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February 3, 1870. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, guaranteeing black men the right to vote.
This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.
It’s dusk on July 18th, 1863.
On a beach in South Carolina, a 22-year-old Union soldier named Lewis Henry Douglass grips his rifle. He fixes his eyes on the dark uniform of the man in front of him and begins to march.
Lewis is one of six hundred other soldiers who are currently heading into battle. Their ranks pack tightly together as they traverse the narrow path along the beach between the sea and the treacherous marshlands.
As a breeze whips off the water, Lewis feels the sand blow across his face. He knows that with every step he takes, he is getting closer to danger. But Lewis also feels that the cause he is fighting for is a worthy one.
The American Civil War began two years ago after eleven states left the Union to form a Confederacy dedicated to preserving slavery. The regional conflict was largely a fight between white men, north versus south; until a few months ago, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, which put an end to slavery in the rebel states and fuel the recruitment of Black Americans, including former slaves, to enlist in the fight.
Before July of the previous year, they had been barred from serving in combat at all.
Lewis was born a free man. But he was eager to fight for the rights of former slaves. So in March of 1863, Lewis joined one of the first African-American infantry units in the Union army; the 54th Massachusetts where he rose to the rank of Sergeant Major. Today, he and his unit have been ordered to lead the assault on a Confederate fortress near Charleston, South Carolina.
As Lewis and the rest of the 54th round a headland, they get their first glimpse of the fortress, straddling the beach ahead. It’s protected by a moat and sloping walls of piled sand. The fortifications bristle with enemy rifles and cannons.
From the front of the advancing column, Lewis hears the shout of his commanding officer: “Double quick time – march!”
As Lewis and the others pick up the pace, guns of the fort open fire.
At the Battle of Fort Wagner, as it will come to be called, the Union fails to take the Confederate fortress. Lewis will survive, but nearly half of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry will be killed or wounded in the battle. These brave men fight under an American flag. But as black Americans, they have no vote and no say in choosing the leaders of the very country they serve.
The American Civil War will end in victory for the Union. But in the wake of that victory, a new battle for equality will begin.
Lewis will play a significant role in that struggle. After fighting in the war, Lewis will go on to serve as a teacher for The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or simply The Freedmen’s Bureau; an agency designed to aid and assist newly freed slaves.
And Lewis was not the only one. His passion for the cause is in his blood. He comes from a family of freedom fighters. His father, Frederick Douglass, will lead the campaign to give black Americans the right to vote. And years later, both Douglass will strike a blow for equality when the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution is ratified on February 3rd, 1870.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 3rd: The Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.
It’s May 1865, five years before the Fifteenth Amendment is ratified.
In a church in New York, the American Anti-Slavery Society is gathered for its 32nd annual meeting.
One of the founders of the organization, a white abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison, has just proposed a controversial motion to disband the society. In Garrison’s view, the war is won and slavery is defeated; the society has achieved its intended purpose. It has no more work to do.
But not everyone agrees. Among those speaking most forcefully against Garrison’s motion is 47-year-old writer and activist Frederick Douglass.
Douglass knows the great sacrifices made in the battle to win emancipation and preserve the Union. His son fought in the war, watching friends and comrades die horribly on that beach in South Carolina. But Douglas feels strongly the fight is not yet finished.
Born on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass escaped slavery to become a leader of the movement to abolish the horrific institution. He had been a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society for more than 20 years. And while its stated goals had been met, he knows full well his people’s struggle has not ended.
Douglass’ voice thunders through the church as he explains: “Slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the ballot”. Douglass argues that it isn’t enough simply to end the practice of slavery, not if freedmen are left without a voice or political power. Douglass fires up the crowd saying, slavery “will again turn up some new and hateful guise to curse and destroy this nation.”
In the end, Douglass’ influence carries the day. And Garrison’s motion to disband the society is defeated. Its work will continue.
But extending the vote to black Americans is controversial – and not just in the southern states. By 1865, slavery is defeated. But in many parts of the country, north and south, the ideology of white supremacy remains.
