The Coming of the Fifteenth Amendment: the Republican Party and the Right to Vote in the Early Reconstruction Era

52 Pages Posted: 24 Jan 2019

See all articles by Earl Maltz

Earl Maltz

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School

Date Written: January 17, 2019

Abstract

The year 2019 marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of one of the most significant moments in American constitutional history. On February, 25, 1869, more than two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives approved the proposed Fifteenth Amendment. The next day, the Senate followed suit, and the proposed amendment was sent to the state legislatures for ratification. After being ratified by the requisite number of states, the Fifteenth Amendment became the last of the three Reconstruction amendments that fundamentally transformed both the structure of the Constitution and the nature of American federalism.

The Fifteenth Amendment differed from its predecessors in a number of important ways. First, it was the only one of the Reconstruction amendments and remains the only part of the entire Constitution to focus explicitly on race. In addition, the amendment became the first provision of the Constitution to limit the power of the state governments to establish the qualifications for voters in elections for state office, providing that “[t]he right of citizens…to vote…shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and also vesting Congress with the authority to enforce this command by adopting “appropriate legislation.” Thus, among other things, the Fifteenth Amendment provided the most plausible source of congressional authority for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—a statute which was and continues to be, by any standard, one of the most important civil rights measures ever adopted by Congress.

Nonetheless, unlike the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, legal scholars have shown little or no interest in exploring the background of the Fifteenth Amendment. This article is the first to describe both the sequence of events that led to the passage and ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the forces that shaped the amendment itself.

Keywords: fifteenth amendment, reconstruction amendments, voting rights, constitutional history

JEL Classification: Y90

Suggested Citation

Maltz, Earl, The Coming of the Fifteenth Amendment: the Republican Party and the Right to Vote in the Early Reconstruction Era (January 17, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3317813 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3317813

Earl Maltz (Contact Author)

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - Rutgers Law School ( email )

NJ
United States

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