Amdt15.1 Fifteenth Amendment: Historical Background

Fifteenth Amendment, 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–

The final decision of Congress not to include anything relating to the right to vote in the Fourteenth Amendment, aside from the provisions of section 2,1 left the issue of Black suffrage solely with the states, and Northern states were generally as loath as Southern to grant the ballot to African Americans, both the newly freed and those who had never been slaves.2 But, in the second session of the 39th Congress, the right to vote was extended to African Americans by statute in the District of Columbia and the territories, and the seceded states as a condition of readmission had to guarantee Black suffrage.3 Following the election of President Grant, the lame duck third session of the Fortieth Congress sent the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the states for ratification. The struggle was intense because Congress was divided into roughly three factions: those who opposed any federal constitutional guarantee of Black suffrage, those who wanted to go beyond a limited guarantee and enact universal male suffrage, including abolition of all educational and property-holding tests, and those who wanted or who were willing to settle for an amendment merely proscribing racial qualifications in determining who could vote under any other standards the states wished to have.4 The latter group ultimately prevailed.


  1.  Jump to essay-1See discussion under Apportionment of Representation, supra. Of course, the Equal Protection Clause has been extensively used by the Court to protect the right to vote. See Fundamental Interests: The Political Process, supra.
  2.  Jump to essay-2W. Gillette, The Right to Vote: Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment 25-28 (1965).
  3.  Jump to essay-3Id. at 29-31; ch. 6, 14 Stat. 375 (1866) (District of Columbia); ch. 15, 14 Stat. 379 (1867) (territories); ch. 36, 14 Stat. 391 (1867) (admission of Nebraska to statehood upon condition of guaranteeing against racial qualifications in voting); ch. 153, 14 Stat. 428 (1867) (First Reconstruction Act).
  4.  Jump to essay-4Gillette, supra, at 46-78. The congressional debate is conveniently collected in 1 B. Schwartz, Statutory History of the United States: Civil Rights 372 (1971).