Following the Civil War, Radical Republicans in Congress introduced a series of laws and constitutional amendments to try to secure civil and political rights for black people. This wing of the Republican Party was called “radical” because of its strong stance on these and other issues. The right that provoked the greatest controversy, especially in the North, concerned black male suffrage: the right of the black man to vote.
In 1867, Congress passed a law requiring the former Confederate states to include black male suffrage in their new state constitutions. Ironically, even though African American men began voting in the South after 1867, the majority of Northern states continued to deny them this basic right.
In the North, the Republican’s once-huge voter majority over the Democratic Party was declining. Radical Republican leaders feared that they might lose control of Congress to the Democrats.
One solution to this problem called for including the black man’s vote in all Northern states. Republicans assumed the new black voters would vote Republican just as their brothers were doing in the South. By increasing its voters in the North and South, the Republican Party could then maintain its stronghold in Congress.
The Republicans, however, faced an incredible dilemma. The idea of blacks voting was not popular in the North. In fact, several Northern states had recently voted against black male suffrage.
In May 1868, the Republicans held their presidential nominating convention in Chicago and chose Ulysses S. Grant as their candidate. The Republicans agreed that African-American male suffrage continued to be a requirement for the Southern states, but decided that the Northern states should settle this issue for themselves.
Grant was victorious in the election of 1868, but this popular general won by a surprisingly slim margin. It was clear to Republican leaders that if they were to remain in power, their party needed the votes of black men in the North.
The 15th Amendment
When the new year began in 1869, the Republicans were ready to introduce a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the black man’s right to vote. For two months, Congress considered the proposed amendment. Several versions of the amendment were submitted, debated, rejected and then reconsidered in both the House and Senate.
Finally, at the end of February 1869, Congress approved a compromise amendment that did not even specifically mention the black man:
Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States 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 the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Once approved by the required two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, the 15th Amendment had to be ratified by 28, or three-fourths, of the states. Due to the reconstruction laws, black male suffrage already existed in 11 Southern states. Since almost all of these states were controlled by Republican reconstruction governments, they could be counted on to ratify the 15th Amendment. Supporters of the 15th Amendment needed only 17 of the remaining 26 Northern and Western states in order to succeed. At this time, just nine of these states allowed the black man to vote. The struggle for and against ratification hung on what blacks and other political interests would do.
Only days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April, 1865, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. In his speech, Douglass explained why the black man wanted the right to vote “in every state of the Union”:
It is said that we are ignorant; admit it. But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote ….What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.
While Congress debated the 15th Amendment early in 1869, 150 black men from 17 states assembled for a convention in Washington, D.C. This was the first national meeting of black Americans in the history of the United States. Frederick Douglass was elected president of the convention.
The delegates praised the Republicans in Congress for passing the reconstruction laws and congratulated General Grant on his election to the White House. They also pledged their continued support of the Republican Party.
Those attending the convention also spent time meeting with members of Congress, encouraging them to pass a strong amendment guaranteeing black male suffrage nationwide. When the meeting adjourned, the delegates were confident that a new era of democracy for the black man was about to begin.
The Democrats realized they were fighting for political survival. They feared ratification of the 15th Amendment would automatically create some 170,000 loyal black Republican voters in the North and West.
In debates over the amendment, Democrats argued against the ratification by claiming that the 15th Amendment restricted the states’ rights to run their own elections. The Democrats also charged the Republicans with breaking their promise of allowing the states, outside the South, to decide for themselves whether to grant black male suffrage. Democrat leaders cited the low level of literacy in the black population and they predicted black voters would be easily swayed by false promises and outright bribery.
Victory, Then Tragedy
Despite Democratic opposition, the Republicans steadily won ratification victories throughout 1869. Ironically, it was a Southern state, Georgia that clinched the ratification of the 15th Amendment on February 2, 1870.
On March 30, President Grant officially proclaimed the 15th Amendment as part of the Constitution. Washington and many other American cities celebrated. More than 10,000 blacks paraded through Baltimore. In a speech on May 5, 1870, Frederick Douglass rejoiced. “What a country — fortunate in its institutions, in its 15th Amendment, in its future.”
The jubilation over victory did not last long. While Republicans acquired loyal black voters in the North, the South was an entirely different matter. The Ku Klux Klan and other violent racist groups intimidated black men who tried to vote, or who had voted, by burning their homes, churches and schools, even by resorting to murder.
