1868 marked another turning point in the politics of Reconstruction. It had become apparent that the sanctions built in to the 14th Amendment would not be sufficient to protect African American suffrage. Support for the Republican Party, particularly its more radical elements was declining, and by the next election cycle, the remaining southern states would be readmitted to the Union. It was also clear, given the repeated defeats of black enfranchisement in northern states, that the states could not be counted on to ensure African American suffrage themselves. Accordingly the Republicans in Congress announced shortly after the election of 1868 that they would press forward with a constitutional amendment to enfranchise African Americans. With control of the federal government slipping through the fingers of Republicans and southern opposition to black equality intensifying, something had to be done by the federal government soon to guarantee African American suffrage more permanently.
A Constitutional amendment would be a permanent grant of political rights to African Americans in the South and the North alike. Stronger than an act of Congress, it could not be challenged in the Supreme Court, and would be more efficient than changes to individual state constitutions. And at this crucial juncture, ratification of an amendment seemed possible, since most state legislatures were still in the hands of Republicans.
What exactly would a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote for African Americans look like? Congress took up the question in January and February 1869, and debate raged in both houses—a dramatic and extraordinary discussion that was the first time that the federal government had ever taken up the issue of voting rights directly. Congressmen filled both chambers with impassioned speeches that showed their deeply held convictions. Thy offered carefully nuanced historical and theoretical arguments, and engaged in prolonged parliamentary maneuvering. The debate began with a strategic focus on the rights of African Americans, particularly in the South, but it soon broadened into a far-reaching consideration of the meaning of democracy and the power of the national government.
A much more detailed account of the debates could be told here, but the short version goes like this: two versions of the 15th Amendment were proposed. One was the 15th Amendment as we know it today—a narrow prohibition against passing laws that denied the right to vote on account of race or previous condition of servitude. The other version, which came very close to passing, was a far broader guarantee of suffrage—one that touched on race, religion, ethnicity, and a variety of other factors.
Debate began in the House. The first version was introduced by George S. Boutwell, an influential Massachusetts Republican who had long been a defender of black rights. Its language was simple: “the right of any citizen of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of race, color, or previous condition of slavery of any citizens or class of citizens of the United States.”
Democrats and a few conservative Republicans felt that Boutwell’s amendment infringed upon state sovereignty. Radical Republicans, on the other hand, thought Boutwell’s version was too weak, and that that they could secure the passage of a far more expansive amendment. This was introduced by Ohio Republican Samuel Shellabarger. Shellabarger’s amendment prohibited the states from denying the right to vote to of any adult male of “sound mind,” except those who had engaged in rebellion against the United States. Shellabarger’s version would have ended the restriction of the franchise not only along racial lines, but also ended economic, literacy, and education requirements. In the House, Shellabarger’s amendment was rejected decisively, and Boutwell’s version was passed by a large partisan majority.
It is important to note that both versions of the amendment proposed in the House were phrased negatively—rather than being active conferrals of the right to vote, they simply prevented states from restricting the franchise along certain lines.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, the narrow version, which was similar to the Boutwell version, was introduced by moderate Republican William M. Stewart of Nevada. Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson introduced the broad version of the amendment. Wilson’s amendment prohibited discrimination “among the citizens of the United States in the exercise of the elective franchise of in the right to hold office in any State on account of race, color, nativity, property, education or creed.” Wilson’s version would have permitted qualifications based on age and residence, saving it from some criticism leveled at the broad version in the House.
Wilson and his allies made several strong arguments in favor of a broadly phrased amendment. First and foremost, they predicted (correctly) that a narrow amendment that only prohibited discrimination based on race would be easy to circumvent, and that southern states could disfranchise blacks using mechanisms that were not overtly racial like literacy, tax, or property requirements. Wilson also believed that because it would enfranchise almost all adult males—including immigrants who would support the Democrats in the North—that it stood a good chance of being ratified. Finally, Wilson argued that a universal guarantee of suffrage was the right thing to do—that if African Americans deserved the right to vote, then so did all other men.
