On March 2, 1867, the Republican-controlled Thirty-ninth Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto and enacted the first of four Reconstruction Acts. Among other provisions, the First Reconstruction Act required each former Confederate state (except Tennessee) to draft a new constitution providing for black male suffrage. The act nominally ensured voting rights for African American males in the South, but it failed to resolve the codified disenfranchisement of black men throughout the rest of the nation. Many legislators who supported the bill were embarrassed and distressed that eleven of twenty-one Northern states, and all five Border States, denied African American men the right to vote.
Congressional concern about black disenfranchisement outside of the South may have been politically motivated as well. Democratic gains in the 1867 elections at the state level hinted that white voters in the North were growing weary of Radical Reconstructionism and yearned for an end to political policies that continued to divide the nation. The Democratic resurgence gave Republican leaders the impetus to push for the enfranchisement of black voters (who would vote solidly Republican) in the Northern and Border States.
Three Proposals for Enfranchising African Americans
During the lame-duck session between Ulysses S. Grant’s election in November 1868 and his inauguration on March 4, 1869, both houses of Congress considered legislation to ensure black male suffrage. As with other Reconstruction legislation, Democrats opposed any attempts to change the antebellum status quo, and Republicans disagreed about how much things needed to change. In broad terms, Congress considered three versions of proposals to amend the Constitution regarding the establishment of voting rights.
The first version prohibited states from denying men the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Endorsed by the House on January 30, 1869, this proposal, which was closest to the one finally adopted.
The second version expanded upon the first by prohibiting the use of literacy tests, property ownership, or nativity as qualifications for the right to vote. Apprehensive about the growing political strength of an influx of European immigrants in the North, some members of Congress objected to this version because they supported the right of states to deny the vote to illiterate citizens. Other members, especially from the Western states, rejected this proposal because they opposed enfranchising a growing number of Chinese immigrants, literate or not. On a broader scale, many members opposed this version because they believed it unconstitutionally expanded the power of the federal government into an area that had traditionally been the purview of the individual states.
The third and simplest proposal simply extended voting rights to all male citizens over the age of twenty-one. Members who objected to this version argued that it would nullify previous legislation that disenfranchised former Confederate officials.
After several months of debate, pragmatism prevailed. Republican leaders mustered the required two-thirds majority vote needed to endorse a Constitutional amendment for only the most conservative of the proposals. On February 25, 1869, by a vote of 143–43, the House approved a compromise resolution recommending a Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that proclaimed:
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 Senate approved the measure by a vote of 39-13 the next day. Fourteen senators and thirty-five representatives abstained from voting. Many of them believed that the proposed amendment contained loopholes, which states could use to deny voting rights to black citizens because it did not prohibit the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, land ownership, and nativity requirements for establishing suffrage qualifications. Later events proved them right.
After approving the amendment, Congress forwarded it to the states for consideration. The Constitution required three-fourths of the thirty-seven states then in the Union (twenty-eight states) to approve the proposal for it to become law.
On March 1, 1869, Nevada became the first state to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment. Within a month, eleven more states approved the proposed amendment and two states rejected it. In April, Congress enacted a measure requiring Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, besides the Fourteenth Amendment, before being readmitted to Congress. Although they had not yet met the requirements for readmission to Congress, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia were technically still part of the Union).
By July 1, the initial surge toward ratification stalled. Seventeen states had ratified and four had rejected, but over three months passed before Virginia came on board on October 8. Nearly four more months went by before Iowa became the twenty-eighth state to ratify on February 2, 1870. In the meantime, the New York legislature rescinded its earlier ratification, but federal officials ignored the rescission. The matter became moot when five more states (including Texas) approved the measure later in February.
On March 30, President Grant informed Congress that Secretary of State Hamilton Fish certified ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. One day later, on March 31, 1870, Thomas Peterson-Mundy became the first African American to exercise his newly established enfranchisement when he voted in a local election in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
On paper, the Fifteenth Amendment was a huge step toward the achievement of equal rights for all Americans. However, the amendment left the door open for practices that skirted the intent of the law, especially in the South. Congress did not remedy the situation for nearly one hundred years when it enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.