Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
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Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States
Constitution prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right
to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. It was
ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.
In the final years of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era that followed,
Congress repeatedly debated the rights of the millions of black former slaves. By 1869,
amendments had been passed to abolish slavery and provide citizenship and equal protection
under the laws, but the narrow election of Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency in 1868
convinced a majority of Republicans that protecting the franchise of black voters was important
for the party’s future. After rejecting more sweeping versions of a suffrage amendment,
Congress proposed a compromise amendment banning franchise restrictions on the basis of race,
color, or previous servitude on February 26, 1869. The amendment survived a difficult ratification
fight and was adopted on March 30, 1870. United States Supreme Court decisions in the
late nineteenth century interpreted the amendment narrowly. From 1890 to 1910, most black voters
in the South were effectively disfranchised by new constitutions and laws incorporating
such obstacles as poll taxes and discriminatory literacy tests, from which white voters were
exempted by grandfather clauses. A system of whites-only primaries and violent intimidation
by white groups also suppressed black participation. In the twentieth century, the Court began
to interpret the amendment more broadly, striking down grandfather clauses in Guinn v. United
States and dismantling the white primary system in the “Texas primary cases”. Along with later
measures such as the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which forbade poll taxes in federal elections,
and Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, which forbade poll taxes in state elections,
these decisions significantly increased black participation in the American political system.
Most important was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided for federal oversight
and enforcement of constitutional rights in areas with historic under-representation. Text Section 1. 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. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to
enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Background
In the final years of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era that followed,
Congress repeatedly debated the rights of black former slaves freed by the 1863 Emancipation
Proclamation and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment, the latter of which had formally abolished
slavery. Following the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by Congress, however, Republicans
grew concerned over the increase it would create in the congressional representation
of the Democratic-dominated Southern states. Because the full population of freed slaves
would be now counted rather than the three-fifths mandated by the previous Three-Fifths Compromise,
the Southern states would dramatically increase their power in the population-based House
of Representatives. Republicans hoped to offset this advantage by attracting and protecting
votes of the newly enfranchised black population. In 1865, Congress passed what would become
the Civil Rights Act of 1866, guaranteeing citizenship without regard to race, color,
or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude. The bill also guaranteed equal
benefits and access to the law, a direct assault on the Black Codes passed by many post-war
Southern states. The Black Codes attempted to return ex-slaves to something like their
former condition by, among other things, restricting their movement, forcing them to enter into
year-long labor contracts, prohibiting them from owning firearms, and by preventing them
from suing or testifying in court. Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to
sign the bill, President Johnson vetoed it on March 27, 1866. In his veto message, he
objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the freedmen at a time when
11 out of 36 states were unrepresented in the Congress, and that it discriminated in
favor of African Americans and against whites. Three weeks later, Johnson’s veto was overridden
and the measure became law. This was the first time in American history that Congress was
able to muster the votes necessary to override a presidential veto. Despite this victory,
even some Republicans who had supported the goals of the Civil Rights Act began to doubt
that Congress possessed the constitutional power to turn those goals into laws. The experience
encouraged both radical and moderate Republicans to seek Constitutional guarantees for black
rights, rather than relying on temporary political majorities.
On June 18, 1866, Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship and
equal protection under the laws regardless of race, and sent it to the states for ratification.
After a bitter struggle that included attempted rescissions of ratification by two states,
the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted on July 28, 1868.
The final decision of Congress not to include anything relating to the right to vote in
the Fourteenth Amendment, aside from a clause in Section 2 warning states that did disfranchise
citizens on the basis of race could be penalized by having the size of their Congressional
delegation reduced, signaled to the states that they still possessed the right to deny
ballot access to blacks. Northern states were generally as adverse to granting voting rights
to blacks as Southern states. In the year of its ratification, only eight Northern states
allowed blacks to vote. In the South, blacks were able to vote in many areas, but only
through the intervention of the occupying Union Army.
Proposal and ratification Proposal Anticipating an increase in Democratic membership
in the following Congress, Republicans used the lame-duck session of the 40th United States
Congress to pass an amendment protecting black suffrage. Representative John Bingham, the
primary author of the Fourteenth Amendment, pushed for a wide-ranging ban on suffrage
limitations, but a broader proposal banning voter restriction on the basis of “race, color,
nativity, property, education, or religious beliefs” was rejected. A proposal to specifically
ban literacy tests was also rejected. Some Representatives from the North, where nativism
was a major force, wished to preserve restrictions denying the franchise to foreign-born citizens,
as did Representatives from the West, where ethnic Chinese were banned from voting. Both
Southern and Northern Republicans also wanted to continue to deny the vote temporarily to
Southerners disfranchised for support of the Confederacy, and they were concerned that
a sweeping endorsement of suffrage would enfranchise this group.
