One of the messiest legislative enterprises in American history reached its climax 150 years ago today when the required three-fourths majority of the states–28 of 37–ratified the Fifteenth Amendment. The episode is so convoluted that, while we credit Iowa with being that 28th state and ratifying on February 3, 1870, state representatives had actually done so in January. And that’s just the beginning of the mess. There was even more confusion if the three-fourths bar had in fact been reached. For one thing two state legistlatures of the former Confederacy–Georgia and Mississippi–had also approved the amendment–even though they had not yet been “reconstructed” and legally brought back into the Federal Union. Needless to say, all this sowed further confusion into the legality of the measure designed to give African-American adult males the vote. Still, it is February 3 which we use by common consensus.
In “Incorporating New York,” my manuscript about Civil War Era & Reconstruction Era New York, I describe the Empire State’s especially tawdry response to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Horatio Seymour had run for the presidency against Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 largely on a platform of resistance to Civil Rights. Grant won that November and just before he assumed office on March 4, 1869, the U.S. House and Senate passed the amendment, on February 25 & 26 respectively to be precise. The New York State legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment on April 14, 1869 over the veto of Governor John T. Hoffman. Then in January 1870 a newly-installed New York legislature reversed the state’s ratification. Is such a thing permissible? It was, and remains, unclear. As it relates to the Fifteenth Amendment however all that became moot the following month when a fully required 28 states had done so. The Harper’s Weekly cartoon we see here is from March 12, 1870. It depicts annoying, but ultimately insignificant, flies representing various holdout states trying to impede the African-American man’s vote. There is only one fly with a human face, and in a great jab on Harper’s part it is that of John T. Hoffman.
Of course the Fifteenth Amendment’s gains proved short-lived. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and other restrictive measures became the law of the land north and south for decades until passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965.