With adoption of the state constitution in 1849 the right of suffrage in California was limited to adult, white, male citizens. Denied the ballot, African Americans in the state were powerless to prevent legislative passage of discriminatory laws such as restrictions on their right to testify in civil and criminal cases involving whites. Consequently blacks saw their enfranchisement as a way to guarantee equal treatment under the law. But moving cautiously, California’s blacks first worked to obtain testimony rights. Democrats dominated the legislature during the ten years before the Civil War, and they persistently rebuffed these efforts.1

Despite the legislature’s attitude, African Americans continued to fight, through conventions, newspapers, and petitions to the legislature, for equality regarding testimony in court. Their struggle ended successfully, in the midst of a Civil War that brought to power, both nationally and in California, a Republican Party that was more favorably inclined to an extension of black civil rights. In 1863, during Republican Governor Leland Stanford’s term in office, the ban on black testimony in civil and criminal cases was repealed. Blacks avoided making common cause with the Chinese on this issue, however, and urged that they, being Christians and knowledgeable about oaths, should be able to testify, but not the Chinese or Native Americans. The legislature agreed, continuing the restriction against the other two minorities.2

Having achieved this victory, African Americans moved to gain the vote in California. Those attending the Colored Convention of October 1865 agreed to present a petition to the legislature urging an amendment to the state Constitution that would give blacks the ballot. The petitioners declared, “we are an industrious, moral and law-abiding class of citizens professing an average of education and general intelligence, born upon American soil, and paying taxes yearly upon several MILLION [sic] of dollars. . . .” Compared to African Americans in other American cities, San Francisco’s blacks, although limited in job opportunities, did well economically in the 1850s and 1860s, years when labor was scarce in California. Nevertheless, when Republican Senator John E. Benton presented the petition and an amendment to the legislature, its members never discussed them; they were sent to the Judiciary Committee and not seen again.3

California was not alone in denying black suffrage. By 1860 only Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont had granted African Americans the right to vote. Furthermore, New York greatly limited black suffrage through property and tax qualifications. Northern anti-black feelings stretched across the southern two-thirds of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, much of Pennsylvania, most of New Jersey, the southern half of New York, and into Connecticut. In 1867 and 1868 state legislatures in Maryland and New Jersey turned down bills that would have put African American suffrage to a vote, while Kansas, Minnesota, and Ohio voters rejected impartial suffrage referenda.4

Despite this widespread aversion to expanding the vote, radical Republicans knew that blacks needed protection in the South after the Civil War. As part of that protection, and for partisan purposes, the Republican dominated Congress enacted two constitutional amendments freeing and conferring citizenship on blacks, and by legislation imposed black suffrage on Reconstruction governments in the Southern states. Loyal to the Union cause throughout the war, the California legislature approved the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed the slaves, but allowed the Fourteenth, which dealt with citizenship, to die in committee.5

At the same time, Radical Republicans acknowledged that imposing black suffrage only on Southern states left the party open to accusations of insincerity or worse. Republicans also recognized that their party would gain much-needed voters when African Americans in the North received the vote. In this case morality and political advantage coincided.6

In February 1869, after weeks of strenuous debate, Congress passed a third civil rights amendment, the Fifteenth, which, in its brief two sections, tried to guarantee impartial suffrage for all male citizens. Specifically, it was designed to enfranchise African Americans in the laggard Northern states and to prevent disfranchisement of Southern blacks when Democrats in the former Confederate states regained control of their governments:
Amendment Fifteen
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.7

As worded the amendment provided no safeguards against the poll taxes or literacy and property qualifications later used in Southern states to deny African Americans the vote. The amendment was the most conservative of several versions the Congress considered. California’s congressional representatives, and those from other Pacific Coast states, successfully resisted the Radical Republicans’ attempts to enact a more effective proposal. Western senators and congressmen reflected the fears of their constituents—fears intensified by Democratic rhetoric—that if Congress changed the naturalization laws, the Fifteenth Amendment would give Asians the vote. But for the Pacific Coast Republicans’ fear of Chinese suffrage and the moderate Republicans well-founded doubts about the popularity of black suffrage in the North, the Fifteenth Amendment might have been a stronger measure, with safeguards against the voting restrictions that deprived Southern blacks of the vote in the ensuing century.8

