Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 30, 2014
Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution

Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution

March 30, 1870: The Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution is adopted. The Amendment prohibits both federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. The issue of gender would take a while longer to overcome. As the American Civil War was coming to a close, Congress repeatedly debated what the rights of former slaves should be. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and in 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, formally abolishing slavery. But what should happen with the freed slaves was still under debate.

Part of the issues stemmed from how congressional representation would be changed. The seats in the House of Representatives is calculated based on the population of the area in question. Prior to the War, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for this calculation. If freed slaves were going to be counted as whole people, it was imperative to give them a way to cast a vote to fill these newly established seats. The Reconstruction Era was rife with unrest on how to go about solving this new problem. Many Southern states adopted Black Codes to limit the participation of newly freed slaves in any of their own governance.

The Civil Rights Act of 1865 was passed in the hope of mitigating some of the rules from the new laws put in place by the whites controlling Southern state government. Blacks were restricted in their movements, forced into year-long labor contracts, unable to own firearms, and unable to sue or testify in courts. In short, the new laws were legally trying to keep the freed men in a slave-like condition. The Civil Rights Act passed Congress, but President Johnson vetoed it. Three weeks later, Congress overturned the veto and it became law – obviously with much work still to be done.

Next up was the Fourteenth Amendment which guaranteed citizenship to the freed slaves but purposely left out voting rights. Even so, it was bitterly contested and finally was adopted on July 28, 1868. Now the problem with voting was addressed. Worry about native-born and foreign-born citizens was also a concern but the 15th Amendment finally was approved by the House and then the Senate in February 1869. Nevada was the first to ratify it on March 1869 and the last state to ratify it was Tennessee, which finally cast a vote on April 8, 1997 having rejected it on November 16, 1869. While finally able, by law, to cast a vote did not entirely clear up the problem, it did pave the way for African-American men to be considered full citizens in the US.

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. – Fifteenth Amendment of the US Constitution

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. – Fifteenth Amendment of the US Constitution

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. – the Supreme Court

[The passage of the amendment] confers upon the African race the care of its own destiny. It places their fortunes in their own hands. – James Garfield

Also on this day: Pencil plus – In 1858, erasers were added to pencils.
Seward’s Folly – In 1867, the US purchased Alaska from Russia.
It’s a Knock Out – In 1842, a general anesthetic was first used for surgery.
Underground – In 1954, Toronto’s Yonge Street subway opened.

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