Even though the Civil War had ended in 1865, political and racial strife continued to northern and southern states. In an attempt to mend the rift, the Republican-controlled Congress passed the First Reconstruction Act in 1867, but many southerners objected to the act saying it favored northern interests and not their own.
At the same time, two groups of disenfranchised Americans lobbied for the right to vote – women and blacks. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were among the leading women suffragists. The most prominent among the black suffragists was Frederick Douglas. All these groups wanted was the recognition of equal citizenship which included the right to vote and hold political office.
Blacks first gained their freedom with the ratification of 13th Amendment in December 1865 which read:
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“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Even though slavery had been abolished, blacks were still not considered to be citizens of the United States, even if they had been born here. In June 1866, the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting them citizenship. It reads in part:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Now that blacks were free and had citizenship, they still lacked the right to vote and hold office nationwide. In 1868, ten of the twenty-one northern states allowed blacks to vote, but eleven didn’t. Republicans set out to rectify the situation and began drafting several different versions of a constitutional amendment.
The first version banned any state from stopping a citizen from voting due to their race, color or previously being a slave. Note that it did not include banning a person from voting due to their sex.
The second version banned states from stopping a person from voting due to their literacy, property or the circumstances of their birth. This version would have opened the door for women to vote, which is partially why it was eventually rejected.
The third version stated that every male citizen of the age of 21 or older would have the right to vote.
Knowing the different factions within the halls of Congress, the congressional authors decided that the first draft of the amendment stood the best chance of being passed.
On February 26, 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment which reads:
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–
The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
However, ratification of the 15th Amendment still faced some challenging obstacles. Ratification required the approval of 28 states and there were only 17 northern states, all Republican, in favor of the amendment while there were 4 Democratic northern states who opposed the amendment.
The remaining states, the southern states who had seceded from the Union and not yet granted re-admission to the United States. The southern states, who were still against the emancipation and citizenship of blacks, were the only hope northern Republicans had to ratify the 15th Amendment.
Most of the southern states were desperate and in need of being re-admitted. Republicans, who controlled Congress, worked out a deal to re-unite the country and part of that deal involved the southern states giving approval and accepting both the 14th and 15th Amendments. The deal was accepted and the southern states were admitted to the Union.
On this day, March 30, 1870, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was officially ratified and became law. However, enforcing the 15th Amendment, especially in the south, was difficult at best for nearly 100 years. Some southern states enacted grandfather laws and other methods to deny blacks the right to vote. It wasn’t until August 6, 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which overcame many of the voting barriers used by a number of southern states.
Yet, some courageous blacks, such as Hiram Rhoades Revels, took advantage of the new amendment. He was a black Republican who ran for Congress from Natchez, Mississippi in the 1870 elections and he won, becoming the first black member of the US Congress.
Sources for the above includes: Amendments 11-27 to the U.S. Constitution; Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment; Landmark Legislation: Thirteenth, Fourteenth, & Fifteenth Amendments; 15th Amendment adopted; Fifteenth Amendment; 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Voting Rights (1870); Fifteenth Amendment; 15th Amendment.