Celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment? A Study of Individual Black and White Political Engagement in the Post-Civil War South

Sarah John, Don DeBats

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


On March 30, 1870, the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution became the law of the land, the first federal statement on voting rights after the adoption of the Constitution. It expanded the suffrage for African-American men by prohibiting the denial of suffrage on the grounds of race or color. At the time, the 15th Amendment was understood by both its supporters and its opponents as heralding a revolution in the disposition of political power in the post-war South and the Border States. Today, the 15th Amendment is viewed as a false promise, overwhelmed and unable to prevent the emergence of a “New South” standing on black disenfranchisement.

Kentucky stands outside that historiography, a Border State, never subject to Reconstruction, or military rule, but “Southern” in that it had a pre-War political economy based on slave labor. Kentucky’s 1850 Constitution continued in force. While the state refused to ratify the Civil War amendments until 1976, the 13th, 14 and 15th Amendments nevertheless applied and were accepted as such. Slavery ended and African-American men began to vote. The result is a story that diverges, to a degree to which we have yet to determine, from the conventional story of the fate of black voting in the former Confederacy.

This paper brings new data in two case studies to provide some additional evidence on participation in post-War Kentucky. The new data come from poll books, official election records required by law wherever oral or viva voce election law prevailed. The poll books record the name of every voter and the choices made by that voter in all offices or referenda to be decided at that election. Poll books were, like the individual votes themselves, public documents. Using poll books, we link the individual voter records to the names of the entire resident population (as recorded in federal census returns and local tax records) and calculate turnout from our estimates of the eligible electorate. The case studies are two Kentucky counties, Garrard and Todd, where the poll book data allows us to examine individual-level political behavior of both newly enfranchised black voters and their long-enfranchised white neighbors including, in many cases, the former owners of former slaves. In this, an early working paper, we explore voter turnout of African-American men in the first few elections after the 15th Amendment became law in Todd County, and compare turnout in the 1870s against turnout in the late 1880s and 1891 in Garrard County.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes
EventSocial Science History Conference - Phoenix, United States
Duration: 8 Nov 201811 Nov 2018


ConferenceSocial Science History Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States


  • Suffrage
  • 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • Kentucky
  • Voting patterns


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