A House and Senate conference committee proposed the amendment’s final text, which banned voter
restriction only on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. To attract
the broadest possible base of support, the amendment made no mention of poll taxes or
other measures to block voting, and did not guarantee the right of blacks to hold office.
This compromise proposal was approved by the House on February 25, 1869, and the Senate
the following day. The vote in the House was 144 to 44, with
35 not voting. The House vote was almost entirely along party lines, with no Democrats supporting
the bill and only 3 Republicans voting against it. The House of Representatives passed the
amendment with 143 Republican & 1 Conservative Republican votes of “Yea”, 39 Democrat, 3
Republican, 1 Independent Republican & 1 Conservative votes of “Nay” and with 26 Republican, 8 Democrat
& 1 Independent Republican not voting. The final vote in the Senate was 39 to 13, with
14 not voting. The Senate passed the amendment with a vote of 39 Republican votes of “Yea”,
8 Democrat & 5 Republican votes of “Nay” and with 13 Republican & 1 Democrat not voting.
Some Radicals, such as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, abstained from voting because
the amendment did not prohibit literacy tests and poll taxes. Following congressional approval
the proposed amendment was then sent by Secretary of State William Henry Seward to the states
for ratification or rejection. Ratification
Though many of the original proposals for the amendment had been moderated by negotiations
in committee, the final draft nonetheless faced significant hurdles in being ratified
by three-fourths of the states. Historian William Gillette wrote of the process, “it
was hard going and the outcome was uncertain until the very end.”
One source of opposition to the proposed amendment was the women’s suffrage movement, which before
and during the Civil War had made common cause with the abolitionist movement. However, with
the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had explicitly protected only male citizens
in its second section, activists found the civil rights of women divorced from those
of blacks. Matters came to a head with the proposal of the Fifteenth Amendment, which
barred race discrimination but not gender discrimination in voter laws. After an acrimonious
debate, the American Equal Rights Association, the nation’s leading suffragist group, split
into two rival organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association of Susan B. Anthony
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who opposed the amendment, and the American Woman Suffrage
Association of Lucy Stone and Henry Browne Blackwell, who supported it. The two groups
remained divided until the 1890s. Nevada was the first state to ratify the amendment,
on March 1, 1869. The New England states and most Midwest states also ratified the amendment
soon after its proposal. Southern states still controlled by Radical reconstruction governments,
such as North Carolina, also swiftly ratified. Newly elected U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant
strongly endorsed the amendment, calling it “a measure of grander importance than any
other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”
He privately asked Nebraska’s governor to call a special legislative session to speed
the process, securing the state’s ratification. In April and December 1869, Congress passed
Reconstruction bills mandating that Virginia, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia ratify the
amendment as a precondition to regaining congressional representation; all four states did so. The
struggle for ratification was particularly close in Indiana and Ohio, which voted to
ratify in May 1869 and January 1870, respectively. New York, which had ratified on April 14,
1869, tried to revoke its ratification on January 5, 1870. However, in February 1870,
Georgia, Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas ratified the amendment, bringing the total ratifying
states to twenty-nine—one more than the required twenty-eight ratifications from the
thirty-seven states, and forestalling any court challenge to New York’s resolution to
withdraw its consent. The first twenty-eight states to ratify the
Fifteenth Amendment were: Nevada — March 1, 1869
West Virginia — March 3, 1869 North Carolina — March 5, 1869
Illinois — March 5, 1869 Louisiana — March 5, 1869
Michigan — March 8, 1869 Wisconsin — March 9, 1869
Maine — March 11, 1869 Massachusetts — March 12, 1869
Arkansas — March 15, 1869 South Carolina — March 15, 1869
Pennsylvania — March 25, 1869 New York — April 14, 1869
Indiana — May 14, 1869 Connecticut — May 19, 1869
Florida — June 14, 1869 New Hampshire — July 1, 1869
Virginia — October 8, 1869 Vermont — October 20, 1869
Alabama — November 16, 1869 Missouri — January 10, 1870
Minnesota — January 13, 1870 Mississippi — January 17, 1870
Rhode Island — January 18, 1870 Kansas — January 19, 1870
Ohio — January 27, 1870 Georgia — February 2, 1870
Iowa — February 3, 1870 Secretary of State Hamilton Fish certified
the amendment on March 30, 1870. New York, despite rescinding its ratification, was included
as a ratifying state, as were: Nebraska — February 17, 1870
Texas — February 18, 1870 The remaining seven states all subsequently
ratified the amendment: New Jersey — February 15, 1871
Delaware — February 12, 1901 Oregon — February 24, 1959
California — April 3, 1962 Maryland — May 7, 1973
Kentucky — March 18, 1976 Tennessee — April 8, 1997
The amendment’s adoption was met with widespread celebrations in black communities and abolitionist
societies; many of the latter disbanded, feeling that black rights had been secured and their
work was complete. President Grant said of the amendment that it “completes the greatest
civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came
to life”. Many Republicans felt that with the amendment’s passage, black Americans no
longer needed federal protection; congressman and future president James A. Garfield stated
that the amendment’s passage “confers upon the African race the care of its own destiny.
