An 1867 illustration from Harper’s Weekly of African-American men voting in a state election in the South.CreditCreditHulton Archive/Getty Images. Featured Image
Douglass was referring to the rights enshrined in three constitutional amendments ratified between 1865 and 1870. The 13th Amendment irrevocably abolished slavery. The 14th constitutionalized the principles of birthright citizenship and equality before the law. The 15th sought to guarantee the right to vote for black men throughout the reunited nation. All three empowered Congress to enforce their provisions, radically shifting the balance of power from the states to the nation.
The amendments had flaws. The 13th allowed involuntary servitude to continue for people convicted of crime, inadvertently opening the door to the creation of a giant system of convict labor. The 14th mandated that a state would lose part of its representation in the House of Representatives if it barred groups of men from voting but imposed no penalty if it disenfranchised women. The 15th allowed states to limit citizens’ right to vote for reasons other than race.