Guest Essayist: Colin Hanna, President, Let Freedom Ring

Amendment XV

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.

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed by Congress on February 26th 1869, and ratified by the States on February 3rd, 1870.  Although many history books say that it “conferred” or “granted” voting rights to former slaves and anyone else who had been denied voting rights “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” a close reading of the text of the amendment reveals that its actual force was more idealistic.  It basically affirmed that no citizen could rightfully be deprived of the right to vote on the basis of that citizen’s race, color or previous condition of servitude – in other words, that such citizens naturally had the right to vote.  That is how “rights” should work, after all; if something is a right, it does not need to be conferred or granted  and cannot be infringed or denied.

It is worth noting that the Fifteenth Amendment only clarified the voting rights of all male citizens.  States have the power to define who is entitled to vote, and at the time of the signing of the Constitution, that generally meant white male property owners.  The States gradually eliminated the property ownership requirement, and by 1850, almost all white males were able to vote regardless of whether or not they owned property.  A literacy test for voting was first imposed by Connecticut in 1855, and the practice gradually spread to several other States throughout the rest of the 19th Century, but in 1915, the Supreme Curt ruled that literacy tests were in conflict with the Fifteenth Amendment.

Section 2 of the Fifteenth Amendment sets forth the means of enforcing the article: by “appropriate legislation.”  It was not until nearly one hundred years later, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment was sufficiently clarified that no State could erect a barrier such as a literacy test or poll tax that would deny any citizen the right to vote, as a substitute for overtly denying voting rights on the basis of race or ethnicity.  The Civil Rights Act of 1957 had taken a step in that direction, but practices inconsistent with the Fifteenth Amendment remained widespread.  The Nineteenth Amendment. ratified in 1920, had granted women the right to vote.  The only remaining legal barrier to citizens is age, and that barrier was lowered to 18 by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, ratified in 1971.  Many people do not realize that a State could permit its citizens to vote at a lower age than 18, and none has.

The moral inconsistency between a Declaration of Independence that proclaimed that all men (and, by widely accepted implication, all women) were created equal, and a Constitution that tolerated inequality based on race and gender, required more than 150 years to be resolved.  The ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 was one of the major milestones along that long path.

Colin Hanna is the President of Let Freedom Ring, a public policy organization promoting Constitutional government, economic freedom, and traditional values. Let Freedom Ring can be found on the web at

3 replies
  1. Barb Zakszewski
    Barb Zakszewski says:

    I wonder why it too so long for this Nation to recognize the “natural” right of women to vote. This analysis again shows and reminds us that the Constitution was about the States and Citizens clarifying what the Federal Government can do. Very interesting that many states seemed to forget basically what the 10th amendment meant.

    • yguy
      yguy says:

      I wonder why it too so long for this Nation to recognize the “natural” right of women to vote.

      Since suffrage is not a natural (unalienable) right, there was never anything to recognize. Why men saw fit to grant women suffrage is an interesting question, but I’m not aware of any reason to think it was the result of any enlightenment on the part of men.

  2. Joe Short
    Joe Short says:

    Brilliant: “if something is a right, it does not need to be conferred or granted and cannot be infringed or denied.” A great description of what rights are.


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