Today in 1870: The Fifteenth Amendment is ratified

February 3, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryDespite being touted as one of the world’s oldest democracies, the United States doesn’t have a great voting record.

That is, with regards to voting rights, the U.S. has been less than fully inclusive.

At the time of the country’s founding, with rare exception, only white male property holders (i.e. the rich) were allowed to vote.

The struggle for more expansive voting rights wasn’t an easy one, either.

In fact, it was almost 100 years after the nation’s founding until it was illegal to deny a citizen’s right to vote based on race or color.

Moreover, such a reform was only possible due to the suppression of most of the opposition after the U.S. Civil War.

That expansion of voting rights came in the form of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it was ratified 142 years ago today, when Iowa became the 28th state to ratify the Amendment on February 3, 1870.

The text of the Fifteenth Amendment is short and simple:

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.

The second section states that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Perhaps tarnishing this accomplishment in voting rights is the fact that the Amendment is a watered down version of versions originally finalized in the House and Senate.

For example, the original Senate version protected against discrimination not only of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but also of any “previous condition,” either of the citizen himself or his ancestors.

Likewise, the original House version expanded protections prohibited discrimination based on “nativity, property, or creed.”

Neither of these broader versions was used because legislators (accurately) believed they wouldn’t be ratified by the required three-fourths of the states.

Why?

Frankly, because, although states outside of the South were fine with blacks having the right to vote, many states still wanted to discriminate against other groups.

States in the North, such as Connecticut, Massachussetts, and New York, wished to continue discrimination against Irish immigrants, and would never have ratified a constitutional amendment that banned discrimination based on “nativity.”

Similarly, many Western states wanted to continue to discriminate against Chinese immigrants.

For instance, although Nevada was the first state to ratify the Amendment, it was only after assurances from U.S. Senator William Morris Stewart that it didn’t apply to Chinese immigrants, whom the state could continue to discriminate against.

However, the possibility of Chinese suffrage under the Amendment, no matter how slight, was enough for California and Oregon to soundly reject it (Oregon eventually ratified it in 1959, as did California in 1962).

And, even though the watered down version of the Fifteenth Amendment was eventually ratified, several former Confederacy states (Virginia, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia) were required to ratify the Amendment as a precondition to their having congressional representation.

Even after its ratification, most Southern states still found ways to effectively stop blacks from voting, including using literacy tests and grandfather clauses.

It wasn’t until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 – almost 100 years later – that such practices were barred entirely.

Section 5 of the VRA remains contentious even today (see this post for more), and if the recent outbreak of voter ID laws is any indication, deciding who can vote is an ongoing struggle in America.

But, as the passage and ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment has demonstrated, any expansion of voting rights in the U.S. doesn’t come easily.