the right to vote and hold office could not be denied or abridged on the grounds of “race, color, or previ­ous condi­tion of servitude.” The language approved by the House would protect more broadly against discrim­in­a­tion based on “race, color, nativ­ity, prop­erty, creed, or previ­ous condi­tion of servitude.” It was left to a confer­ence commit­tee to recon­cile the differ­ences. What emerged is the language of the Fifteenth Amend­ment we know today: “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.” While drafts from both houses included protec­tions for the right to hold office, that provi­sion was myster­i­ously dropped in the final meas­ure.

The redraft frus­trated many members. But with adjourn­ment approach­ing, there was little time left to make further changes. On Febru­ary 25, 1869, the House adop­ted the confer­ence commit­tee’s meas­ure by a vote of 144–44. The next day, senat­ors who had hoped for more offered their reluct­ant support. “I am prepared to believe that we must accept the report of this commit­tee or aban­don all hope of any amend­ment of the Consti­tu­tion being proposed by this Congress,” said Vermont’s Justin Morrill, reflect­ing the view of many Repub­lic­ans. It was, he conceded, the “best that we can obtain.” Senat­ors approved the meas­ure on Febru­ary 26 by a vote of 39–13. Charles Sumner cast a prin­cipled vote of “absent,” complain­ing that the amend­ment did not go far enough. Willard Warner called it “unworthy of the grand oppor­tun­ity that is presen­ted to us.” He predicted that his adopt­ive home state of Alabama would disen­fran­chise 90 percent of the Black elect­or­ate through the use of liter­acy tests and prop­erty require­ments not specific­ally based on race.

15th Amendment Herit­age Images/Getty
The Fifteenth Amend­ment. Celeb­rated May 19,1870. Creator: Thomas Kelly. At center, a depic­tion of a parade in celeb­ra­tion of the passing of the 15th Amend­ment. Fram­ing it are portraits and vign­ettes illus­trat­ing the rights gran­ted by the 15th Amend­ment: “We till our own fields,” “The Ballot Box is Open to Us,” “We Unite in the Bonds of Fellow­ship with the Whole Human Race,” etc. Artist Thomas Kelly.

Despite the contro­versy, the Fifteenth Amend­ment achieved rati­fic­a­tion in less than a year. A Febru­ary 3, 1870, vote by Iowa’s legis­lature put the meas­ure over the top. The border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Mary­land, and Tennessee rejec­ted the meas­ure, as did the Pacific Coast states of Cali­for­nia and Oregon, where anti-Chinese senti­ment was strong. In the end, the amend­ment’s adop­tion depended on the vote of four South­ern states still under milit­ary rule. Virginia, Missis­sippi, Geor­gia, and Texas all voted to ratify the amend­ment as a condi­tion to having their state­hood restored. Without them, the amend­ment would not have obtained the support of the twenty-eight legis­latures needed for rati­fic­a­tion. The meas­ure’s adop­tion was clouded by another contro­versy over rescis­sion. In Janu­ary 1870, New York’s legis­lature sought to revoke its rati­fic­a­tion follow­ing an elec­tion giving control to the Demo­crats. Once again, when Congress certi­fied the amend­ment, it refused to recog­nize the action, includ­ing New York in the list of rati­fy­ing states.

On April 11, 1870, two months after the amend­ment’s adop­tion, Missis­sippi senator Hiram Revels, the first African Amer­ican to serve in Congress, delivered an address to mark the joyous occa­sion.

The final result of our triumph, the cap-stone of the temple of Liberty, the crown­ing glory of the edifice raised to Free­dom, was the rati­fic­a­tion of the Fifteenth Amend­ment, which we now celeb­rate. This sacred Amend­ment, now welded in and become part and parcel of our glor­i­ous Consti­tu­tion—­bone of its bone, flesh of its flesh— which strikes down the last hope of the rebel­lion; which abol­ishes, so far as stat­utes can abol­ish, the last civil and polit­ical distinc­tion between differ­ent classes of our citizens, unit­ing the entire nation into one harmo­ni­ous whole. “E pluribus Unum” is the glory of the hour. This Amend­ment, which firmly places the ballot in the hands of the male adult members of a race number­ing from four to five millions, had become a polit­ical neces­sity as imper­i­ous as was the milit­ary neces­sity which placed the bayonet in the same loyal hands.

