When Did African Americans Get the Right to Vote?

In the aftermath of the civil war, the United States found itself in unknown territory. With the defeat of Confederation, some 4 million black men, women and children enslaved obtained their freedom, an emancipation which will be formalized by the adoption of the 13th amendment to the Constitution.

For black Americans, obtaining all the rights of citizenship – and in particular the right to vote – was essential to guarantee true freedom and self-determination. “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has obtained the ballot,” said Frederick Douglass in May 1865, a month after the Union’s victory at Appomattox.

Presidential reconstruction and black codes

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, the task of rebuilding the Union fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson. A Unionist born in Tennessee, Johnson believed strongly in state rights and was very lenient with white southerners in his reconstruction policy. He asked the old Confederate states to ratify the 13th Amendment and pledge loyalty to the Union, but otherwise gave them complete freedom to restore their post-war governments.

As a result, in 1865-1866 most of the legislatures of the southern states passed restrictive laws called black codes, which strictly regulated the behavior of black citizens and denied them suffrage and other rights.

Radical Republicans in Congress were outraged, arguing that black codes had gone a long way toward re-establishing slavery in everything but the name. In early 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, which sought to build on the 13th Amendment and give black Americans the rights of citizens. When Johnson vetoed the bill, based on opposition to federal action on behalf of ex-slaves, Congress canceled its veto, marking the first time in the history of the country that major legislation became law on a presidential veto.

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