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From the Serial Set: Residency, Race, and Suffrage

Congress has dealt with issues of voter disenfranchisement on the basis of race throughout history. The question of suffrage for District of Columbia residents in 1844 demonstrated how the enfranchisement of D.C. residents and Black American men was interconnected. In that year, the Senate Committee for the District of Columbia, which held jurisdiction over D.C. from 1816 until 1977, debated a bill (H. R. 437) to extend voting rights – recognized as the “highest political privilege” – to “all free white male citizens of the United States, whether native-born or naturalized, who have attained the age of twenty-one years” living in D.C. (H. Rpt. No. 24, 28th Cong., 2d Sess., at 1 (1844) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 468.)

The elections to which this bill refers are specific to the District of Columbia: “boards of aldermen and common council, and for all other officers that now are, ore hereafter may be, elective by the people under the charter of said city of Washington.” (A Bill to extend the right of suffrage in the city of Washington, H.R. 437, 28th Cong., 2d Sess. (1844).) “The principle so long struggled for, “no taxation without representation,” may have had a large influence in establishing, for a time, the reverse – “no representation without taxation,”” asserting that granting suffrage to inhabitants of D.C. “will rather be that of surprise that it has been so long delayed.” (H. Rpt. No. 24, 28th Cong., 2d Sess., at 2 (1844) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 468.)

A bill extending the right of suffrage in the District of Columbia (H. R. 1)” was introduced by William D. Kelley to the 39th Congress, 1st Session, in 1865, aiming to protect the voting rights of all persons “voting at any election held in the said District on account of color.” Similar to H. R. 437 in 1844, this bill refers to internal District elections. This bill was submitted several years before the ratification of the 14th Amendment (1868) and the 15th Amendment (1870), showing that race was a major factor in suffrage debates in D.C. and throughout the nation. (39th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Report. No. 2 at 1-2 (1865) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. No. 1272.)

In the late 1860s, state legislatures submitted concurrent resolutions in support of this bill. (H. Misc. Doc. 42, 39th Cong., 2d Sess., at 1 (1867) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1302.) Below is the joint resolution of the Michigan state legislature, submitted in 1867, commending the passage of the bill.

Photo of the title page of H. Misc. Doc. 42, "Joint Resolutions of the Legislature of Michigan."

(H. Misc. Doc. 42, 39th Cong., 2d Sess., at 1 (1867) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1302). Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

In 1866, the legislature of Vermont referred to the then-Committee on Reconstruction a resolution that there “ought to be in force [laws] in all of the United States guaranteeing equal impartial suffrage, without respect to color.” (H. Misc. Doc. No. 4, 39th Cong., 2d Sess., at 1 (1866) reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 1302.) This document then inspired a joint resolution, meaning that it contributed to the amending of the nation’s legal framework.

Thus, “An Act to regulate the elective Franchise in the District of Columbia” was passed on January 8th, 1867. This Act extended the right of suffrage to “each and every male person…without any distinction on account of color or race.”

Photo of title page of H. Misc. Doc. 59, "Resolutions of the Legislature of New York."

(H. Misc. Doc. 59, 39th Cong., 2d Sess., at 1 (1867) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 1302). Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

The “President’s veto” mentioned in the Resolutions of the Legislature of New York refers to then-President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the bill. President Johnson’s opinion follows:

“Yesterday, as it were, four millions of persons were held in a condition of slavery that had existed for generations; to day they are freemen, and are assumed by law to be citizens. It cannot be presumed, from their previous condition of servitude, that, as a class, they are as well informed as to the nature of our Government as the intelligent foreigner who makes our land the home of his choice.” (S. Misc. Doc. 53, 49th Cong., 2d Sess., at 326 (1886) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 2451)

Johnson also vetoed the 1866 Civil Rights Act, stating:

“Every individual of [non-white] races born in the United States is by the bill made a citizen of the United States. It does not purport to declare or confer any other right of citizenship other than Federal…[i]t does not purport to give these classes of persons any status as citizens of States…[t]he power to confer the right of State citizenship is just as exclusively with the several States as the power to confer the right of Federal citizenship is with Congress.” (S. Misc. Doc. 53, 49th Cong., 2d Sess., at 297 (1886) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 2451)

Johnson’s statement is reflective of the rationale that would perpetrate disenfranchisement practices operated on a state level, as well as the connection between citizenship and voting rights for D.C. residents and Black Americans.

The “Act to protect all Persons in the United States in their Civil Rights, and furnish the Means of their Vindication” passed in 1866, despite Johnson’s veto, and granted citizenship privileges to Black men in the United States. The text both clarified the rights of citizens and prohibited the denial of any citizen these rights on the basis of race: “[S]uch citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude…shall have the same right….to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, that is enjoyed by white citizens.” (14 Stat. 27, ch. 31, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., at 27 (1866).) Ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment guaranteed constitutional protection of voting rights to citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” thereby enfranchising Black men.

Residents of the District of Columbia were granted voting rights in presidential elections in 1961, with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment. More about D.C.’s history of governance and suffrage can be found here.

During the 1st Session of the 89th Congress, Representative Richard W. Bolling of Missouri introduced H. Res. 440, which would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The goal of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was “to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States” by prohibiting racial discrimination and disenfranchisement in elections. This legislation was monumental in protecting the voting rights of Black Americans on state and local levels. (House Journal. 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 4 January, 1965, 738. reprinted in Serial Set Vol. 12662.)

“For almost a century we have had the 15th amendment, which forbids any State to discriminate in voting on the basis of race or color. That amendment has been allowed to go into desuetude. It must be brought back. That is exactly what the voting rights bill will do-it will put flesh and muscle and sinew on the buried skeleton of this amendment and breathe new life into it.” Emanuel Cellar (NY). “Voting Rights Act of 1965 (H. R. 440).” Congressional Record 111 (1965) p. 15637. (Text from: Digitized Bound Congressional Record 1961-1970).

Tracking both this suffrage story and that of women’s suffrage through the Serial Set brought me a deeper understanding of how bills, laws, and amendments show how histories are interconnected. Stay tuned for the last installment on how the Serial Set pieces together yet another suffrage story!

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