It’s February 7th, 1866. Almost a year since the American Anti-Slavery Society voted to continue its work. At the White House in Washington, a delegation of black Americans has come to see President Andrew Johnson.
Leading the delegation is the abolitionist campaigner Frederick Douglass. As he sits down with the President, Douglass hopes to convince Johnson to back extending the vote to black men across the country. Douglass is a persuasive man, but he knows Johnson will not be easy to convince.
Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s Vice President. And after President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Johnson became the new President and the stark difference between the two leaders became apparent. By the end of the war, Lincoln was an ally to the abolitionist movement. But Johnson is a southern Democrat from Tennessee and a former slave owner. Since taking office, he has demonstrated time and again that he’s no friend to the former slave.
Johnson has ties to many former Confederate leaders in the south and he favors the quick readmission of these rebel states to the Union. This has created friction between Johnson and many members of Congress; especially the progressive “Radical Republicans.”
For years, the Radical Republicans pushed for the eradication of slavery. Now, in the wake of victory, they do not want to quickly readmit the defeated southern states. Instead, they wish to impose strict conditions on the south, and safeguard the treatment of former slaves, before any of these states can be fully integrated back into the Union. Additionally, the Radical Republicans want federal civil rights guaranteed for all black men, including the right to vote; something Johnson vehemently opposes.
He insists that as it relates to the former slaves, individual states should have the right to administer their affairs as they wish. And as a result, all across the south, the same men who ruled before the Civil War are ruling now. Slavery is gone, but the leaders of the Southern states replace it with restrictive laws that will come to be called “the Black Codes”; laws designed to limit the freedom of black Americans and maintain the supremacy of whites.
But Frederick Douglass is undeterred. During the meeting at the White House, Douglass launches into an impassioned appeal. He tells President Johnson: “the fact that we are the subjects of Government… subject to taxation… subject to being drafted… [and] subject to bear the burdens of the State… makes it not improper that we should ask to share in the privileges of this condition.”
Frederick Douglas wants the vote for black Americans. Johnson’s face pinches in disdain. The President fires back at Douglass saying the black vote will ignite a race war in the country. He refuses to offer his support saying he continues to believe it’s the responsibility of the individual states, and not the federal government, to decide matters of voter eligibility.
After the meeting, it’s clear to Douglass and the rest of the delegation that they will receive no support from Andrew Johnson’s White House. But Johnson will not be President forever. In 1868, the nation will hold its first presidential election since the war’s end. The outcome of that contest will give Frederick Douglass an opportunity.
It’s August 1868, two years before the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.
In New York, Frederick Douglass stands in front of a large crowd that has gathered to hear him speak. America is in the middle of a heated presidential campaign. Douglass is crisscrossing the country in support of the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant. As Commanding General, Grant led the Union Army to victory in the Civil War three years ago. Now he’s running for president on a simple campaign message: “let us have peace.”
The 1868 election is the first in which black Americans can vote in many of the former Confederate states where they were once enslaved. In many respects, Congress won the power struggle with President Johnson, passing laws designed to protect the rights of black Americans, including the recently passed 14th amendment, which granted citizenship rights to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States”, including former slaves. But in the south, there is still violent resistance to this new paradigm.
Douglass is campaigning for Grant because his opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, is an affirmed bigot. The Democratic party’s slogan for Seymour’s campaign gets to the heart of what’s at stake in the 1868 contest: “This is a White Man's Country, Let White Men Rule". If Seymour wins, the freedoms so dearly bought with blood in the Civil War will be under threat once again.
As he launches into his speech in front of his New York audiences, Douglass uses all his power as an energetic and persuasive orator. He explains that though the Confederacy has been defeated on the battlefield, their cause lives on. And so must the fight against it.
He accuses Democrat Horatio Seymour of “feeding the rebel imagination with a prospect of regaining through politics what they lost by the sword”. To wild applause, Douglass ends his speech with the cry: “Our work now is to elect Grant — and that by a vote so pronounced and overwhelming as to extinguish every ray of hope to the rebel cause.”
