Soon, black voters gained majorities in South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi and were able to facilitate Republican plans for Reconstruction. These voters elected many black politicians in the majority states and throughout the South: fourteen black politicians were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and two to the Mississippi State Senate. These new state governments funded the creation of roads, hospitals, prisons, and free public schools.

The Fifteenth Amendment in Perspective

Prior to 1866, most Republicans had opposed black suffrage. Even the “Great Emancipator” himself, Abraham Lincoln, considered giving the right to vote only to blacks who were freedmen before the Civil War and those who had served in the Union Army. Most moderate Republicans saw freedmen suffrage as unnecessary until they realized that the Republican Party would never gain influence in the South unless blacks had the right to vote. Blacks would support the Republican Party en masse, so ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed Republicans this support.

Ironically, the Fifteenth Amendment also forced reluctant northern states to give blacks the right to vote. Even though most of the new postwar state constitutions in the South gave blacks the right to vote, many northern states refused to follow suit, because they considered universal manhood suffrage a solution unique to the South that was unnecessary in the North.

The amendment also granted voting rights to poor whites, especially in the South. Prior to the Civil War, landowners were the only social group who had the privilege to vote, excluding the majority of poor, landless whites from active political participation. The Fifteenth Amendment thus brought sweeping changes for blacks, poor whites, and politics in general in the United States.

Reaction from Suffragettes

The Fifteenth Amendment did not secure the right to vote for all Americans: women still did not have the right to vote, and leaders in the women’s suffrage movement felt betrayed by their exclusion from the amendment. Prior to the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement and the abolition movement had been closely related: both groups strived to achieve political and civil rights for the underrepresented in society.

After the Union victory, prominent women in the movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, saw a window of opportunity: they believed that with progressive, Unionist support in Congress, blacks and women would achieve enfranchisement. Radical Republicans in Congress believed otherwise. Republicans assumed that if Congress granted all men and women the right to vote, their party would lose support in both the South and North. As it turned out, women would have to wait almost fifty more years for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted them the right to vote.

Popular pages: Reconstruction (1865–1877)