This Day in History: The 15th Amendment is ratified

On this day in 1870, Iowa ratifies the Fifteenth Amendment, thus ensuring that men could vote regardless of race. Women were not included in the Amendment, although some had been lobbying for equal suffrage for years.

15th-amendment-celebration-1870Obviously, the country was very divided after the Civil War. Those states that had been part of the Confederacy were not admitted back into the Union right away. Congress demanded that they satisfy several conditions first. One of these was that each readmitted state had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. Those states also had to grant equal suffrage to black men within their own borders.

It was a one-way street, though. Many of the northern states weren’t bothering to abide by the principles that were being imposed on the South. Thus, while most southern states had granted black men the right to vote by 1867, most northern states still had not.

So-called Radical Republicans wanted to change this state of affairs. The Thirteenth Amendment freed slaves. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed all persons (born or naturalized here) the rights of citizenship. Now, the Fifteenth would ensure that citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Ironically, the Republicans’ challenge lay in getting a critical mass of northern states on board. The southern states were in some ways easier. Some had already been re-admitted into the Union and had thus already granted equal suffrage to black Americans. As for the others, Congress made ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment a requirement of re-admission into the Union.

Congress had no such leverage over the northern states. Indeed, an interesting dilemma occurred partway through the ratification process. New York ratified the amendment in April 1869, then attempted to rescind its ratification in January 1870. Was a state allowed to do that? The issue became moot when several other states ratified the amendment in quick succession, concluding with Georgia (February 2), Iowa (February 3), Nebraska (February 17), and Texas (February 18). The Secretary of State issued his March 30 proclamation, certifying the results and putting the amendment into effect. New York soon rescinded its own rescission.

On March 30, President Ulysses S. Grant sent a message to Congress. He declared that ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment was “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.”

Frederick Douglass, a leader in the abolitionist movement, agreed. “The revolution wrought in our condition by the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States,” he wrote, “is almost startling, even to me. . . . Henceforth we live in a new world, breathe a new atmosphere, have a new earth beneath and a new sky above us. . . . Equal before the Lord, equal at the ballot-box and in the jury box . . . . We were always men—now we are citizens and men among men.”