But the rebel cause is growing, and the rise of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is evidence. In the leadup to the 1868 election, the Klan terrorizes black Americans all across the south in an effort to keep them away from the polls. But on election day, in the face of widespread violence and intimidation, hundreds of thousands of black Americans show up and cast their ballots for Ulysses S Grant.
Thanks to these voters, Grant wins by a margin of three hundred thousand popular votes. But despite Grant’s victory, the country remains divided, and the rights of black Americans are far from secure.
It’s spring 1869, a few weeks after Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration.
In Rochester, New York, Frederick Douglass knocks on the door of his neighbor, a women’s rights activist named Susan B. Anthony. The two social reformers have known each other for many years. Douglass hopes to convince Anthony to join him in his continued fight for equality.
Thanks to the relentless efforts of men like Douglass, at the end of February, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which grants black men the right to vote. But in accordance with the constitution, Amendments proposed by Congress only become valid when they’re ratified by three-fourths of the states. So Douglass is crisscrossing the country once again, building support for ratification.
Today, he hopes to win over Susan B. Anthony. Over the years, the two change makers have bonded through their shared desire to extend the vote beyond the narrow clutches of white men.
Anthony invites Douglass to sit with her in the backyard for a cup of tea. But despite the convivial gesture, the Fifteenth Amendment has driven a wedge between the two allies. And soon, their conversation turns adversarial.
Anthony cannot see how it’s fair that black men will get the vote while women are still excluded. She explains that she will never support any measure that bestows Constitutional authority on the idea that men are superior to women.
Douglass wants women to have the right to vote, too. Years back, he and Anthony co-founded the American Equal Rights Association, an organization that demanded universal suffrage. But Douglass also believes that if the Fifteenth Amendment does not go forward now, while President Grant is in office, it may never happen. He implores her to join him in supporting the amendment. But Anthony refuses.
Their disagreement will spill over into the wider voting rights movement. Those campaigning for women's suffrage will be split into two camps, some supporting the Fifteenth Amendment and others standing against it.
Douglass is disappointed not to earn Anthony’s support, but he also knows she is not his true enemy. All across the country, the real forces of opposition are mounting. But Douglass is determined to achieve victory and see the 15th Amendment officially become the law of the land.
It’s February 3rd, 1870.
After months of tireless campaigning across America, the abolitionist writer and activist Frederick Douglass finally breathes a sigh of relief.
He’s just received news that the state of Iowa has approved the 15th Amendment, securing its ratification with the required three-quarters majority. Douglass is victorious. The right to vote for black men is now enshrined in the Constitution. But still, his work is just beginning.
Not long after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Douglass turns his attention, and his considerable talents of persuasion, to securing universal voting rights for all Americans – including women. Reconciling with his old friend, the social reformer Susan B. Anthony, Douglass returns to the work at hand. He will support a new amendment to enfranchise women. But that amendment will never come to fruition in his lifetime. Douglass will die in Washington D.C. in 1895. And it will be another 25 years before the Nineteenth Amendment is ratified, granting women the vote.
But even the Fifteenth Amendment did not prove the complete victory for black Americans that Douglass hoped, either. Douglass understood that amendments alone are of little practical value without adequate enforcement. Over the last decades of his life, he watched in horror as the southern states continued to chip away at the rights he fought so hard to achieve. With the federal government unwilling to enforce the 15th Amendment, the former Confederate states had free rein to suppress the right of black men to vote and maintain what many called “slavery without the chains.”
In a speech he made in 1880, Douglass said: “The right to vote, provided for in the fifteenth amendment, is literally stamped out…. [The government] gave freedmen the machinery of liberty but denied them the steam to put it in motion. They gave them the uniform of soldiers, but no arms; they called them citizens, and left them subjects; they called them free, and almost left them slaves.”
The segregation of the resulting Jim Crow era will not truly be challenged until the 1950s and 60s. But any social progress that exists today would have been impossible without Frederick Douglass’ efforts to promote the 15th Amendment, which was ratified today: February 3rd, 1870.
Next on History Daily.February 4th, 1974. Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst is kidnapped by a terrorist group called the Symbionese Liberation Army.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.