Image courtesy of the National Archives Record Administration
S.J. Res. 8, forbade any state to deprive a citizen of his vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Approved by the 40th Congress (1867–1869) in February 1869 and ratified by the states on February 3, 1870.
On this date, only days before the close of the 40th Congress
(1867–1869), the House of Representatives approved the Fifteenth Amendment declaring that “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 amendment marked the first time in American history that Congress had legislated on the right vote. Eighty years earlier, the Constitution had outlined requirements for holding federal office but had allowed the individual states to determine who could vote. With that power, the states almost universally limited suffrage to white men. After the Civil War, Radical Republicans in Congress approved the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and began debating ways to expand the electorate to ensure that formerly enslaved people could participate in the country’s government. With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment
in 1868, Congress established benchmarks for citizenship and legal protection. Although the amendment threatened to strip federal representation from states that restricted male voting rights, the suffrage provision was often ignored. African-American voting rights were rarely recognized in the North, and in the South local governments conspired with white terror organizations to oppress and murder Black voters and white Southerners who voted Republican. Following horrific violence during the 1868 presidential election—which Republican Ulysses S. Grant won with widespread support among African Americans in the South—Republicans in Congress introduced a number of resolutions to amend the Constitution to protect voting rights. During debate in the House on an early version of the amendment, George Sewel Boutwell
of Massachusetts invoked the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments and challenged Congress to pass the Fifteenth Amendment to complete what he saw as the trifecta of necessary postwar additions to the Constitution. “This measure, as far as I can foresee, is the last of those great measures, and for this reason: if we secure to all the people of the country, without distinction of race or color, the privilege of the elective franchise, we have then established upon the broadest possible basis of republican equality the institutions of the country, both state and national.” Although the final text of the amendment protected male voting rights, it omitted the same guarantees for women and lacked strong enforcement provisions. After being approved by Congress in February 1869, the necessary three-fourths of the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment on February 3, 1870.