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The Fifteenth Amendment

  • The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, October 8, 1869
Related documents:
  • Thirteenth Amendment
    Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1865
  • Fourteenth Amendment
    Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1868
  • Celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment
    Lithograph Celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment, 1870
  • Lithograph of Bruce, Douglass, and Revels
    Lithograph Showing Blanche Kelso Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram Rhodes Revels, 1881
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The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, October 8, 1869

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.

For Educators

Questions

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?

Further Discussion

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?

Links

"Black Voting Rights: The Creation of the 15th Amendment." Harp Week: Explore History

Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-All Men Created Free and Equal

Suggested Reading

Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

"All Men Free and Equal."

THE XVTH AMENDMENT PROCLAIMED.
MESSAGE TO CONGRESS.—PROCLAMATION OF THE PRESIDENT.

Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land, to all the Inhabitants thereof.
 Oh! not yet
May'st thou, O Freedom, close thy lids,
In slumber; for thine enemy never sleeps,
And thou must watch and combat, till the day
Of the new earth and heaven.

To all to whom these presents come–Greeting:
Know ye that the Congress of the United States, on or about the 27th day of February, in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-nine, passed a resolution in the words and figures following to wit:
A resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Resolved, By the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, two-thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following article be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which, when ratified by three-fourths of said Legislature, shall be valid as part of the Constitution, namely:
ARTICLE 15, SECTION I. The rights 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.
SECTION 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
And further, That it appears from the official document on file in this Department that the Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, proposed as aforesaid, has been ratified by the Legislatures of the States of—
NORTH CAROLINA,
WEST VIRGINIA,
MASSACHUSETTS,
WISCONSIN,
MAINE,
LOUISIANA,
MICHIGAN,
SOUTH CAROLINA,
PENNSYLVANIA,
ARKANSAS, CONNECTICUT,
FLORIDA,
ILLINOIS,
INDIANA,
NEW YORK,
NEW HAMPSHIRE,
NEVADA,
VERMONT,
VIRGINIA,
ALABAMA, MISSOURI,
MISSISSIPPI,
OHIO,
IOWA,
KANSAS,
MINNESOTA,
RHODE ISLAND,
NEBRASKA,
TEXAS.

In all 29 States.
And further, That the States whose Legislatures have so ratified the said proposed amendment constitute three-fourths of the whole number of States in the United States.
And further, That it appears from an official document, on file in this Department, that the Legislature of the State of New York has since passed resolutions claiming to withdraw the said ratification of the said amendment which has been made by the Legislature of that State, and of which official notice has been filed in this Department.
And further, That it appears from an official document, on file in this Department, that the Legislature of Georgia has by resolution ratified the said proposed amendment.
Now, therefore, be it known, That I, Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State, of the United States, by virtue and in pursuance of the second section of the Act of Congress, approved the 20th day of April, in the year 1818, entitled "An act to provide for the publication of the laws of the United States and for other purposes," do hereby certify that the Amendment aforesaid has become valid to all intents and purposes as a part of the Constitution of the United States.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the Department of State to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this thirteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred
and seventy, and of the independence of the United States the ninety-fourth.
HAMILTON FISH
.
MESSAGE FROM THE PRESIDENT.
To the Senate and House of Representatives:
It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by the proclamation of the Secretary of state, of the ratification of a Constitutional Amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once four millions of people voters, who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so, with the assertion that at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal—in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics—that "black men had no rights which white men were bound to respect," is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present time. Institutions like ours, in which all power is derived directly from the people, must depend mainly upon their intelligence, patriotism, and industry. I call the attention, therefore, of the newly-enfranchised race to the importance of their striving, in every honorable manner, to make themselves worthy of their new privilege. To the race more favored heretofore by our laws, I would say, withhold no legal privilege of advancement to the new citizen. The framers of our Constitution firmly believed that a republican form of government could not endure without intelligence and education generally diffused among the people. The Father of his Country in his Farewell Address, uses this language: "Promote, then, as a matter of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of the Government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened." In his first annual Message to Congress the same views were forcibly presented, and are again urged in his eighth Message.
I repeat, that the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change, and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life. The change will be beneficial in proportion to the heed that is given to the urgent recommendations of Washington. If these recommendations were important then, with a population of but a few millions, how much more important now, with a population of forty millions, and increasing in a rapid ratio! I would therefore call upon Congress to take all the means within their constitutional power to promote and encourage popular education throughout the country, and upon the people everywhere to see to it that all who possess and exercise political rights shall have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge which will make their share in the Government a blessing and not a danger. By such means only can the benefits contemplated by this amendment to the Constitution be secured.
U. S. GRANT.
Executive Mansion, March 30, 1870.
HAMILTON FISH, Secretary of State of the United States.

In all of the States engaged in the Rebellion negroes are already recognized as voters by virtue of the terms of the Reconstruction acts, and the acceptance of these by the States in question. In most of the other States, however, their exercise of the franchise has either been denied or limited by property or other qualifications. The following table shows approximately the number of voters thus added to the voting population in each of these States:
States. Negro Population. New Voters.
California.................................................. 4,086 681
Connecticut............................................... 8,627 1,438
Delaware................................................... 21,627 3,604
Illinois....................................................... 7,628 1,271
Indiana....................................................... 11,428 1,805
Iowa........................................................... 1,069 178
Kentucky................................................... 236,167 39,361
Maine........................................................ 1,327 221
Maryland................................................... 171,131 28,522
Massachusetts............................................ 9,662 1,600
Michigan................................................... 6,799 1,333
Minnesota.................................................. 253 93
New Hampshire......................................... 494 82
New-Jersey................................................ 25,336 4,226
New-York.................................................. 49,005 8,167
Ohio........................................................... 36,673 6,112
Oregon....................................................... 128 21
Pennsylvania............................................. 56,849 9,475
Rhode Island............................................. 3,952 659
Vermont.................................................... 709 118
Wisconsin.................................................. 1,171 195

Printed for AMOS G. BEMAN.
J. H. Benham & Son, Printers, New Haven, Conn.