It places their fortunes in their own hands.” Congressman John R. Lynch later wrote that
ratification of those two amendments made Reconstruction a success.
Application Reconstruction
The first known black voter after the amendment’s adoption was Thomas Mundy Peterson, who cast
his ballot on March 31, 1870 in the Perth Amboy, New Jersey mayoral election.
In United States v. Reese, the first U.S. Supreme Court decision interpreting the Fifteenth
Amendment, the Court interpreted the amendment narrowly, upholding ostensibly race-neutral
limitations on suffrage including poll taxes, literacy tests, and a grandfather clause that
exempted citizens from other voting requirements if their grandfathers had been registered
voters, a condition only whites could generally meet. The Court also stated that the amendment
does not confer the right of suffrage, but it invests citizens of the United States with
the right of exemption from discrimination in the exercise of the elective franchise
on account of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude, and empowers Congress
to enforce that right by “appropriate legislation.” The Court wrote: The Fifteenth Amendment does not confer the
right of suffrage upon any one. It prevents the States, or the United States, however,
from giving preference, in this particular, to one citizen of the United States over another
on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Before its adoption, this could
be done. It was as much within the power of a State to exclude citizens of the United
States from voting on account of race, &c., as it was on account of age, property, or
education. Now it is not. If citizens of one race having certain qualifications are permitted
by law to vote, those of another having the same qualifications must be. Previous to this
amendment, there was no constitutional guaranty against this discrimination: now there is.
It follows that the amendment has invested the citizens of the United States with a new
constitutional right which is within the protecting power of Congress. That right is exemption
from discrimination in the exercise of the elective franchise on account of race, color,
or previous condition of servitude. This, under the express provisions of the second
section of the amendment, Congress may enforce by “appropriate legislation.” White supremacists such as the Ku Klux Klan
used paramilitary violence to prevent black people from voting. A number of blacks were
killed at the Colfax massacre of 1873 while attempting to defend their right to vote.
The Enforcement Acts were passed by Congress in 1870–1871 to authorize federal prosecution
of the KKK and others who violated the amendment. However, as Reconstruction neared its end
and federal troops withdrew, prosecutions under the Enforcement Acts dropped significantly.
In United States v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government did
not have the authority to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax massacre because they were not
state actors. Congress removed a provision against conspiracy
from the acts in 1894, weakening them further. In 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was
elected president after tightly contested electoral college battle, receiving support
from three Southern states in exchange for a pledge to allow white Democratic governments
to rule without federal interference. As president, he refused to enforce federal civil rights
protections, allowing states to begin to implement racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws.
Post-reconstruction From 1890 to 1910, poll taxes and literacy
tests were instituted across the South, effectively disenfranchising the great majority of blacks.
White-only primary elections also served to reduce the influence of blacks in the political
system. Along with increasing legal obstacles, blacks were excluded from the political system
by threats of violent reprisals by whites in the form of lynch mobs and terrorist attacks
by the Ku Klux Klan. In the 20th century, the Court began to read
the Fifteenth Amendment more broadly. In Guinn v. United States, a unanimous Court struck
down an Oklahoma grandfather clause that effectively exempted white voters from a literacy test,
finding it to be discriminatory. The Court ruled in the related case Myers v. Anderson,
that the officials who enforced such a clause were liable for civil damages.