When the election for president in 1876 ended with a dispute over electoral votes, the Republicans made a deal with the Southern Democrats. First, the Southerners agreed to support Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes for president. In turn, the Republicans promised to withdraw troops from the South and abandon federal enforcement of black’s rights, including the right to vote.
Within a few years, the Southern state governments required blacks to pay voting taxes, pass literacy tests and endure many other unfair restrictions on their right to vote. In Mississippi, 67 percent of the black adult men were registered to vote in 1867; by 1892 only 4 percent were registered. The political deal to secure Hayes as president rendered the 15th Amendment meaningless. Another 75 years passed before black voting rights were again enforced in the South.
For Discussion and Writing
For Further Reading
Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass; selections from his writings, edited, with an introduction, by Philip S. Foner. New York International Press, 1964.
Gillette, William. The Right to Vote: Politics and Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1965.
A C T I V I T Y
Voting Rights Convention
In this activity, you will have a chance to re create history by going back to the year 1868 to participate in a voting rights convention. You will be assigned to a group that had a particular viewpoint on voting rights in 1868. Your group and four others at the convention will write a voting rights amendment to recommend to Congress. In this way, your class will have the opportunity to improve upon the original 15th Amendment that was passed by Congress early in 1869. For the purposes of this activity, it does not matter what your own sex or race is when you are assigned to one of the convention groups listed below.
Voting Rights Convention Groups: Republicans, Blacks, Abolitionists, Woman Suffragists, Democrats
|a repost from 2010|
| Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page From Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It will showcase individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
A Page From Our American Story
13th Amendment to the
On December 18, 1865, 145 years ago, Secretary of State William Seward announced to the world that the United States had constitutionally abolished slavery — the 13th Amendment had been ratified.
The ratification of the 13th Amendment, the first of the Reconstruction Amendments, was truly the beginning of the end of one our nation’s ugliest and saddest eras. Historically, however, it has always been overshadowed by President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation.”
While Lincoln’s initial pronouncement to his Cabinet on September 22, 1862, formally tied slavery to the Civil War, he repeatedly stated that preserving the Union was his primary objective — not ending slavery.
In essence, Lincoln’s proclamation — officially signed and issued on January 1, 1863 — freed only slaves in Confederate states where he and the Union Army could not force the issue, but allowed slavery to continue in states where the Union could impose its will.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a work of political irony. Lincoln understood slavery was wrong, but did not want to anger the border states that had remained supportive of the Union.
However, the Emancipation Proclamation served as a catalyst for abolitionists in Congress to start working in earnest to end slavery in every state.
It began on December 14, 1863, when House Republican James Ashley of Ohio introduced an amendment to ban slavery throughout the United States. Later that month, James Wilson of Iowa introduced another amendment calling for an end to slavery.
Less than a month later, on January 11, 1864, Missouri Senator John Henderson, a member of the War Democrats — Democrats who supported the Civil War and opposed the Copperheads and Peace Democrats — submitted a joint resolution also wanting an amendment to end slavery.
Now, as civil war ravaged the nation, the legislative battle on Capitol Hill to end the injustice of slavery and treat African Americans as equal citizens was launched on two fronts — the House of Representatives and the US Senate.
On February 10, 1864, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed and brought the 13th Amendment to the full Senate. While in the House, one week after the Senate was moving ahead, Representatives took their first vote on the measure. The House vote well short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass, and it was clear the anti-slavery supporters in the House were in for a long struggle.
On the other hand, the Senate moved quickly. Senators wasted little time following the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation for passage. On April 8, 1864, the amendment was overwhelmingly passed, 38-6, eight votes more than constitutionally required.
Four months after the first House vote, in June, 1864, the House tried for a second time to pass the amendment. The vote was closer, but again the abolitionists failed to get the two-thirds majority they needed for passage.
The year drew to a close with Lincoln’s reelection. Yet the House had failed to produce a bill abolishing slavery. Lincoln’s patience with the House was reaching its end. At the same time, abolitionists declared his reelection as a mandate from the people to end slavery. More pressure was brought to bear on the hold-outs in the House to pass the bill.
