15th Amendment Ratified: Voting Rights for ‘Men of Color’
On Feb. 3, 1870, almost five years after the Civil War ended, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing voting rights to male citizens regardless of race, color, or status as former slaves. The wording of the Amendment is simple, consisting of two sections:
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.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
For the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln the great emancipator of the slaves, the Fifteenth Amendment was a political boon, as this article printed by the Annapolis Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland) pointed out in its issue of Feb. 3, 1870—the day the Amendment was ratified:
Now that the Fifteenth Amendment is a part of the Constitution of the United States, and every man without regard to color can vote, it is the important duty of the Republicans to organize for the coming congressional election. In this city on Friday evening last, pursuant to notice, the Republicans held a meeting which was attended by over three hundred white and colored voters.
The following editorial expressing opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment is perhaps not surprising, in that it comes from a Georgia paper, formerly part of the Confederate States of America. Nor is the editorial’s reliance on an argument based on states’ rights surprising. What is surprising, however, is that this Southern editorial is looking to Northern states in anticipation of trouble over the Fifteenth Amendment, pointing out, correctly, that many Northern states still had constitutions that denied men of color the right to vote.
This editorial was printed by the Daily Columbus Enquirer (Columbus, Georgia) on Feb. 4, 1870:
A New Trial at Hand
Heretofore the coercive legislation of Congress has been made to bear directly upon only the so-called rebel States. But the adoption of the 15th Amendment as a part of the Federal Constitution, with the grant of power to Congress to “enforce it by appropriate legislation,” will most probably be followed by direct Congressional interference in the domestic affairs of Northern States. It is hardly presumable that the present Legislatures of New York, New Jersey, California, Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky will pass any laws for the carrying into effect within their States of the 15th Amendment; indeed they cannot do so, for negro suffrage is prohibited in those States by constitutional provisions, which their Legislatures cannot change. Congress, then, must either acquiesce for some time in the exclusion of the negroes from the ballot-box in the States above named, or it must promptly adopt measures for the “enforcement” of the Amendment. That it will not accept the former alternative, the whole history of the Radical [i.e., Republican] party gives sufficient assurance. Indeed, reports from Washington mention an anxiety on the part of Radical Congressmen to have the adoption of the Amendment quickly proclaimed, so that they can immediately pass legislation for the control of the municipal elections in Kentucky, which will occur in March. They gloat over the prospect of carrying the rebel-sympathizing States of Kentucky and Maryland by newly-enfranchised negro voters. This anticipation is probably delusive, but it is said that they will hold a good chance to obtain by this means the control of the principal cities in those States, as the negroes there, as in States farther South, flocked in large numbers to the cities.
But how can Congress “enforce” the Amendment in States whose constitutions and laws do not permit negro suffrage, and whose Legislatures will not or cannot make provision for its observance? We can conceive of no other effective way than by the Federal Government taking the management of the State elections directly into its own hands. This it can no doubt quietly do. Opposition to it would be a measure of resistance that can now hardly be expected of the States. But there will be great difficulty in the “enforcement” of this Amendment, even without any violent conflict between Federal and State authorities. For instance, it is estimated that the Amendment will give the right of suffrage to some ten thousand negroes in the State of New York who are not now allowed to vote by the State Constitution. Now suppose that in one or more counties of that State the negroes thus enfranchised vote with the Radicals and enable them to carry counties otherwise Democratic. The Democrats thus defeated (whether claiming seats in the Legislature or county offices) would contest the election on the ground that the Radicals were only elected by illegal negro votes. A Democratic Legislature might thus be brought to the alternative of violating the Constitution of the State or disregarding the 15th Amendment. And in case it should reject the negro votes, and install the candidates defeated by them, how could Congress then “enforce” the Amendment? Would it take the State Government in hand and “run” it on its own account? Or suppose a Democratic Legislature in Kentucky or Maryland should refuse to recognize municipal governments for the city of Louisville, or the city of Baltimore, elected by Radical and negro voters, on the ground that there are no such voters known to the constitutions of those States or in the charters of the cities named. Would Congress then assume the municipal governments of Baltimore and Louisville and enforce their authority by Federal bayonets? The more we look into this question, the more apparent are the difficulties which Congress has encountered by disturbing the old and harmonious system of non-clashing State and Federal authority, each sovereign in its sphere, and neither grasping at the constitutional or reserved rights of the other. We see nothing ahead, as regards the working of this Amendment, but trouble and conflict, and our conviction is firm that the measures adopted by Congress for its enforcement will arouse a whirlwind of opposition throughout the country, that will not spend its force until it shall have effectually undone some things that have been done by means too questionable to withstand such an ordeal.
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