Between 1864 and 1869, the United States Congress debated an educational requirement for voter registration–a literacy test–as a means of dealing with the millions of new American citizens created by emancipation. These debates offer a critical early perspective on the development of literacy as a racial marker serving official racist agendas. Rhetoric supporting a test relied on the premise that a more literate and educated electorate is an obvious and uncontestable cultural good, necessary for the continued health and indeed survival of the nation. When the test was first discussed, its primary advantage was that it offered a way to talk about the inferiority of the newly emancipated Southerners without resorting to racial explanations; thus, freed slaves were dangerous not because they were black but because they were ignorant and uneducated. The 1869 debates about the Fifteenth Amendment, however, reveal a growing awareness of literacy’s rhetorical utility and the ways a belief in its inherent “goodness” might be used for ends divorced from the measurement or promotion of literacy: Radical Republicans proposed including a ban on such requirements in the language of the Fifteenth Amendment, certain that Southern whites would use it as a tool of disfranchisement. These debates, in the context of the test’s subsequent history as a tool of racist exclusion, demonstrate the rhetorical power and pliability of the idea of literacy within official policy.
literacy test; Reconstruction; race; Fifteenth Amendment; suffrage