At last, on January 31, 1865, the House passed the 13th Amendment. Though not needed, as a symbolic gesture of approval, President Lincoln signed the document and then sent it to the states for ratification.
Initially, ratification seemed a given. By the end of March, 19 states had voted for the amendment. Then the process bogged down, and by April 14, 1865, the date President Lincoln was assassinated, only 21 states were on board.
Suddenly, Vice President Andrew Johnson, himself a War Democrat from Tennessee, was in the White House. Johnson was staunchly pro-Union, but he was less passionate about ending slavery. At this point the question was how much support would he provide toward speeding the end of slavery? Abolitionists were relieved when Johnson used his power as the Chief Executive to force Southern states to ratify the amendment as part of his Reconstruction policy.
On December 6, 1865, nearly twelve months after President Lincoln had ceremoniously signed the document, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the 13th Amendment. The three-quarters of the states needed to make the amendment law had finally been reached, and shortly afterward Seward made his historic announcement.
Sadly, life for Black Americans did not meet the promise of freedom. Southern states adopted “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow laws” — rules and restrictions that by-passed constitutional requirements — and continued to treat African Americans as second class citizens.
The tumult and grassroots uprising that eventually spawned such famous legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a subject all its own. Today, however, let us remember the tremendous stride that America took 145 years ago with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Together with the 14th Amendment that afforded African Americans citizenship, due process, and equal rights under the law and the 15th Amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote, a constitutional backbone was provided for what would become one of America’s greatest revolutions — the Civil Rights Movement.
The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.
The weather has been wicked windy
The latest events have made me wonder if Congress on the State and Federal level and or rhetoric from Republicans and folks who lean right of center will really get the push back or beat back by the Democratic Party after Congress gets back from Easter break because i sure have not heard much from the Democratic Party in general and that is not only disturbing it is offensive to anyone who voted these folks into office. I will say it was good to hear that Leader Reid has decided to hold an up and down vote on the PaulRyan Budget. It should open the eyes of most if not all Republican constituents, well maybe. In a time when millions are unemployed, more layoffs coming and Corporate America is still outsourcing and holding jobs hostage. The Republican Party continues to cut slash and burn American Workers. The party of No, which used to be just a conservative pro-life scary group, is now so extreme that the slogan “taking their country back”, is no longer code but an overt statement from Republican Tea Party members. Obviously, it is about not wanting “his kind” in the White House. The Tea Party wants to Privatize Public Service Jobs, which includes Teachers, Fire Fighters, Police, and others while gutting Social Service programs that help the elderly, women, and children around the country suffering already but are now willing to take the basics away from the middle/lower class.
However, I cannot begin to say how offensive though enlightening it is that they are actually legislating people into poverty. I have to say this has made me wonder what our neighborhoods will look after this nasty group is finished wreaking havoc on us all. We all know the more folks that are out of work the better the chances of fewer or quality services will be available. I ask everyone to just think what having less police, firefighters to help out not just the less fortunate but all those above the poverty line … a fire does not care if you have lots of money. I have to say the light of day on how low a Political Party is willing to go was quite evident with those behind the door deals they made to keep SOME firefighters and police employed. Did they think about this?
The media and certain Politicians say that in times of crisis people separate into cliques. I say our Politicians and Talking heads; “the media” have been doing a great job in forcing the public and or viewer into choosing side’s every day depending on the issue. It is offensive and while the November Midterms was proof of how that manipulation works, clearly a whole lot of buyer’s remorse has set in for the Political Party of No, Tea Party carpetbaggers who said one thing and are doing another. We all probably have family or know people who did March for equal rights, felt compelled, added to and a part of that strength in numbers adage we all hear frequently that i consider so important and speaks volumes when a change is near just over the horizon waiting to happen. This feeling of wanting a better way of life is possibly shared by most is spreading all over the world and while a couple of tyrants have seen the light others continue to participate in overt genocide others shutdown access to the World outside. I get the feeling the Republican Tea Party is a lot like those folks in other countries currently doing all they can to either keep control or take anyone down that happens to be in the way by murdering them …right?. In our case, American voters are demanding freedom but the people with the power have gone rogue without thinking about what the full impact on the lives of the many will be or don’t care and have decided to take that risk and try to usurp the rights of Americans whether it’s done legally, by consensus or not.
We are all Freedom Fighters on some level every day.