Wilson and his supporters embraced the long-feared implication that granting voting rights to one group of people would necessitate granting it to more and more. They argued that to be consistent and to set the matter to rest, once and for all, the franchise indeed should be further extended rather than limited. To be sure, most Republicans remained reluctant to include women in this conversation, but these advocates of a broad constitutional amendment nonetheless were staking out new ground in public debate for the cause of universal suffrage.
Criticism of the Wilson amendment was vocal and bitter. Many Senate Democrats were overtly hostile to enfranchising African American at all. James Doolittle of Wisconsin maintained that African Americans were “incompetent to vote” and that Congress should not try to “enforce this unnatural equality.” James Bayard of Delaware voiced at great length the fear that “conferring political power on an inferior race” would lead both to racial conflict and the destructive comingling of “the negro and the Caucasian.”
The most common argument against the Wilson amendment was not a racial one, but rather a Constitutional one. Several Senators opposed on the grounds that it would produce a “radical and revolutionary” transformation of the relationship between the federal government and the states with regards to the franchise. As Senator James Dixon of Connecticut pointed out, at issue was not simply who voted but “who shall create…the voter.” The Wilson amendment would vest that power in the Federal government and in so doing alter the Constitution while undermining the autonomy and authority of the states. Wilson and other Radicals replied that the “republican guarantee” clause of Article IV already gave the federal government the power to regulate the franchise.
The New York Times weighed in on the question, claiming that Wilson’s proposal “travels over new ground, dictates terms for which the country is not prepared, and goes far toward extinguishing the vital forces of State authority.” Democrats, of course, were broadly committed to preserving the power of the states, but even moderate Republicans, in the Senate and the House, worried that the Wilson amendment would upset the balance of state and federal authority enshrined in the Constitution.
After much lively debate, both houses rejected, approved, and then reconsidered several various different versions of the amendment. When the dust settled, the House preferred language very close to Wilson’s broad version of the amendment, but the Senate wanted an only slightly broader version of the narrow Stewart amendment. After two rounds of voting, the two chambers were now closer to reaching a resolution, and a conference committee was appointed to land on common language.
The language of the bill that came out of the conference committee was shocking—it was very close to Boutwell’s original proposed narrow amendment. It mentioned only a prohibition on race and previous condition of servitude, even though both houses had independently agreed to broader language. It is difficult to understand exactly what happened in the committee and why it ultimately proposed a narrow version, but time was running short—Congress had only a few days remaining in the session, and procedural rules dictated that conference reports be voted up or down, without amendment. Faced with a choice between a narrowly phrased amendment and the possibility of no amendment at all, both houses agreed to the proposed narrow language.
That the Wilson amendment came so close to passage is remarkable. The Civil War and the democratic fervor of Reconstruction had energized the supporters of universal suffrage to the point that they had almost succeeded in not only protecting the voting rights of most men, but in creating a new status quo for how the contours of the franchise would be defined. The extraordinary circumstances surrounding of war inspired broad-based support for the idea of African American suffrage, as well as new thinking about American democracy.
Ratification of the 15th Amendment was far from a done deal, and issues of race, ethnicity, and class figured prominently in the debates throughout the ratification process. Opposition to the amendment was strong in California, for example, where a large Chinese population ignited racial fears and led that state to vote against ratification. Many northeastern states, including Rhode Island, had similar feelings regarding the Irish. The amendment was passed easily only in New England, where blacks already voted, and in the South, where the federal government had compelled black enfranchisement. Ratification of the amendment was also made a condition for readmission for the four southern states that remained outside of the Union.
The debate over ratification was partisan nearly everywhere. Democrats argued that amendment violated state sovereignty and that it threatened democratic values by enfranchising inferior people. The Republicans insisted that African Americans—by virtue of their service during the war and their citizenship, deserved the right to vote. Republicans still controlled a majority of state legislatures, and secured the ratification of enough states for the 15th Amendment to become part of the Constitution in February 1870.
Less than five years after emancipation, Congress and state legislatures had created law that would have been unthinkable in 1860 or even 1865. And in the 14th and 15th Amendments, the words “right to vote” were etched into the Constitution for the first time, announcing a new, active role for the federal government in defending democracy. Yet momentous as these achievements may have been, the limitations of the 15th Amendment were as significant as its contents: the celebrations of the black community would soon prove to be premature, and the unresolved tension between federal and state authorities would evolve for another century.