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The Fifteenth Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment

by William H. Benson

January 2, 2020

In early Nov. of 1806, an older man climbed out of a coach and hobbled into a post office, in New Rochelle, New York. In Jan. of 1807, he would turn 70 years of age. Four months before, on July 25, he had suffered a stroke and fallen down the stairs in his home, bruising his ribs and legs.

He was a lonely man, without friends. His refusal to bathe himself or wash his clothes, his awful smell, his argumentative personality, his trash-filled home, plus his daily consumption of numerous bottles of brandy drove away his former friends. His name: Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense.

He was acquainted with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe. Prior to the American Revolution, it was he, Thomas Paine, who had first insisted that the American colonies must declare their independence now.

During the Revolution, Washington often looked to Paine for words of encouragement during the darkest of days, and Paine would deliver. He said, “These are the times that try men’s souls. . . . ”

If anyone should have the right to call themselves an American citizen, armed with the right to vote, it was Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers, and a war-time propagandist. Yet . . .

Paine went to the post office that day in order to cast his ballot for candidates running in the New York state and congressional elections. Imagine his surprise when the election supervisor there that day, Elisha Ward, refused to accept Paine’s folded tickets.

“You are not an American Citizen,” Ward explained. Paine replied that that was a lie, that he was a citizen, and he threatened Ward with prosecution and a law suit if he refused Paine his right to vote.

“I will commit you to prison,” Ward said, and called for a constable. Paine stared at Ward, dropped his tickets onto Ward’s table, and then left, but Ward refused to include Paine’s votes in the tally.

This glimpse into the past highlights the thin connection that existed between citizenship and the right to vote, before Congress and the states ratified the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.

Who is a citizen? Who has a right to vote? Those two questions were open to discussion prior to the ratification of those two amendments. The original Constitution excluded men of a different race than whites from voting, as well as all women. Citizenship and voting rights were restricted.

Often, it fell to a supervisor at a local poll to determine who was a citizen and who could vote. Supervisors used poll taxes, literacy tests, property ownership, and threats of imprisonment to prevent certain people from entering a private booth and casting a vote.

The Radical Republicans in Congress in the late 1860’s, in the post-Civil War era, were fierce in their determination to grant the right to vote to the former slaves, now citizens, in the southern states. In other words, the Congressmen intended to enfranchise former slaves.

Congress passed the fifteenth amendment on February 26, 1869, and the necessary number of states ratified it on February 3, 1870.

Section 1 reads: “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 reads: “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The thirteenth amendment outlawed slavery, the fourteenth determined citizenship by birth or naturalization, as well as granted equal protection and due process under the law regardless of race, and the fifteenth ensured all citizens’ right to vote in elections, including the former slaves.

The historian Eric Foner, in his recent book, called the three amendments “a second founding,” and he gave his book the same name, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

Foner points out that the three amendments originated in Congress in the post-Civil War era, when the Radical Republicans controlled Congress during Reconstruction, but it was the fifteenth amendment that granted African-American men for the first time the right to vote.

Thomas Paine passed away on June 8, 1809. Despite his often unpaid labor during the American Revolution, Elisha Ward refused to accept his ballot in 1806. In 1946, 140 years later, the Thomas Paine National Historic Association determined that “Paine became a citizen of the United States at the time of the Declaration of the Independence and retained that citizenship to the date of his death.”