Citizens at Last: Winning the Fifteenth Amendment

African-American Kansas volunteers

Nobody “gave” African-Americans the right to vote.  They won it for themselves, largely through the tireless advocacy of the black veterans who had helped to win the Civil War for the Union.

This is the central argument of Christian Samito’s book, Becoming Americans Under Fire.  Samito traces their slow progress towards full citizenship, and the recognition of their full humanity by at least some part of the white population.

In 1862 the first African-Americans were allowed to enlist in the Union army, and 178,000 of them ultimately served. The military experience was transformational.  In their blue uniforms, shouldering the rifles they had never before been allowed to carry, they could experience themselves for the first time as men, rather than as slaves or “boys.” The exhilaration of that experience rings out again and again in the speeches, songs, and writings of African-American soldiers who fought in the Union army. In the words of one such song,

They look like men, they look like men, they look like men of war.

All arm’d and dressed in uniform, they look like men of war.”

Equally thrilling was the experience of being treated equally in the process of military justice, although it is not clear that this ideal was always realized.  Schools were also established, to give black soldiers the reading skills they would need to become non-commissioned officers. By 1864, they had finally won the right to be paid equally with whites.

The confidence and self-esteem they had gained through their military service gave strength to the black veterans’ post-war demands for full citizenship. Again, progress was slow.  Neither the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, nor the combined Civil Rights Act and 14th Amendment, passed in 1866, which defined the rights of United States citizens and prohibited states from infringing them, included among their provisions the right to vote.  By 1867, several states—including Kansas, which was so proud of its Free Soil history—had actually passed laws prohibiting African-Americans from voting.

It was was not until 1870—after black southern voters, enfranchised by the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, had ensured the election of Ulysses S. Grant—that northern Republicans finally realized where their interests lay, and ratified the 15th Amendment.  In doing so, Samito argues, they “reimagined” America: a nation, not a union, whose national government had the power and the responsibility of protecting the rights of all its citizens.

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