How will people in the future view our present debates about voting and ballot access? History gives us a definitive answer: Americans look back at those who sought broader access to voting for everyone — non-landowners, communities of color, women, everyone — as being heroic. Those on the other side, the opposite.
Let’s look at Delaware’s dismal history of dealing with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the post-Civil War Racial Justice Amendments, a part of Delaware’s history that is unpleasant, but very important to reflect on.
Delaware was a slave state on the Mason-Dixon line. All efforts to abolish slavery in Delaware prior to the Civil War failed due to a small number of Delawareans who were slave owners with an outsized political influence.
The Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the Confederate States. President Abraham Lincoln knew that slavery must be abolished in all the states, but in order to do that, the Constitution had to be amended — so the 13th Amendment was proposed to abolish slavery outright.
The Governor of Delaware sent the 13th Amendment to the General Assembly on February 7, 1865, two months prior to the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, recommending that it be approved.
On February 8, 1865, both the House and the Senate ignored the Governor’s recommendation, declaring their “unqualified disapproval” of the 13th Amendment and refusing “to adopt and ratify” it, claiming it was “contrary to the principles upon which the government was framed.”
On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Texas and proclaimed freedom for enslaved persons in that state, a date now a federally-recognized to honor the occasion.
And still, even after Juneteenth, and the end of the Civil War, Delaware took no action to make slavery unlawful. Those enslaved in Delaware remained in bondage until December 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was declared ratified, without Delaware’s concurrence.
In January 1867, in his address to the General Assembly, Governor Gove Saulsbury lamented the fact that the 13th Amendment had been declared ratified, and then shortly after, on January 16, 1867, the General Assembly was presented with the proposed 14th Amendment to the Constitution: providing for equal protection, due process, and counting formerly enslaved people as full persons under the law.
On February 6, 1867, the Delaware House of Representatives rejected the proposed 14th Amendment in the same language used when the 13th Amendment was rejected in 1865. Without Delaware’s concurrence, the 14th Amendment was also ratified on July 9, 1868.
The last of the post-Civil War Racial Justice Amendments, which were key to re-uniting the United States, was the 15th Amendment which gave Black males the right to vote.
Following suit to their previous actions, on March 17 and 18, 1869, the Delaware General Assembly refused to ratify the 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment was declared to be a part of the United States Constitution on February 3, 1870, without Delaware’s concurrence.
In January 1901, new Governor John Hunn, whose father had helped Harriet Tubman, called for the General Assembly to take action to dismantle some laws passed after the Civil War that impeded voting, such as the elimination of the poll tax which had to be paid to register to vote.
Then, on January 31 and February 6, 1901, the General Assembly symbolically passed a joint resolution ratifying the three civil rights amendments.
The mission of the non-profit, non-partisan Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice is to educate, inform, and advocate for racial justice, equality, and opportunity. Remembering history: good, bad, unfortunate, happy, and sad is part of our mission.
On February 8, February 6, and March 17, we should remember the actions of Delaware’s General Assembly on those dates in 1865, 1867 and 1869. Knowing history is important if we are to attain Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream to “lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Remembrance is in order.
Thus, now, as in the era after the Civil War, voting rights, equal rights, human rights are issues in the headlines. How do you want your grandchildren, great grandchildren, and history to remember your actions at this perilous time for democracy?
Let’s remember together, and then do better.
Tom Irvine, of Lewes, DE is the co-chair of the Legislative-Advocacy Committee for the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice. Tom is a retired constitutional, election, commercial & governmental powers trial lawyer.