The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was the third of the three so-called Reconstruction amendments to settle constitutional questions that the Civil War had created. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery forever in all of the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, is the longest and most complex of the amendments and has had the most wide-ranging and controversial influence on American politics and society. The Fifteenth Amendment granted voting rights to African American men, providing the most important key to participation in the American democratic process to millions of formerly enslaved, and politically excluded, people.
Approved by the United States Congress in February 1869, the Fifteenth Amendment has two provisions. Section one states that a citizen's right to vote should not be denied “on account or race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The second section of the provision gives the U.S. Congress the right to enforce the legislation. As with all proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the proposed Fifteenth Amendment had to be ratified by three-fourths of the states, 28 of 37, in order to go into effect.
There was some question about the willingness of former Confederate states to approve the new legislation. To guarantee compliance, Republican legislators amended the Reconstruction bills for three states—Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia—mandating ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment as a prerequisite of their readmission to the Union. Virginia, which had already drafted a state constitution that provided for universal manhood suffrage, ratified the Fifteenth Amendment on October 8, 1869. Within a year of passing Congress, all of the formerly Confederate states, except Tennessee, had ratified the provision. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish officially recorded the addition of the newest amendment to the U.S. Constitution on March 30, 1870.
This broadside included Secretary Fish's message to Congress validating the Fifteenth Amendment, with a special message from U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant. Calling the amendment “the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life,” Grant urged whites not to interfere with the enforcement of the new provision, and reminded African Americans of their responsibilities as voters.
News of the Fifteenth Amendment's passage was greeted with jubilation in the African American communities. There were major parades in New York and Baltimore to mark the occasion, as well as commemorative events in subsequent years to mark the anniversary. The expansion of the franchise also had the immediate effect of increasing the number of African American men serving in public office. It is estimated that between the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the end of Congressional Reconstruction in 1877, about two thousand African Americans served in local and state government offices, including state legislatures, and as members of Congress.
These gains, however, proved difficult to maintain, especially in the face of increasing white hostility to progress made by African Americans. By late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries, as northern Republicans grew weary of interceding in the political and racial conflicts in the South, southern whites successful engineered, through the law and through force, a return to “home rule.” Legislatures throughout the South instituted provisions like literacy tests, poll taxes, and “grandfather clauses” in their constitutions, effectively limiting the eligibility of African American men, and scores of white men, to vote and hold elected office. What was not accomplished through the law was accomplished through threats, intimidation, and violence, mainly at the hands of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
Not until the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s—a period sometime referred to as American's Second Reconstruction—were most African Americans able to regain this lost political ground. The ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964 outlawing the poll tax in federal elections, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (not to mention the earlier passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 also giving black women the right to vote) were meaningful steps in restoring to America's black citizens the protections necessary to secure their right to vote, and to participate effectively in America's democratic process.
1. What is the significance of the Fifteenth Amendment? What does it do? Where did it fall short?
2. What is the relationship between the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments? How do they complement one another?
1. Discuss the connection between voting rights and civil rights. Use examples from the Reconstruction era and the Civil Rights era to examine the impact of the franchise throughout Virginia's and America's history.
2. Within the political system of the United States, why is it important to be able to elect your own representatives? What happens if large numbers of citizens are not able to have their views represented in the democratic process?
Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.