In celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment’s sesquicentennial, let’s start at the beginning and ask a deceptively complicated question: Why did Congress pass the Fifteenth Amendment instead of the Voting Rights Act of 1869?
By the time the Fifteenth Amendment was sent to the States for ratification in early 1869, Congress had already passed legislation enfranchising black men in the District of Columbia, the federal territories, and the Reconstructed South. Blacks, however, remained disenfranchised in several Northern and Border States. Given our current understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment—which had just been ratified—Congress would have been well within its constitutional authority to mandate black suffrage in the States.
One possible explanation is that the Fifteenth Amendment was an entrenchment device. But this narrative only explains why there is an amendment; it does not explain why the Reconstruction Congress did not first pass a Voting Rights Act of 1869.
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