ENTRY

Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

SUMMARY

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on February 3, 1870, and granted the right to vote to African American men. It was the third of three amendments adopted during Reconstruction that profoundly altered American society, government, and politics. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished and prohibited slavery in the wake of the American Civil War (1861–1865), was ratified in December 1865, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined citizenship and guaranteed the rights of citizens, was ratified in July 1868. Specifically, the Fifteenth Amendment prevented the federal and state governments from using race or former servitude as an excuse not to allow its citizens to vote. At the time of the amendment’s ratification in 1870, African Americans had already legally voted in Virginia, but during the next generation, with the use of a poll tax and other methods, that right would be chipped away. In 1901–1902, delegates to the state constitutional convention openly debated the best way to disfranchise blacks while not technically violating the Fifteenth Amendment. They largely succeeded and black voting rights were not fully restored until the 1960s.

Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment contains two short sections. The first prohibits the government of the United States or of any state to deny any male citizen the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The second section grants Congress enforcement power.

Ratification

Electioneering at the South.

The defeat of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery in 1865 left many unanswered questions about the newly freed population. Among those questions was whether they should be allowed to vote, then regarded as one of the essential rights of citizenship for American men. Very few states at the time allowed African American men to vote, but President Abraham Lincoln and some other national leaders came to believe that men who had fought in the United States Army and Navy during the war had earned that right of citizenship. As part of the overall plan that Republican Party leaders in Congress developed after the war to guarantee that freedom from slavery could become genuine freedom, not merely an absence of slavery, Congress submitted the proposed constitutional amendment to the states on February 26, 1869. It granted African American men the right to vote by prohibiting the states from denying the vote to any citizen because of race, skin color, or having once been held in slavery.

Because Virginia had been a Confederate state and had not yet been fully reinstated to the Union, no Virginians served in Congress when it submitted the amendment to the states. Following the end of the Civil War, the Senate and House of Representatives placed the states of the former Confederacy (except Tennessee but including Virginia, part of which had remained one of the United States during the war) under military rule and refused to seat any men elected to either house of Congress from those states.

Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868

  • Poll Book Listing "Colored" Voters in 1867
    Poll Book Listing Colored" Voters in 1867"""

    A Reconstruction–era poll book from Virginia lists the names of the African Americans from the Third Congressional District, in Southampton County, who cast their votes in the October 22, 1867, election "for and against a [constitutional] Convention and for a delegate to the same." The U.S. Army, which oversaw the election, demanded separate poll lists and voting results for black and white citizens. Nearly 98 percent of eligible African American males voted in the county, while only 56 percent of eligible white voters participated. County voters overwhelmingly approved the convention—1,262 (1,242 African Americans and 20 whites) to 612 (all whites).

  • The State Convention At Richmond
    The State Convention At Richmond, VA., In Session

    An engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, published on February 15, 1868, depicts a working session of the constitutional convention that met in Richmond from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868. In the statewide election of delegates, African American males successfully voted for the first time; about two dozen black delegates were elected. Radical Republicans sympathetic to African American interests dominated the convention. On the final day of the convention the delegates approved a new constitution, which included among its reforms universal manhood suffrage, the establishment of a public school system, and more elective local offices. On July 6, 1869, voters ratified the constitution but rejected two clauses that would have disfranchised many Virginians who had supported the Confederacy.

    Citation: Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, AP2 .L42, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

  • Voting for Richmond Delegates to the Convention of 1867—1868
    Voting for Richmond Delegates to the Convention of 1867–1868

    This chart shows the voting breakdown in Richmond for delegates to the Convention of 1867–1868. The slate of five Republican candidates—two African American Radicals and three white men—won the election by securing almost all of the black vote. Compiled by the Richmond Dispatch on October 30, 1867, the chart was published in Richard Lee Morton's The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1865–1902 (1919). Morton noted that 5,382 white voters were registered, compared to 6,284 black voters, leading to "a contest … between the white race and the black race."  

    Citation: The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1865–1902, E185.93 .V8 M8 1919, Special Collections, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.

