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Our Rich History: The 15th Amendment — politics and racism polarized Americans



By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

(Part 1 of two parts. In honor of Black History Month, we offer this encore column that originally appeared in Our Rich History on February 25, 2019.)

Today, as we look back upon the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction following it, it may be difficult for us to contemplate an era when polarization was deeper and more prevalent than currently. But it was. We’ll never really know the extent of the carnage, but estimates of Civil War dead range from 630,000 to 700,000, including soldiers and civilians.

During the course of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederate States only. The 13th Amendment would free enslaved Americans throughout the rest of the nation, including “border states” like Kentucky. The 14th Amendment would grant all those born or naturalized in the United States (including emancipated blacks) citizenship, due process of law, and equal protection of the laws.

John Sherman of Ohio. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In 1869–1870, during the presidency of Ohio-born Ulysses S. Grant, Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and the nation watched and waited as the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution worked its way through state legislatures for passage. Like all amendments, it would require that three-fourths of the states approve. Finally adopted in 1870, the 15th Amendment guaranteed that “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.”

As devastating as the Civil War had been, however, it did little to heal the fractures and fissures in American society. Racism still prevailed. While many white Americans may have been ready to emancipate enslaved blacks, they were not yet convinced that they should exercise all the rights of whites. Sadly, this was true of many citizens of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana as well.

Racism varied widely. Some whites regarded blacks as their equals, but believed that years of education would be necessary to prepare African Americans for the full benefits of citizenship, including voting. Others, of course, were not yet convinced that blacks were equal. Still others worried that a black electorate would prove vindictive, especially in areas where the African-American population outnumbered whites. Some whites feared that blacks would compete with them for jobs, and still others contended that intermarriage between the races would follow on the heels of equality. Finally, the political environment itself remained as polarized as ever, with Republicans and Democrats voicing vastly different views on race and the right to vote.

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune was a newspaper with Republican editorial leanings.

Opposition to the 15th Amendment took many forms. Democrats feared that blacks would overwhelmingly vote Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, already in 1869, opponents of the amendment were making public statements that if ratification occurred, its effects could be minimized by literacy or property qualifications.

By early April 1869, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, a newspaper with Republican editorial leanings, reported that twelve states had ratified the 15th Amendment. However, the uphill battle for ratification ahead was still steep. Democrats in many states, including Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, were generally in opposition to the amendment, as the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune often reminded its readers.

Others regarded that any attempt to thwart the 15th Amendment, once ratified, would constitute “war against the United States” and would not be undertaken, as the Louisville Courier-Journal noted in July 1869. Nevertheless, the Courier-Journal was not enthusiastic about blacks voting. Rather, it was simply resigned to the fact that ratification of the 15th Amendment appeared a foregone conclusion:

“There is a certainty that the elections of the coming fall will be the last that will ever take place in Kentucky with negro suffrage excluded. This is a fact that we had better look squarely in the face, much as we may loathe its visage,” (”A Plain Consideration or Two Plainly Presented,” Louisville Courier-Journal, July 14, 1869, p. 2).

Other politicians argued that the U.S. Congress had overstepped its constitutional authority. This group maintained that the issue of suffrage was the prerogative of the states, and not of the federal government. These politicians claimed that the states had typically established their own qualifications for voting. If suffrage for blacks were to be granted, they claimed, a state’s voters—not its legislature—should decide so. In fact, Ohio had held a plebiscite on the issue of black suffrage in 1867. The results were not surprising, as white male voters voted against the extension of the franchise to African Americans.

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune disagreed that Congress was overstepping its powers. The editor affirmed that “Congress, in proposing the Amendment and the method of its ratification, has followed literally the directions given in the Constitution itself. If our people will pause to consider these things, they will perceive that the hue and cry of unconstitutionality is sheer nonsense, and that they are, as they always have been, the masters of the situation” (Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, August 31, 1869, p. 4).

In August 1869, U.S. Senator John Sherman (1823–1900) of Ohio, brother of U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman, addressed a meeting of Republicans in Canton, Ohio. He strongly supported the ratification of the 15th Amendment, successfully attacking the many reasons raised in opposition to it. First, he proclaimed that the American right to vote was “designed to protect minorities,” a hallmark of the United States’ constitutional form of government. Second, he denied that blacks were to be feared, but rather the complete opposite. “On the contrary,” Sherman acclaimed, “if there is any peculiarity in their race, it is their patience under wrong.”

Were African Americans uneducated? Of course, Sherman admitted, “but what race under heaven would not be ignorant under the ostracism they have suffered, but they are now seeking and acquiring knowledge with the assiduity we always seek what is denied to us.” Would blacks take jobs away from whites? No, Sherman attested, “There is work enough, and to spare, for all. Never was labor better rewarded than now” (“Ohio Politics. Speech of Senator Sherman,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, August 16, 1869, p. 8).

Sherman was clear in his position, as he eloquently exclaimed: “There have been many grounds of exclusion from political rights by governments in old and recent times—age, sex, nativity, property, education, birth, have been the grounds of exclusion; but this boasted Republic of ours, founded upon generous principles of liberty and equality, was the first to make the exclusion depend upon the mere color of a man’s skin. Gentleman, there is no reason, logic, or experience to justify it. It is the last relic of slavery, and should be swept away with slavery. We owe it to our consistency as a party; we owe it to the generous principles that have animated us in a great struggle, not to cease our efforts until the Constitution secures to every man equality in rights and privileges” (“Ohio Politics. Speech of Senator Sherman,” Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, August 16, 1869, p. 8).

(Part 2 — Continued next week)

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He also serves as Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment), premiering in Summer 2024. ORVILLE is now recruiting authors for entries on all aspects of innovation in the Ohio River Watershed including: Cincinnati (OH) and Northern Kentucky; Ashland, Lexington, Louisville, Maysville, Owensboro and Paducah (KY); Columbus, Dayton, Marietta, Portsmouth, and Steubenville (OH); Evansville, Madison and Indianapolis (IN), Pittsburgh (PA), Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, and Wheeling (WV), Cairo (IL), and Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville (TN). If you would like to be involved in ORVILLE, please contact Paul Tenkotte at

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