15th Amendment: Summary, Significance & Facts

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  • 0:00 What was the 15th Amendment?
  • 0:49 Historical Background
  • 1:50 Southern Resistance
  • 2:59 Political Significance
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

No matter their color, most Americans over 18 can register to vote. However, this has not always been the case. In this lesson, you'll learn how the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution altered the profile of the voting booth.

What Was the 15th Amendment?

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was one of three changes made to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War. Collectively, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were known as the Civil War Amendments. The purpose of the 15th Amendment was to ensure that states or communities were not denying men the right to vote simply based on their race. The right to vote is known as suffrage.

The 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870, contained two sections. Section One stated that ''The right of citizens...to vote shall not be denied or abridged...on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.'' Section Two granted the U.S. Congress the power to enforcement through legislation.

Historical Background

Immediately after the Civil War, America needed to rebuild itself both structurally and socially. As the President of the United States, Andrew Johnson led the campaign to obtain the congressional votes needed to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. To be readmitted to the Union, states had to support the amendment.

During the Reconstruction, or the rebuilding of the South, some Southern states still found ways to discriminate against former slaves and limit voting to white men only. For example, Southern states used black codes, which were laws to limit the labor and social rights of former slaves. These limitations on voting were overturned by the 15th Amendment, which President Andrew Johnson unsuccessfully attempted to veto, due to his lenient attitudes towards the former Confederate states and staunch support of state's rights. The term 'veto' refers to the president's constitutional right to reject congressional legislation.

Southern Resistance

Southern states resented the new laws imposed by the Northern states. For instance, members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) terrorized African American men and scared them away from voting. The Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, is the most well-known and oldest hate group in the United States. It was established during Reconstruction.

The KKK also targeted and attacked Republican leaders and white citizens who assisted former slaves in their attempts to vote. Additionally, Southern state legislatures started passing laws to inhibit African American voting.

For example, poll taxes, which charged a fee at the time of voting, kept most former slaves and many poor whites from voting because they could not afford the tax. Literacy tests forced voters to take an exam before being allowed to vote, which former slaves and poor whites could not pass because of their lack of education. The grandfather clause allowed any male to vote as long as his ancestors had voted prior to 1866, which naturally excluded African Americans.

Political Significance

As the last of the Civil War Amendments, the 15th Amendment allowed former slaves to gather and elect people to represent them, at least in theory. While white citizens who had supported the Confederacy lost their right to vote, former slaves gained the right to vote, which helped the Republican Party maintain temporary control of the South after the Civil War.

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