  • Richmond Radical Republicans at the Convention of 1867—1868
    Richmond Radical Republicans at the Convention of 1867–1868

    A political cartoon in the Southern Opinion, published on December 7, 1867, mocks the slate of Radical Republicans elected from Richmond to the Convention of 1867–1868, which was then in session. Delegate Lewis Lindsey, a former slave and a professional bandleader, is depicted blowing a horn and dancing barefoot on the "Constitution of District 1." Flanking Lindsey are (at left) James Morrisey, an Irish grocer who clutches a jug of liquor, and the Reverend James Hunnicutt, a Baptist preacher. Joseph Cox, the other African American delegate representing Richmond, stands in back. The satirical caption notes that the fifth delegate, the white judge John Underwood, "has repaired to Morrisey's grocery to get another 'horn'—stimulants having run low."

African American men had voted in Virginia for the first time sixteen months before Congress passed the amendment and twenty-eight months before it became part of the Constitution. In 1867, Congress required that all the states of the former Confederacy hold conventions and write new constitutions. On October 22, 1867, the United States Army conducted an election in Virginia to authorize the convention and to elect members. The army allowed African American men to vote in that election. Most of them were former slaves, but some had been born free or had been freed before emancipation. Twenty-four African Americans won election to the convention, which drafted a new state constitution. Among other things, it created the first statewide system of free public schools in Virginia. The suffrage article of the new constitution guaranteed the right to vote to “Every male citizen of the United States, twenty-one years old,” except men who had fought in the Confederate army.

President Ulysses S. Grant

The disfranchisement of former Confederates was the most controversial part of the new constitution and it delayed the scheduled 1868 ratification referendum. Eventually, a group of men known as the Committee of Nine worked out a compromise with President Ulysses S. Grant that authorized separate voting on the section that disfranchised former Confederates. On July 6, 1869, in the second election in which African Americans voted in Virginia, the voters approved the new constitution and rejected the disfranchisement section. On that same day, voters elected statewide officers and members of a new assembly.

On the fourth day of its next session, the General Assembly ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, making Virginia the eighteenth state to do so. Both houses of the General Assembly ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments on October 8, 1869. The vote on the Fifteenth Amendment was 132 to 0 in the House of Delegates and 40 to 2 in the Senate of Virginia. All twenty-one of the twenty-three African American members of the House of Delegates who were present voted for it; one of the six African American senators, Isaiah L. Lyons, voted against it. The Fifteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on February 3, 1870, when the legislature of Iowa was the twenty-eighth state to ratify it.

Virginia’s ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and enfranchisement of African Americans in the new state constitution ended Congressional Reconstruction in the state. Congress passed a bill that the president signed on January 26, 1870, permitting Virginia’s senators and elected representatives to take their seats in Congress.

Application

Many white Virginians disapproved of black men voting. In 1876 a majority of Virginia’s voters, who were white men, ratified a constitutional amendment requiring pre-payment of a poll tax for men who wished to vote. The tax reduced the number of African Americans who were able to vote during the remainder of the decade. At the end of the 1870s, a biracial coalition known as the Readjuster Party gained control of both houses of the General Assembly and two years later elected a governor. The Readjusters then repealed the poll tax. After Democrats regained control of the assembly and the governorship in the mid-1880s, they adopted new laws governing the conduct of elections that made it increasingly difficult for black men to vote in Virginia.

Constitutional Convention of 1900–1901

  • No White Man to Lose His Vote in Virginia.
    No White Man to Lose His Vote in Virginia.

    In this 1901 broadside, Democratic leaders reassure white men in Virginia that proposed amendments to the state constitution will not strip them of their voting rights. The Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902 produced the Constitution of 1902 and is an important example of post-Reconstruction efforts to restore white supremacy in the American South by disfranchising large numbers of blacks. The convention was dominated by Democrats, including state party chairman, J. Taylor Ellyson; the convention's president, John Goode; and the party's gubernatorial candidate, Andrew J. Montague, all of whom are quoted here. Goode emphasized that the party "is pledged in its platform to eliminate the ignorant and worthless negro as a factor from the politics of this State without taking the right of suffrage from a single white man." Despite such assurances, many working-class whites were effectively disfranchised by the Constitution of 1902.

