Road to the Voting Rights Act – Voting Rights from 1789 to 1869

Thomas Kelly print celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment’s passage, 1870 (Library of Congress)

On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act reinforced the Fifteenth Amendment by declaring that the right to vote was not to be abridged on account of racial identity. While the significance of this landmark piece of legislation is noteworthy, the pursuit for equal voting rights had been going on well before the 20th century, even so far as the nation’s founding.

When the U.S. Constitution was made effective in 1789, it made no Federal distinctions for who was eligible to vote. The intention was to have each of the new states determine the specific tenets of voter eligibility as they entered the Union. The most common requirements for voter eligibility was that each prospective voter had to be a white male who owned property of a certain dollar value. Not only did this exclude free African-Americans from voting, but lower-class Whites as well. During the subsequent eras of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy – named for their respective Presidents – populist political movements advocated for the removal of these voter restrictions. These movements proved to be successful, since by the time of the 1828 Presidential Election, the majority of the land-ownership requirements were eliminated from state laws. The final state to remove the property requirement was North Carolina in 1856, just five years before the Civil War began.

The question of race determining voter eligibility had been argued over for just as long as the property requirements were. Certain states went through cycles where the right to vote was granted, removed, and re-granted to ethnic minorities over the course of decades. In company with the intensifying debates over stopping the expansion of slavery and even complete abolition of it, the right for all African-Americans to vote remained a topical issue through the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. By the time the war had ended in 1865, the slaves in the defeated Confederate states were declared free by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. But even with a newly-freed population of over four-million African-American men, women, and children, the future of slavery and citizenship had yet to be determined. On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment – the first of the three “Reconstruction Amendments” – abolished slavery in the United States. Two years later, the Fourteenth Amendment granted full citizenship for all Americans. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to all American men regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The right to vote was now Federally defined, but it would take one-hundred years of historical, social, and political developments for the VRA to universally enshrine it.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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