In California the vote on ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment took place in an Assembly and Senate dominated by Democrats. After the Civil War California’s Democratic Party regained control of the state legislature and the governorship through emotional appeals to the voters’ racial antipathy and economic fears. The elections of 1867 and 1869 brought triumph to the Democrats under the leadership of former Union-Republican Henry H. Haight. A shrewd choice, Haight was not tainted with secession and thus attracted other Unionists like himself who could not accept radical or even moderate Republicanism. Haight’s Union Republican Party opponent, George C. Gorham, suffered from an affiliation with the Central Pacific Railroad and from the political manipulations that led to his nomination. He might have survived those handicaps if he had not been foolhardy or honest enough to say that he sympathized with the Chinese workers and favored dropping the word “white” from the naturalization law. A split between Republicans and former Democrats in the Union Party guaranteed the Democracy’s return to power.9

California’s 4,272 blacks, with only 1,731 males age 21 or older, were not the primary objects of prejudice or the main reason for the Democracy’s success in recapturing the legislature. Instead the 49,310 Chinese immigrants in the state, among whom were 36,890 possible voters, provided the racial target that enabled the Democrats, heavily composed of Irish and German naturalized citizens, to overcome the stigma of disloyalty to the Union. Using the out-party’s classic backlash tactic, in 1869 the Democrats took control of both houses of the legislature and put California’s emphatic “seal of condemnation on the Fifteenth Amendment.10

The economic and psychological conditions existing in California in the late 1860s influenced both the Democratic victories and popular attitudes regarding ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Widespread unemployment in the cities, especially during the winter months, aroused white anxiety and more resentment of the Chinese. A decline in mining, growing urban concentration, and increased white and Chinese immigration all contributed to the social and economic tensions afflicting Californians.11

As a result of the transcontinental railroad’s completion in May 1869, California no longer was an isolated frontier area, and an economic boom was expected. Instead, the completion of the railroad marked the start of keen competition with manufacturers in the East and a decade of general depression. Not only did the immigrants from Eastern and Southern states arrive in greater numbers than before, but the release of approximately 4,000 skilled Chinese railroad builders swelled the labor force as well. In addition, the opening of the Central Valley to agriculture stimulated a larger than normal immigration from China. For years Californians blamed the Chinese and the railroads for the state’s economic troubles.12

Like African Americans, the Chinese had been prevented from competing in many of the skilled trades in San Francisco, and the majority of the skilled white workers at this time did not actually compete with the Chinese; their fear was based on an anticipation of Chinese competition. The Chinese worker’s adaptability, quickness to learn, and willingness to work hard were qualities that made him a powerful competitor. His characteristics as a worker, his racial and ethnic differences, and especially his acceptance of lower wages than whites received—the despised “cheap labor”—all made the Chinese laborer largely unacceptable to California’s white trade unionists.13

Thus Governor Haight transmitted the Fifteenth Amendment to the California legislature during a period of economic depression, unemployment, racial hatred, and fear of Chinese suffrage. Shortly after the legislative session opened, news came of China’s ratification of the Burlingame Treaty with its new privileges (and by implication, status) for the Chinese in the United States. Overwhelmingly Democratic, few legislators favored the Fifteenth Amendment, and the governor indicated his disapproval of the measure in a lengthy special message to the legislature.14

As a result, in January 1870, both the Assembly and Senate decisively rejected the Fifteenth Amendment. This stand against black suffrage echoed the “whites only” clause in the state’s original constitution and repudiated the Radical Republican plan to require black suffrage in Union as well as in former Confederate states. Despite California’s opposition, however, the necessary three-fourths of the state legislatures ratified the amendment in March 1870. Though Democrats questioned the validity of some of the state ratifications, the Fifteenth Amendment’s implementation awaited only a formal proclamation from the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.15