  • Members and Officers of The Constitutional Convention of Virginia
    Members and Officers of The Constitutional Convention of Virginia, Richmond—1901–'2

    Individual portraits of the 100 delegates elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902, the administrative staff for the convention, and members of the press covering the proceedings are arrayed around a photograph of the State Capitol in Richmond. This grouping was created by Foster's Photographic Gallery, which faced Capitol Square.

  • The Constitutional Convention. Help Save Our Public Schools.
    The Constitutional Convention. Help Save Our Public Schools.

    A broadside produced by the Negro Educational and Industrial Association of Virginia urges citizens to attend a meeting at Richmond's Mount Zion Baptist Church on May 3, 1901, to discuss "the saving of our public schools and other matters of grave importance to be brought before the Constitutional Convention" of 1901–1902. The constitution that emerged from the convention effectively disfranchised most black voters and reaffirmed segregated public schooling. For decades after, there was an increasingly wide gap between expenditures for white and black schools in Virginia.

  • Virginia Constitutional Convention 1901—1902
    Virginia Constitutional Convention 1901–1902

    This is the leather cover of a volume of photographs featuring the delegates to and officials of Virginia's Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902. The book features 111 portraits made by Foster's Photographic Gallery in Richmond. The name of Hill Carter, who represented Hanover County at the convention, is embossed on the bottom half of the cover; this book likely belonged to him.

In 1901–1902 another state constitutional convention provided a legal framework that enabled the General Assembly to disfranchise about 90 percent of otherwise eligible African American voters through complex voter registration laws and a new poll tax. That constitution and those laws did not technically violate the Fifteenth Amendment, which merely prohibited states from denying citizens the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The severe restrictions on voter registration that went into place at the beginning of the twentieth century disfranchised black men for reasons other than race, even though that was the intent of the white men who adopted them. Those restrictions also disfranchised a large number of white Virginia men.

Registering and voting remained difficult for African Americans in Virginia until ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1964, passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections in 1966 removed most of the barriers.

MAP
TIMELINE
March 2, 1867
The U.S. Congress requires that the legislature of each state in the former Confederacy ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before its senators and elected representatives can be seated in Congress.
October 22, 1867
The U.S. Army conducts an election in Virginia to authorize a state constitutional convention and to elect delegates. The army allows African American men to vote in the election.
February 25, 1869
The U.S. House of Representatives approves the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
February 26, 1869
The U.S. Senate approves the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
July 6, 1869
Voters ratify a new state constitution, often called the Underwood Constitution, rejecting separate provisions that would have disfranchised men who had held civil or military office under the Confederacy. The new constitution supplants the former one, proclaimed on April 7, 1864.
October 8, 1869
Both houses of the General Assembly of Virginia ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
January 26, 1870
The U.S. Congress passes an act permitting Virginia's senators and elected representatives to take their seats in Congress. This ends Congressional Reconstruction in Virginia.
February 3, 1870
Iowa becomes the twenty-eighth state to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, completing the ratification process.
1876
Democrats devoted to white supremacy amend the state constitution to make payment of the poll tax a prerequisite for voting, hoping to disfranchise some black voters.
1902
Provisions of the newly passed Virginia Constitution effectively deny suffrage to most of Virginia's African American men and to about half of the white men who had voted before it was passed.
January 23, 1964
South Dakota becomes the thirty-eighth state to ratify the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, completing the ratification process.
May 1964
Evelyn Thomas Butts's case charging that the poll tax is unconstitutional is dismissed for failure to prosecute the case with due diligence.
November 12, 1964
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia decides Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, upholding the constitutionality of the poll tax.
August 6, 1965
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law. It prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
March 24, 1966
In the case of Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the poll tax is unconstitutional.
February 25, 1977
Both houses of the General Assembly of Virginia ratify the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing poll taxes.
FURTHER READING
  • Lowe, Richard G. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–70. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
  • Foner, Eric. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Random House, 2013.
  • Tarter, Brent. The Grandees of Government: The Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (2020, December 14). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/fifteenth-amendment-to-the-u-s-constitution.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (14 Dec. 2020). Web. 26 Jul. 2021
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