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 the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
February 3, 1870. Voting rights. Sounds pretty straight forward. So, why did many citizens, descended from freed slave have to wait nearly 100 years before additional voting rights legislation actually gave them the ability to act on this right?
At the beginning of last year’s opening of Congress, the newly elected majority Republican leadership had the congress convene with a reading of the Constitution. They had campaigned on determination to strictly follow this document, which they view as giving them the authority to govern this nation. Interestingly, while holding that the Founding Fathers had it right, they edited out those sections of the Constitution which made references to the right to own slaves. I guess, it is similar to how some read the Bible, attending to those sections that support their beliefs, and skimming past other things, “that were written for another time.”. Where did the Voting Right amendment fit into its time?
Without much calculation, you can see that Article 15, came after Article 14, five years after our Civil War ended. Both of these amendments addressed issued related to freed slaves. Article 14 defined that anyone born in the USA (e.g. all those slave children) would be citizens. Article 15 clarified that anyone defined as a citizen could participate in the political process by voting. But, enacting this legislation would be more difficult than anticipated.
Prior to our Civil War came the Abolitionist movement. This was mostly based out of New England and northern states in the mid-west. This movement, focused on emancipation of slaves, based it ideas on moral philosophy which protested the institution of slavery. Their actions ranged from advocating for legislation which would limit slavery, to assisting with the Underground Railroad to help slaves travel to regions which would provide them with freedom, to advocacy of violent uprisings, such as John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
After our Civil War ended, with the Federal Union intact, a group known as Radical Republicans formed with the intent of setting the legislation that would assure emancipation and participation in government by former slaves. They worked quickly in the years after the war to draft and pass these amendments before the former Confederacy States were re-organized and able to put up any opposition. It is easier to get the necessary majority for an amendment if your opponents are not allowed to be involved the process. Also, the Radical Republican wanted the Voting Rights amendment in place, believing that the freed slaves, who continued to live southern states would vote with the Union, thereby tilting the balance their way. Motor-Voter bill? Hispanic Vote? Gerrymandering anyone?
Well, the former Confederacy states could not do much about these articles, except legislate around them. Don’t touch the race button, but lets add some pole taxes (which former slaves could not afford or would not pay), lets add some literacy requirements, let’s add photo ID’s… oh, wait, that’s today… So the Reconstruction era quickly gave way to Jim Crow laws. A brief flourishing of African American political activity was followed by decades of struggle to meet the ever-changing state requirements to be allowed to vote. Though, let us not just blame the post-Confederacy states for such antics. In the early years of the United States, very few citizens met the criteria for voting: male, landowner, educated.
All of this begs the question of how much our nation is truly based on principles of liberty for all. How much energy have we and do we spend on establishing a set of rules which give some an edge in keeping their comfortable position, while discouraging other from making the effort to meet all those requirements to join the club? Or, you can be like former Speaker of the House Gingrich and just blame the lack of quality leaders on the liberal media (so, what does that say about his leadership skills?)
What do you think about your right to participate in our political process through voting?