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Creation // Ratification

Following House and Senate approval of the Fifteenth Amendment on February 25 and 26, 1869, respectively, it was sent immediately to the states for ratification or rejection. A three-quarters majority of states (28 of 37) was needed for adoption.  In April, Congress approved an amendment submitted by Senator Oliver P. Morton of Indiana to the Reconstruction bill for Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia, requiring those states to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment before being readmitted to Congress.  Virginia complied on October 8, 1869; Mississippi on January 17, 1870; and Texas on February 18, 1870.  Morton’s Reconstruction bill making the same requirement of Georgia was enacted in December 1869, and the Georgia legislature complied on February 2, 1870.  Except for Tennessee, the former Confederate states, where black men were already enfranchised under the Reconstruction Acts, ratified the Fifteenth Amendment within a year of its congressional passage. 

On March 1, 1869, Nevada became the first state to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.  U.S. Senator William Stewart had reassured his state’s legislators that the amendment would not preclude other state voting qualifications aimed at Chinese immigrants, such as nativity, and he had warned that rejection could result in less federal patronage.  The state senate then voted 14-6, and the state assembly 23-16, in favor of the measure.  However, the issue of suffrage and Chinese immigrants caused the California State Senate to reject the Fifteenth Amendment by a substantial margin and the Oregon legislature not even to consider it (the two states finally ratified it nearly a century later in 1962 and 1959, respectively). 

Besides Nevada, eleven other states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment in March 1869, New York did so in April, and four more states by July 1, bringing the total to 17.  The early ratifying states included most of New England, the Border State of West Virginia, and four Southern States—Louisiana, North Carolina, Arkansas, and South Carolina.  Although on May 14, 1869, Indiana became the nineteenth state to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis sarcastically criticized Democratic opponents in the state and their claim that the government was created by, of, and for white men only.  A month later, the editor again lambasted Democrats in the Northern and Border States for their anti-black rhetoric and policies, including opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment.   

Illustrator Alfred Waud contributed a double-page cartoon to the November 6, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published October 27) that mocked the platform of the New York Democratic Party, including its opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment.  The journal highlighted the integration of black Americans into the political system by placing William L. Sheppard’s illustration of “A Political Discussion” between three black men on the streets of Richmond, Virginia, on the cover of its November 20 issue (published November 10).  In the same issue, Thomas Nast’s cartoon celebrated the ethnic diversity and envisioned the political equality of citizens of the American republic.  Its specific aim was to endorse ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.  The centerpiece of the cartoon’s Thanksgiving Day table is a monument to “Self-Government” and “Universal Suffrage,” while a sash bearing the designation “15th Amendment” appears above a portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant.    

In January 1870, six states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, including Ohio, which had previously rejected it.  In the New York State Legislature, however, State Senator William Tweed, “boss” of the Tammany Hall political machine, introduced a measure to repeal the previous ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.  It was approved by the new Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislature.  George William Curtis asked in a Harper’s Weekly editorial, “Can New York Withdraw Its Assent?”  He reminded those who denied the right of a state to change its mind on a proposed constitutional amendment, that such a policy would apply equally to states changing their votes from negative to positive (e.g., Ohio) as well as those shifting from positive to negative (e.g., New York).  The editor did agree that states could not rescind their approval after final adoption of the amendment by three-quarters of the states. 

The reversal of New York State’s vote became a mute point when in February four states voted for ratification.  On March 30, 1870, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish certified the Fifteenth Amendment duly approved by three-quarters of the states and henceforth part of the United States Constitution.  Across the nation, Black Americans celebrated the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment with festivities, such as a parade in New York City, and continued to commemorate its anniversary in later years.  In the March 12, 1870 issue of Harper’s Weekly, editor Curtis commended his readers to “help break down the prejudice” that remained against blacks in America.  In the same issue, a cartoon portrayed states that rejected the amendment as flies, which were a nuisance but not a hindrance to the black man casting his vote.   

The face on the New York fly in this cartoon is that of Democratic Governor John Hoffman.  Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment by a Republican-controlled New York legislature in April 1869 was reversed by the succeeding Democratic-controlled legislature in January 1870.  New Jersey defeated the measure in February 1870, and then approved it a year later after it was already part of the U.S. Constitution.  The Fifteenth Amendment was not ratified by Delaware until February 1901, California in April 1962, and Kentucky in March 1976.  Maryland’s legislature never approved the Fifteenth Amendment, but the state’s governor did in May 1973.

The Fifteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Acts recognized the right of black men to participate in the American democratic process as voters and officeholders.  Editor Curtis and cartoonist Nast both noted the irony that the first black man elected to the U.S. Senate, Republican Hiram Revels of Mississippi, took the seat formerly held by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Nast loosely applied a Shakespearean theme to portray Davis as the evil Iago and Revels as Othello, the Moor (African), surrounded by fellow Republican senators (left-right) Henry Wilson, Oliver Morton, Carl Schurz, and Charles Sumner.  The June 4, 1870 issue of Harper’s Weekly included a telling illustration of black voters in Richmond, Virginia, being registered for the first city election since the end of the Civil War.

Despite the victory for proponents of the Fifteenth Amendment, the road to political equality would be a long one, riddled with resistance and setbacks.  During the 1870s, white-only Democratic governments returned to power in the South and many white Northern reformers lost interest in the plight of black Americans.  Violence by militant groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, and state restrictions on voting seriously reduced the percentage of black voters until the “Second Reconstruction” of the mid-twentieth century.  Nevertheless, the Fifteenth Amendment was an important beginning, granting the constitutional right of all black men to participate in local, state, and national government for the first time in American history.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  April 24, 1869, p. 259, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

2)  March 20, 1869, p. 179, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

3)  February 12, 1870, p. 99
“Domestic Intelligence” column

4)  April 3, 1869, p. 211, c. 1-2
editorial, “Latest from the Democracy”

5)  May 1, 1869, p. 274, c. 2-3
editorial, “Our Friends the Enemies”

6)  November 6, 1869, pp. 712-713
cartoon, “Democratic Platform Made Easy,” Alfred Waud

7)  November 20, 1869, p. 737
illustration and accompanying text, “A Political Discussion,” William Ludlow Sheppard

8)  November 20, 1869, p. 745
cartoon, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving,” Thomas Nast

9)  January 22, 1870, p. 51, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

10)  January 29, 1870, p. 66, c. 2-3
editorial, “Can New York Withdraw Its Assent?”

11)  April 23, 1870, p. 259, c. 4
Domestic Intelligence, “General News Items”

12)  April 20, 1872, p. 308
illustrated article, “The Fifteenth Amendment”

13)  March 12, 1870, p. 162, c. 1-2
editorial, “The Amendment Adopted”

14)  March 12, 1870, p. 176
cartoon, “XVth Amendment”

15)  February 19, 1870, pp. 114(c.4)-115(c.1)
editorial, “Senator Revels”

16)  April 9, 1870, p. 232
cartoon, “Time Works Wonders,” Thomas Nast

17)  February 19, 1870, pp. 116-117
illustrated article, “Hon. H. R. Revels”

18)  June 4, 1870, p. 365
illustration, “First Municipal Election in Richmond Since the End of the War—Registration of Colored Voters”

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Creation // Ratification






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