Monday, January 15, 2018

"The Most Important Event . . . Since The Nation Came Into Life"

After his November 1868 election as President, one of U.S. Grant's top priorities was Congressional passage and state ratification of the 15th Amendment, giving the vote to all adult males regardless of race.  Even before his inauguration on March 4, 1869 he urged the new Congress to act, and the House passed the amendment on February 25 by a vote of 144 to 44, with the Senate acting on the following day by a vote of 39 to 13.

Seventeen states ratified within Grant's first four months in office but then the pace slowed.  The President actively lobbied the states to take action, successfully pushing the governor of Nebraska to call a special session of the legislature, writing:
"the earnest desire I have to see a question of such great national importance brought to an early settlement . . ."
Ironically, the state pushing the amendment over the top was the former slave state of Texas, which ratified it in order to be readmitted to the Union as a state.  On March 30, 1870, Congress acted to formally readmit the state and Grant announced ratification.

The President decided that rather than just sending the customary proclamation announcing ratification he would send a special message celebrating its importance, which he did on the same day.

In his message, which reveals the intensity of the President's feelings, Grant refers to the 15th Amendment as "of grander importance than any other one act" since the foundation of the United States.  He also takes a very pointed shot at the Dred Scott decision.  Finally, he stresses the importance of public education in fulfilling the goals of the amendment and he urges white to "withhold no legal privilege of advancement to the new citizen".

Unfortunately, Grant's full aspirations for the amendment were not to be satisfied for a century.  Reconstruction ended with his administration in March 1877, and a resurgent white South imposed Jim Crow thwarting the electoral franchise for black citizens, as well his desires for their education.

It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by proclamation of the Secretary of State, of the ratification of a constitutional amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that "at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect"), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.

Institutions like ours, in which all power is derived directly from the people, must depend mainly upon their intelligence, patriotism, and industry. I call the attention, therefore, of the newly enfranchised race to the importance of their striving in every honorable manner to make themselves worthy of their new privilege. To the race more favored heretofore by our laws I would say, Withhold no legal privilege of advancement to the new citizen.

The framers of our Constitution firmly believed that a republican government could not endure without intelligence and education generally diffused among the people. The Father of his Country, in his Farewell Address, uses this language:

Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

. . . 

I repeat that the adoption of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life. The change will be beneficial in proportion to the heed that is given to the urgent recommendations of Washington. If these recommendations were important then, with a population of but a few millions, how much more important now, with a population of 40,000,000, and increasing in a rapid ratio. I would therefore call upon Congress to take all the means within their constitutional powers to promote and encourage popular education throughout the country, and upon the people everywhere to see to it that all who possess and exercise political rights shall have the opportunity to acquire the knowledge which will make their share in the Government a blessing and not a danger. By such means only can the benefits contemplated by this amendment to the Constitution be secured.
According to Charles W Calhoun's new book on the Grant presidency, at a White House reception that evening the president told the audience:
There has been no event since the close of the war in which I have felt so deep an interest as that of the ratification of the fifteenth amendment . . . It looked to me as the realization of the Declaration of Independence.

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