[1] California Constitution (1849), art. 2, sec. 1; California, Statutes of California, 1st Sess., 1850, 229-30, 2nd Sess., 1851, 113-114; Proceedings of the first Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, held at Sacramento Nov. 20th, 21st, and 22d, in the Colored Methodist Church. Sacramento: Democratic State Journal Print, 1855 (Reprint: San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1969) 9,10, 27; J.W. Ellison, California and the Nation, 1850-1869; A Study of the Relations of a Frontier Community with the Federal Government (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1927), 179; James A. Fisher, “A Social History of California Negroes, 1850-1900,” (M.A. thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 1966), 16-17.
[2]Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California, held in the city of Sacramento, Dec. 9, 10th, 11th, and 12th. San Francisco: J.H. Udell and W. Randall, Printers, 1856. (Reprint: San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1969), 36-37, 40-42; Mary Roberts Coolidge, Chinese Immigration (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 76; San Francisco Pacific Appeal, May 17, 1862, 2, col. 3; Fisher, “Social History,” 29-30; Norman E. Tutorow, Leland Stanford: Man of Many Careers (Menlo Park, Calif.: Pacific Coast Publishers, 1971), 55; California. Senate Journal, 14th Sess., 1863, 131-32; California. Assembly Journal, 14th Sess., 1863, 311-13, 336.
[3] Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens held in Sacramento on the 25th, 27th, and 28thof October, 1865. San Francisco: Printed at the Office of “The Elevator,” corner of Sansome and Jackson Streets, 1865. (Reprint: San Francisco: Re & E Research Associates, 1969), 87; Douglas Henry Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 15-17, 26-31; Fisher, “Social History,” 87-88.
[4] Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 13-14, 85-87; Lawanda and John Cox, “Negro Suffrage and Republican Politics: The Problem of Motivation in Reconstruction Historiography,” (Journal of Southern History, 33 (August 1967), 303; James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1964), 333-34.
[5] Eugene H. Berwanger, The West and Reconstruction (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 53-54, 120, 127-28; William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 6-7; U.S. Constitution, amend.13, secs. 1 and 2; amend.14, sec. 1.
[6] McPherson, Struggle for Equality, 333; Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 19.
[7] U.S. Constitution, amend. 15, secs. 1 and 2.
[8] McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 545-46; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 173-74.
[9]Thomas E. Malone, “The Democratic Party in California, 1865-1868,” (M.A. thesis, Stanford University, 1949), 111-112; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 107-108, 176, 202-205; George C. Gorham, Speech delivered at Platt’s Hall, San Francisco, July 10, 1867, California Speeches, 4:13, (12 vols., n.p., n.d.), California State Library; George C. Gorham, Speech, Aug. 13, 1867, Broadside, California State Library.
[10] U.S., Census, Ninth Census, Vol. I, The Statistics of the Population of the United States, embracing the tables of race, nationality, sex, selected, ages, and occupations. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), I: 15; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 175-77, 180.
[11] James J. Rawls and Walton Bean, California: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993) 165, 169; Dr. Ping Chiu, personal interview by Sheila Skjeie, Dec. 9, 1971; Lucile Eaves, A History of California Labor Legislation (Berkeley: The University Press, 1910), 135; Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, Inc. 1981) 136; Tutorow, Leland Stanford, 130.
[12] Rawls and Bean, California, 165, 169; Eaves, Labor Legislation, 135; Dr. Ping Chiu, personal interview by Sheila Skjeie, Dec. 9, 1971.
[13] Daniels, Urban Pioneers, 17, 30-35; Rawls and Bean, California, 177-79; Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1986), 30-31.
[14] California. Assembly Journal, 18th Sess., 1869-70, “Special Message of Governor Henry H. Haight on the Fifteenth Amendment,” Jan. 15, 1870, 168; U.S. Congress, Senate, Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols and Agreements between the United States of America and Other Powers, 1776-1909, Sen. Doc. 357, 61st Cong., 2d Sess., 1910 (2 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1910) I: 234-236.
[15] Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 180; Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 22.