KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee General Assembly voted this week for the second time in its history on the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The first time — in 1870 — the legislature refused to ratify the amendment, which guaranteed black males the right to vote after it was ratified by three-fourths of the states.
This week the legislature reversed itself by voting unanimously in both the Senate and House, to post-ratify the amendment.
Dr. Paul Bergeron, lead researcher on the Presidential Papers Project of Andrew Johnson at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, said Friday the importance of the 1870 vote and this week’s action was primarily symbolic.
“The irony is that three years before the 1870 vote, the state legislature had already passed a state law giving the vote to male blacks,” said Bergeron. “But by 1870 there was a very conservative movement back in power in the legislature and, in a mood of defiance, said, ‘we will not ratify the 15th amendment.’
“But black males were allowed to vote in the state, nonetheless.”
This week’s vote also was symbolic because the required three-fourths of the states long ago ratified the amendment, which became binding on all states, Bergeron said.
The legislature’s latest action caught Bergeron by surprise.
“I was taken aback when I heard this on the news because it never even crossed my mind that Tennessee had never ratified,” he said. “I knew they did not in 1870, but I considered that all a moot point once the required number of states ratified.”
Contact: Dr. Paul Bergeron (423-974-2449)