December 2, 2000
There are three Reconstruction Amendments, which were passed in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The first Reconstruction Amendment was the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed the slaves. The second was the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave black people citizenship. That one got through only by open cheating.
The last Reconstruction Amendment, and by far the hardest to shove and cheat its way through, was the Fifteenth, which gave blacks the vote.
As the presidential election went to the courts, there arose a chorus of people who say that voting “is the most basic right of every American citizen.” One of the LAWYERS who is arguing the Bush case before the United States Supreme Court said that “VOTING IS A FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHT.” He said that you have as much right to vote as you do to practice your religion, or to free speech.
To repeat, the Fourteenth Amendment gave black people CITIZENSHIP. But it took a real fight to get through the Fifteenth, which gave blacks the VOTE. A lot of people who supported black citizenship did not want all non-whites to be given the vote. This was especially the case in California, with its huge Oriental minority.
In fact, a groundbreaking Federal Court decision was necessary to save the Fourteenth Amendment. It barely squeaked by, cheating and all. Before it was passed, California actually rescinded its ratification. If that had been allowed, the amendment would have failed.
What happened was that Californians suddenly noticed that there was no reference to “black people” in the new amendment. It not only gave Southern blacks citizenship, but it also gave the same rights to Orientals! California tried to pull back its ratification when it realized that the Fourteenth Amendment gave Orientals NON-VOTING citizenship.
California would never have touched the Fourteenth Amendment if they had thought from the beginning that it gave Chinese immigrants the VOTE. In other words, if the people who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment had thought that voting was the right of every citizen, it would never have gotten into the Constitution.
As it was, in order to save the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court had to rule that no state could back out once it had ratified an amendment.
But when the fight over giving blacks the vote came up, they were already citizens. It never occurred to anybody that they therefore had the right to vote.
Nowadays, it never occurs to anybody that, if you are a citizen, you might not have full voting rights.
Actually, what the Fourteenth Amendment gave blacks was what everybody insists cannot exist. It gave blacks citizenship, but no vote. The Fourteenth Amendment, in other words, made blacks official second class citizens. If it hadn’t, there would have been no Fifteenth Amendment.
In 1954, in Brown vs. Board of Education, the Court changed the Fourteenth Amendment. They said that it forbade any distinction at all, of any kind, being made between white and black citizenship.
Today, it is impossible to explain to anybody why the Fifteenth Amendment was necessary. In 1868, it would have been just as impossible to explain to anybody why it wasn’t.
There is no overlap whatsoever between the thinking of those who wrote the Constitution (even the most radical) and the judges who claim to interpret it today.