The Court addressed the white primary system in a series of decisions later known as the
“Texas primary cases”. In Nixon v. Herndon, Nixon sued for damages under federal civil
rights laws after being denied a ballot in a Democratic party primary election on the
basis of race. The Court found in his favor on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment,
which guarantees equal protection under the law, while not discussing his Fifteenth Amendment
claim. After Texas amended its statute to allow the political party’s state executive
committee to set voting qualifications, Nixon sued again; in Nixon v. Condon, the Court
again found in his favor on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Following Nixon, the Democratic Party’s state convention instituted a rule that only whites
could vote in its primary elections; the Court unanimously upheld this rule as constitutional
in Grovey v. Townsend, distinguishing the discrimination by a private organization from
that of the state in the previous primary cases. However, in United States v. Classic,
the Court ruled that primary elections were an essential part of the electoral process,
undermining the reasoning in Grovey. Based on Classic, the Court in Smith v. Allwright,
overruled Grovey, ruling that denying non-white voters a ballot in primary elections was a
violation of the Fifteenth Amendment. In the last of the Texas primary cases, Terry v.
Adams, the Court ruled that black plaintiffs were entitled to damages from a group that
organized whites-only pre-primary elections with the assistance of Democratic party officials. The Court also used the amendment to strike
down a gerrymander in Gomillion v. Lightfoot. The decision found that the redrawing of city
limits by Tuskegee, Alabama officials to exclude the mostly black area around the Tuskegee
Institute discriminated on the basis of race. The Court later relied on this decision in
Rice v. Cayetano, which struck down ancestry-based voting in elections for the Office of Hawaiian
Affairs; the ruling held that the elections violated the Fifteenth Amendment by using
“ancestry as a racial definition and for a racial purpose”.
After judicial enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment ended grandfather clauses, white
primaries, and other discriminatory tactics, Southern black voter registration gradually
increased, rising from five percent in 1940 to twenty-eight percent in 1960. Although
the Fifteenth Amendment was never interpreted to prohibit poll taxes, in 1962 the Twenty-fourth
Amendment was adopted banning poll taxes in federal elections, and in 1966 the Supreme
Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections that state poll taxes violate
the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Under its authority pursuant to Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress passed
the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to achieve further racial equality in voting. Sections 4 and
5 of the Voting Rights Act required states and local governments with histories of racial
discrimination in voting to submit all changes to their voting laws or practices to the federal
government for approval before they could take affect, a process called “preclearance.”
By 1976, sixty-three percent of Southern blacks were registered to vote, only five percent
less than Southern whites. The Supreme Court originally upheld these
provisions as constitutional in South Carolina v. Katzenbach. However, in Shelby County v.
Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which established
the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance,
was no longer constitutional and exceeded Congress’s enforcement authority under Section
2 of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Court declared that the Fifteenth Amendment “commands that
the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race or color, and it gives
Congress the power to enforce that command. The Amendment is not designed to punish for
the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future.” According to the Court, “Regardless
of how to look at the record no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the
‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant, ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination that faced
Congress in 1965, and that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of
the nation.” While the preclearance provision itself was not struck down, it will continue
to be inoperable unless Congress passes a new coverage formula.
See also Ballot access
Black suffrage Forty acres and a mule
Voting rights in the United States References
Notes Citations Bibliography
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-203586-8. 
Gillette, William. The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Johns Hopkins Press.  Goldman, Robert Michael. A Free Ballot and
a Fair Count: The Department of Justice and the Enforcement of Voting Rights in the South,
1877–1893. Fordham Univ Press. ISBN 978-0-8232-2084-7.  Goldstone, Lawrence. Inherently Unequal: The
Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865–1903. Walker & Company. ISBN 978-0-8027-1792-4. 
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. Orion Publishing Group, Limited. ISBN 978-1-84212-425-3. 
Palumbo, Arthur E.. The Authentic Constitution: An Originalist View of America’s Legacy. Algora
Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87586-707-6.  Stromberg, Joseph R. “A Plain Folk Perspective
on Reconstruction, State-Building, Ideology, and Economic Spoils”. Journal of Libertarian
Studies 16, Spring 2002; pp. 103–137. External links
Fifteenth Amendment and related resources at the Library of Congress
National Archives: Fifteenth Amendment CRS Annotated Constitution: Fifteenth Amendment

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