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Creation // Ratification

Black men had voted in large numbers across the South in the 1868 presidential election, and they had been enfranchised by popular referenda that autumn in Iowa and Minnesota.  They remained disfranchised, however, in 11 of the 21 Northern and Western states and the five Border States, a combined area where one-sixth of American blacks lived.  Northern blacks petitioned Congress for a constitutional amendment for equal suffrage.  In January 1869, the National Convention of the Colored Men of America met in Washington, D.C., with the aim of advocating suffrage for all black men in the United States and the education of former slaves.  A committee of twelve called on President-elect Ulysses S. Grant, offering their support and best wishes and urging him to be vigilant in the fulfillment and administration of equal rights.  He pledged as president to uphold equal protection under the law. 

Spurred also by the resurgent strength of the Democratic Party, Republicans of the outgoing 40th Congress began crafting in the winter of 1868-1869 a constitutional amendment for equal manhood suffrage.  Ideally, it would enfranchise Northern black men and protect the voting rights of black men in the South from repeal by future state legislatures, thereby creating conditions for a viable two-party system in the South and help secure implementation of the Reconstruction Acts.  Congressional Republicans were initially divided, however, on the language and scope of the amendment.  Radicals wanted to bar the federal and state governments from disfranchising voters because of race, property, literacy, and other classifications.  Moderates believed that the amendment should be limited to suffrage for black men, with states retaining authority over other voting qualifications.  Some Republicans from New England and the Far West favored state literacy and nativity qualifications for voters (aimed at Irish and Chinese immigrants). 

On January 30, 1869, the House passed a resolution, 150-42, submitted by Republican George Boutwell of Massachusetts to amend the Constitution to forbid the federal and state governments from denying the vote to citizens based on “race, or color, or previous condition of slavery.”  Its language was almost identical to the final form of the Fifteenth Amendment.  Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis praised Boutwell’s proposal as “another of those great measures which commend it to the confidence of all thoughtful men, and to the gratitude of posterity.”  He explained that it was better to protect equal suffrage through a constitutional amendment than a federal law. 

The Senate began debating a constitutional amendment drafted by the Judiciary Committee and introduced by Republican William Stewart of Nevada that was similar to Boutwell’s proposal, except that it also banned denying public office based on race, color, or previous status as a slave.  However, on February 9, 1869, the full Senate narrowly approved, 31-27, a proposed amendment introduced by Republican Henry Wilson of Massachusetts that prohibited the federal and state governments from discriminating in voting or office holding based on “race, color, nativity, property, education, or [religious] creed.”  In an editorial, George William Curtis emphasized the educational aspect of Wilson’s amendment, and cautioned the House not to rush to judgment on the measure, but to consider seriously how best to ensure an educated electorate.  The editor professed little faith in educational tests for voters, but was unconvinced that the amendment should ban all educational requirements in all circumstances.   

On February 15, 1869, the House defeated the Senate bill, but four days later passed, 140-33, a version of the amendment introduced by Republican John Bingham of Ohio that was nearly identical to Wilson’s proposal except that it applied only against the states, not the federal government.  Some of the “aye” votes may have come from congressmen hoping to prolong debate between the two chambers and eventually defeat the amendment.  In the meantime, on February 17, the Senate passed the Stewart’s moderate version of the amendment, 35-11 (with 20 senators absent).  The Joint Congressional Committee accepted the Senate measure while dropping the reference to office holding, thus essentially returning to Boutwell’s proposal originally passed by the House.  Backed by large Republican majorities, the compromise resolution passed the House, 143-43, on February 25, and the Senate, 39-13 (with 14 absent), the next day.   

In less than a month, Congress had come full circle on the suffrage amendment.  The House originally passed a moderate version and the Senate passed a radical one.  The House rejected the Senate resolution and then approved its own radical amendment, while the Senate passed a moderate one.  The House-Senate committee adopted a moderate version, which was basically the first House-approved proposal.  Although the final form of the Fifteenth Amendment was moderate compared to some of the other versions, it nevertheless presented a significant change in the U.S. Constitution.  Section One of the Fifteenth Amendment 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.”  Section Two authorizes Congress to enforce the amendment “by appropriate legislation.”

Harper's Weekly References
1)  February 6, 1869, p. 85
illustration, “The National Colored Convention in Session at Washington, D.C.” Theodore R. Davis

2)  February 6, 1869, p. 81
news item, “The Colored Convention”

3)  February 13, 1869, p. 99, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

4)  February 13, 1869, p. 99, c. 3-4
editorial, “The Suffrage Amendment”

5)  February 27, 1869, p. 131, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

6)  February 27, 1869, p. 131, c. 2-3
editorial, “The Suffrage and Education”

7)  March 6, 1869, p. 147, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

8)  March 13, 1869, p. 163, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

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Creation // Ratification






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