Celebrating Rights and 
Baltimore & the Fifteenth Amendment, May 19, 1870
An Interactive Historical Investigation by David Troy 1996

The Story of the 15th Amendment in Maryland

Table of Contents
  1. Reconstruction in the Confederacy
  2. Maryland: A Southern Union State
  3. Political Motivations
  4. Righteous Actions
  5. Celebration in Baltimore
  6. Conclusion: Impact of the Amendment

Reconstruction in the Confederacy

After the Civil War, the Federal government was faced with the task of rebuilding a war-torn South. Congress passed several laws in the name of reconstruction which forced states that had been part of the Confederacy to comply with certain requirements. Universal manhood suffrage, or the right of all free men (including African-Americans) to vote, was a part of these reconstruction policies.

Maryland: A Southern Union State

During the war, Maryland had seriously considered secession. There was a large population of black slaves in Maryland's southern and eastern counties, while its northern and western counties were populated largely by immigrant farmers of German descent. As a result, the state was divided on the issue. Tobacco farmers in southern Maryland felt more kinship with the confederacy, while those in the northern and western counties were more closely aligned with the Union. In Baltimore, there was a mixture of feelings on the subject.

Ultimately, Maryland decided against secession, but it never fully supported Lincoln and the Republican party, either. Because Maryland had never seceeded from the Union, it was not subject to the reconstruction policies passed in Congress and ultimately it had no will to adopt a policy of universal manhood suffrage. The issue would have to be forced.

Political Motivations

Congressman Henry Winter Davis, along with other Republicans like Judge Hugh Lennox Bond and C.C. Fulton, had been part of a party called the Unionists. These men felt that the preservation of the Union was important despite the question of slavery. Their party also reconciled most of their differences with the Democratic party, and Conservative Unionists joined with the Democrats to become Conservative Democrats. This left the Radical Unionists (like Davis and Senator Creswell) without a political identity, and so in 1867 they aligned themselves with the Radical Republicans. They supported Grant for the presidency, and he rewarded them in kind, appointing Creswell as Postmaster General and legitimizing the party within the state.

But however successful the Republicans may have been nationally, the state was experiencing a resurgence of the Democratic party. By 1866, the Democrats had a Governor (Thomas Swann) installed, and Democrats also controlled the state legislature. In 1867, Democratic Governor Oden Bowie beat Republican candidate Hugh Lennox Bond by a margin of three-to-one.

The Republicans, sensing the dismal political future they faced, knew that a new strategy was necessary. They resolved to seek suffrage for the 39,120 black males in the state, figuring that this could help to tip the scales in their favor and regain control at the state level. However, they had no control at the state level at this time, and passage of such a law by the state legislature was a mere fantasy. They knew that they would have to seek black suffrage at the national level by promoting the recently-proposed 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment would force Maryland into Negro suffrage, despite the wishes of the Democratic political bosses that would control the state for the next thirty years.

It is worth noting that the Republicans were as motivated by practical considerations as ideological ones in their support for black suffrage. As early as 1866, Senator John Creswell had to "defend" allegations that he was "for" black suffrage, and in fact he denied that he supported it. This is the same man who chronicles the progress of blacks in his speech at the ratification celebration. They also flip-flopped on whether to include blacks in the party, supporting it when it seemed politically expedient and denying it otherwise. The bottom line was that 40,000 voters, almost all of which would certainly vote for the Republican party, would be added to about 131,000 voters, comprising almost 25 percent of the combined electorate.

Righteous Actions

Whatever their motivation may have been, it is undeniable that the Maryland Republican party took every possible action to seek passage of the 15th Amendment, for this is what it would take to "force" Maryland to accept universal manhood suffrage.

The 15th Amendment also had impact in other "border" states such as Kentucky and Delaware. Just about everywhere else in the nation, black suffrage had already been granted by the will of the states.

