14th and 15th Amendments


The Civil War also had the consequence of injected the qualification of loyalty into American voting. The Reconstruction Act and the state constitutions of most of the former Confederate states disfranchised high-level Confederate military and political leaders as a result of the role they played in the rebellion. These punitive measures removed a few thousand men from the voting rolls in each state under the Reconstruction governments. Following Reconstruction, most of the former Confederates eventually had their voting rights restored, but the idea that loyalty should play a role in who got to vote produced small but significant changes in the franchise. 

Southern Redemption

The period of Reconstruction, as momentous as the changes it saw were, only lasted for about ten years. And even before its legal endpoint in 1877, many of the strides towards civil and political rights for African Americans in the south were coming under attack from whites. White Southerners sought to “redeem” the region from Republican rule, as the saying went, and fought hard legally and socially to quell the rising influence of the freedmen. 

White southerners began by intimidating black voters to stay home from the polls with threats and acts of true violence. Freedmen were menaced, attacked, and in many instances killed for voting across the South. The federal government, still in occupation, did what it could to stop the violence, passing the Enforcement Act in May of 1870, making it a federal offence to interfere with voting. Federal courts would presumably be more reliable in meting out actual punishment than state courts. 

The Enforcement Acts, along with a few other pieces of legislation that put federal machinery behind the 14th and 15th Amendments, allowed sympathetic state and local officials to crack down on the violence and some of the organizations behind it, like the Klu Klux Klan—at least for a time. But within a year or two the violence had escalated again, and the Federal government muster only a weak response. President Grant and Northern Republicans, it seemed, has lost their will to police the South. By September 1875, one Republican newspaper referred to the 14th and 15th Amendment as “dead letters.”

The Lodge Force Bill

In 1890, Republicans in Congress made one last effort to protect the right to vote for African Americans in the South. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts introduced the Federal Elections Bill, a new version of enforcement legislation. It became known as the “Force Bill,” because it would have forced districts in the South to have their electoral procedures approved and supervised by the federal government. 

The Force Bill came quite close to passing Congress, but ultimately failed to receive the necessary support, bringing Congressional efforts to enforce the 15th Amendment to a halt. Once again, by a small margin, the federal government backed away from a significant expansion of its role in shaping electoral law and guaranteeing democratic rights. Congress’s decision in January 1891 signaled to the South that the federal government was not prepared to actively protect the voting rights of blacks. 

Several years later, when Democrats again gained control of both Congress and the presidency, they further distanced the federal government from its involvement in protecting voting rights by repealing the Enforcement Acts of the 1870s. Whatever the 14th and 15th Amendments said on paper, the right to vote had always rested in the hands of the states., and continued to reside there. Not until the 1960s, when the Lodge Force Bill was reincarnated as Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, did Congress again seriously consider federal intervention in southern politics.