Civil rights lead­ers also reveled in the amend­ment’s rati­fic­a­tion. The Phil­adelphia Female Anti-Slavery Soci­ety proclaimed: “Beneath that broad banner of civil and polit­ical liberty, the white man and black man stand, side by side.” William Lloyd Garrison celeb­rated “this wonder­ful, quiet, sudden trans­form­a­tion of four millions of human beings from the auction block to the ballot-box.” Over the protest of some of its members, the lead­ers of the Amer­ican Anti-Slavery Soci­ety, the organ­iz­a­tion Garrison foun­ded, declared that “the work for which the soci­ety had been organ­ized was complete.”

Hiram Revels MPI/Stringer
Portrait of Amer­ican politi­cian Hiram R. Revels (1822–1901). Having served in the Union Army as a chap­lain, he was later elec­ted as a Repub­lican Party senator from Missis­sippi, becom­ing the first African-Amer­ican to sit in the United States Senate.

Since its adop­tion, schol­ars have debated the motives behind the last- minute push to add a third Recon­struc­tion Amend­ment. Some believe that the Repub­lic­ans were, first and fore­most, concerned with their own polit­ical power. Accord­ing to this view, adopt­ing the Fifteenth Amend­ment was aimed primar­ily at bring­ing Black voters into the party fold—“a conver­sion of expedi­ency rather than one of convic­tion.” Others see Radical Recon­struc­tion as “the last great crusade of the nine­teenth-century romantic reformers.” In this analysis, the moral imper­at­ive that drove the abol­i­tion­ist cause also motiv­ated the lawmakers’ determ­in­a­tion to secure African Amer­ican citizen­ship and polit­ical rights.

Ulti­mately, even prin­cipled politi­cians are politi­cians. Charles Sumner, the great abol­i­tion­ist cham­pion, was well aware that the enfran­chise­ment of African Amer­ic­ans would be a boon to the Repub­lican Party. “Wherever you most need them, there they are,” he said, “and be assured they will all vote for those who stand by them in the asser­tion of equal rights.” But the claim that the party got behind Black suffrage out of calcu­lat­ing self-interest obscures some essen­tial history. Lawmakers who suppor­ted the Fifteenth Amend­ment were, for the most part, prin­cipled support­ers of rights for African Amer­ic­ans who demon­strated this commit­ment by consist­ent votes on issues affect­ing the Black popu­la­tion. Given the pervas­ive­ness of racism in the coun­try, Repub­lic­ans took these posi­tions at great polit­ical risk. In the North, where the party was strongest, there were relat­ively few African Amer­ic­ans to swing elec­tions. Moreover, in states where the suffrage ques­tion was put before voters, the party paid a polit­ical price.

In the end, the party of Lincoln was hardly “radical” when it came to voting rights. Repub­lic­ans pressed for the adop­tion of the Fifteenth Amend­ment while they still held a super­ma­jor­ity in Congress to advance it. Even so, despite constant prod­ding by ideal­ists, the party coalesced around a conser­vat­ive solu­tion. Hesit­ant to disrupt a core feature of the original Consti­tu­tion, the drafters of the Fifteenth Amend­ment left states in charge of their own voting rules, with consequences that rever­ber­ate to this day.

For decades, segreg­a­tion­ists and their enablers sought to discredit the “so-called Fifteenth Amend­ment,” insist­ing that it was adop­ted under “duress.” It is clear that the South’s recal­cit­rance justi­fied the Radical Repub­lic­ans’ exer­cise in “consti­tu­tional hard­ball.” The ques­tion is, was the product of all that effort enough? The recent prolif­er­a­tion of vote- suppres­sion meas­ures in the states—­from voter ID laws to the suspi­cious purges of voter rolls, all sanc­tioned by the courts—sug­gests the answer is no.

© 2021 John F. Kowal and Wilfred U. Codring­ton III. This excerpt origin­ally appeared in The People’s Consti­tu­tion: 200 Years, 27 Amend­ments, and the Prom­ise of a More Perfect Union, published by The New Press. Reprin­ted here with permis­sion.