Constitution Daily

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Happy birthday, 15th and 16th Amendments

February 3, 2018 by NCC Staff


Today we celebrate a constitutional ratification twofer: the 15th Amendment (ratified February 3, 1870) and the 16th Amendment (ratified February 3, 1913). Here’s what you need to know.

1040-formThe 15th Amendment

What it does:

It prohibits the state or federal government from using race as a voting qualification.

Why it was added:

The 15th Amendment was one of the “Reconstruction amendments,” and was an important step in ensuring African Americans' right to vote. Unfortunately, change didn't happen overnight, and it would take further measures, such as the 24th Amendment, which nixed the use of poll taxes, to foster true equality.


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.

The 16th Amendment

What it does:

It allows Congress to levy an income tax.

Why it was added:

An 1895 Supreme Court decision had ruled that an income tax law was unconstitutional because it violated the provisions in Article 1 of the Constitution requiring that direct taxes be apportioned according to state population. A constitutional amendment was the only way to make an income tax happen.

Interestingly, one of the arguments made for an income tax was quite similar to the today's rhetoric of income inequality. For example, in promoting a new national tax system consisting of an income tax and inheritance tax, Theodore Roosevelt stated this:

As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual — a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax, of course, to be imposed by the National and not the State Government. Such taxation should, of course, be aimed merely at the inheritance or transmission in their entirety of those fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits.

You can check out more of Roosevelt's statements here.


The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

For the full text of the Constitution, visit the Interactive Constitution here.


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