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Background // Wartime Reconstruction // South and North, 1865
District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Early Proposals

The end of the Civil War ushered in an era of dramatic constitutional change.  Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 abolished slavery in the United States.  Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in July 1868 bestowed citizenship on all persons born or naturalized in the United States and offered them equal protection of the laws, among other rights.  The result officially, though indirectly, recognized blacks as part of the American constitutional system.  The basic right to vote, however, was not protected in the U.S. Constitution against discrimination based on race until ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in March 1870.  It took many years for the political consensus, primarily within the ruling Republican Party, to accept the legitimacy of even partial federal oversight of voting qualifications in the states. 

Although slaves could not vote, it was legal in most states for free black men to cast ballots during the early years of the American republic.  In 1790, only three of the original thirteen states—Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina—barred voters on account of race.  Over the first half of the nineteenth century, however, many states adopted constitutions or laws that disfranchised blacks, so that they were ineligible to vote in 25 of 31 states by 1850.  At that time, five New England states—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—were the only states with no racial disqualification for voting, but they were home to just four percent of the nation’s free blacks (and an even tinier fraction of the country’s total black population, the vast majority of whom were slaves).   

Most black men in New York were prevented from voting by the state constitution’s residency and property qualifications, neither of which applied to white men.  From 1857 to 1869, Harper’s Weekly chronicled attempts to remove “the absurd and barbarous discrimination,” in the words of editor George William Curtis, a white abolitionist and advocate of black civil rights.  While the reform was opposed by Democratic legislators, the proposed change in the state constitution was ultimately rejected by white voters from all parties in popular referenda.  It was not until the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment in March 1870 that the property and residential requirements on blacks voters in New York were finally nullified. 

Before the Civil War, Congress barred blacks from voting in the federal territories, and in 1861 and 1863, respectively, Kansas and West Virginia entered the Union with state constitutions limiting suffrage to white men.  In the Harper’s Weekly issue of July 4, 1863 (published June 24), George William Curtis noted that black men in Pennsylvania had been officially called upon to help defend the state against the Confederate invasion (which would soon be turned back at the Battle of Gettysburg).  The columnist (and future editor) hoped that their military service would cause loyal white Pennsylvanians to be ashamed that those same black men were disfranchised by their state.  While Black men responded enthusiastically to the call to arms, Frederick Douglass and other black leaders declared that the war to save the Union must also be a fight for equal rights.  In October 1864, a group of free black men met in Syracuse, New York, and established the National Equal Rights League to fight racial barriers in the Union states.  They passed resolutions endorsing the abolition of slavery, legal equality regardless of color or race, and black manhood suffrage. 

Harper's Weekly References

1)  April 4, 1857, p. 214, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column, “State Legislatures”

2)  February 13, 1869, p. 99, c. 2
editorial, “The New Constitution of New York”

3)  November 20, 1869, p. 738, c. 1
paragraphs 1 and 2, editorial, “The Meaning of Democratic Success”

4)  July 4, 1863, p. 418, c. 3
“The Lounger” column, “Loyal Citizens”

5)  July 18, 1863, p. 460
illustration, “The Invasion of the North—Street Scenes in Philadelphia,” Thomas Nast

6)  July 18, 1863, p. 459, c. 1
news item, “Action of the Colored People”

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Background // Wartime Reconstruction // South and North, 1865
District of Columbia and the Federal Territories: Early Proposals





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