Three quarters of the states would have to ratify the amendment for it to become law. Governor Oden Bowie made a speech arguing that the state's sovereignty on all matters would be unnecessarily curtailed, and Maryland's legislature unanimously rejected the amendment. However, twenty-nine other states ratified it and it became law on March 30, 1870.

Celebration in Baltimore

While the 15th Amendment was celebrated in Boston and Chicago, the celebration in Baltimore was by far the largest, with over 20,000 people participating. Baltimore was chosen as the site of this celebration for several reasons:

The parade and ensuing speeches were extremely grand. The route, taking participants past the home of Isaac Myers, past Orchard Street (the "black Fifth Avenue of Baltimore"), through Pigtown, and through the most prestigious white residences in Baltimore at Mt. Vernon Place and on Madison Street, made a loud and clear declaration that blacks were proud of their city, they were proud of their people, and they would be heard at all costs.

The parade terminated at the Battle Monument at Fayette and Calvert Streets. Several of the speakers climbed their way onto a scaffold that had been built for the occasion. It collapsed shortly after. Frederick Douglass had been on the platform and, after ascertaining that no one had been hurt, dusted himself off and joked that the platform must have been built by a Democrat (although the Democratic Sun assures us it was built by a Republican). They then went to speak from the balcony of the nearby Gilmor Hotel. Ironically, Henry Gilmor had been one of Maryland's most celebrated Confederate soldiers, having written a book entitled, "I Rode with Stonewall." This irony was probably not lost on Douglass and the others, and the rally (for that is what it really was, a rally of Republican politicians with their newly enfranchised quarter of the electorate) continued with a vigor and optimism that only underdogs can have. For if there was one thread that united blacks and white Republicans idealogically, it was that they were both facing an uphill battle against the "old line" Democrats!

The Sun and the American both reported on the parade. Here one gets a feeling of how the Democrats and Republicans responded. The article in the American is far longer and tends to use the first person plural (we) in its reporting, while the Sun tends to stick to the more objective (and externalizing) third person.

At least four lithographs and a commemorative toy were made to celebrate the parade in Baltimore. Each one represents abolitionist and black leaders, like Brown, Myers, Grant, Lincoln, Bond, and others. These prints, meant to be sold as popular art, are testimony that there was a perceived market for such items. The enthusiasm for the 15th Amendment was real -- not just ideologically but economically as well.

Conclusion: The Impact of the Amendment

The 15th Amendment, as we can see in the art and newspaper articles, was celebrated with a great deal of hope and good feeling towards the newly enfranchised black race. For Maryland blacks, the atmosphere was one of a completely new beginning. While the 13th Amendment (which ended slavery) was important, the rhetoric which surrounded the 15th Amendment glistened with idealism and hope. Frederick Douglass demanded that they seek "education for their children and money in their pockets" or they would not become independent voters. All the speakers that day agreed that this promise must and would be carried out. The celebration of the 15th Amendment was full of promise, hope, and love.

As with any wish for perfection, reality always falls a little short. While voter turnout among blacks was very high in the 1870 congressional election (and actually elected at least one Republican Congressman), by the 1890's there was much talk of disenfranchisment for blacks.

Many women suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had worked alongside black suffragists like Frederick Douglass to gain suffrage for both groups. But when the 15th Amendment passed, it angered many women suffragists terribly, and some of them even spoke out against black suffrage. In all fairness, there were many educated women who were undoubtedly more qualified to vote than some blacks who had just found their freedom and their education, but women would have to wait until 1920 to get the vote.

The 15th Amendment in Maryland is a story of struggle -- both political and social, as well as one of hope. It illustrates that Maryland's politics and its ideologies were cracked, like its soil and geography, along the geological fall-line that runs through Baltimore. And in this case (as it often does, even now) it is left to Baltimore to absorb and reflect all of Maryland's diverse desires.

Source: Summarized from The Negro in Maryland Politics, 1870-1912., and other works.

 1996 David C. 
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