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Literacy test

This article is about citizenship and voting eligibility tests in the United States. For the standardized test given in Ontario high schools, see Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test.
File:The color line still exists—in this case cph.3b29638.jpg
Editorial cartoon from the January 18, 1879, issue of Harper's Weekly criticizing the use of literacy tests. It shows "Mr. Solid South" writing on wall, "Eddikashun qualifukashun. The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites, signed Mr. Solid South."

A literacy test, in the context of American political history from the 1890s to the 1960s, refers to state government practices of administering tests to prospective voters purportedly to test their literacy in order to vote. In practice, these tests were intended to disenfranchise African-Americans. For other nations, literacy tests have been a matter of immigration policy.


The literacy test was a device to restrict the total number of immigrants while not offending the large element of ethnic voters. The "old" immigration (British, Irish, German, Scandinavian) had fallen off and was replaced by a "new" immigration from Italy, Russia and other points in Southern and eastern Europe. The "old" immigrants were voters and strongly approved of restricting the "new" immigrants. All groups of American voters strongly opposed Chinese and Asian immigration. The 1896 Republican platform called for a literacy test.[1]

The American Federation of Labor took the lead in promoting literacy tests that would exclude illiterate immigrants, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. A majority of the labor union membership were immigrants or sons of immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia and Britain, but the literacy test would not hinder immigration from those countries.[2]

Corporate industry however, needed new workers for its mines and factories and opposed any restrictions on immigration.[3] In 1906, the powerful House Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon, a conservative Republican, worked aggressively to defeat a proposed literacy test for immigrants. A product of the western frontier, Cannon felt that moral probity was the only acceptable test for the quality of an immigrant. He worked with Secretary of State Elihu Root and President Theodore Roosevelt to set up the "Dillingham Commission," a blue ribbon body of experts that produced a 41-volume study of immigration. The Commission recommended a literacy test and the possibility of annual quotas.[4] Presidents Cleveland and Taft vetoed literacy tests in 1897 and 1913. President Wilson did the same in 1915 and 1917, but the test was passed over Wilson's second veto.[5]


Southern state legislatures employed literacy tests as part of the voter registration process starting in the late 19th century.

Literacy tests, along with poll taxes and extra-legal intimidation,[6] were used to deny suffrage to African-Americans. The first formal voter literacy tests were introduced in 1890.

At first, whites were exempted from the literacy test if they could meet alternate requirements (the grandfather clause) that, in practice, excluded blacks. The Grandfather Clause allowed an illiterate person to vote if he could show descent from someone who was eligible to vote before 1867 (when only whites could vote). Grandfather clauses were ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Guinn v. United States (1915). Nevertheless, literacy tests continued to be used to disenfranchise blacks. The tests were usually administered orally by white local officials, who had complete discretion over who passed and who failed.[7] Examples of questions asked of Blacks in Alabama included: naming all sixty-seven county judges in the state, naming the date on which Oklahoma was admitted to the Union, and declaring how many bubbles are in a bar of soap.[8]

Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment would have penalized states which excluded adult males from voting (whether by literacy tests or by any other means) by proportionately reducing their representation in Congress, but this provision was never enforced. In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court held that literacy tests were not necessarily violations of Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nor of the Fifteenth Amendment. Lassiter v. Northampton Election Board (1959). Southern states abandoned the literacy test only when forced to do so by federal legislation in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided that literacy tests used as a qualification for voting in federal elections be administered wholly in writing and only to persons who had completed six years of formal education. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 suspended the use of literacy tests in all states or political subdivisions in which less than 50 percent of voting-age residents were registered as of November 1, 1964, or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. In a series of cases, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the legislation[9] and restricted the use of literacy tests for non-English-speaking citizens, Katzenbach v. Morgan. Since the passage of this legislation, black registration in the South has increased substantially.


Anglophone Canada heavily promoted immigration from Europe in the early 20th century. British Columbia insisted on blocking all further immigration from Asia, literate or not.[10] British and Irish immigrants were all welcome; at issue was a literacy test that would screen out most applicants from Italy, Russia and other parts of Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1919 major new legislation was passed (at a time when French-speakers were virtually powerless in Parliament). A wide range of public opinion expressed mounting fears and culturally based stereotypes along with articulations of idealized national identity through the Canadianization of immigrants.[11]


The best selection of immigrants for two centuries has been a major theme in the politics of Europe and other countries as well.[12][13] In recent decades numerous studies have shown that public attitudes toward immigration stress fear of labor-market competition as a powerful indicator of anti-immigrant sentiment, in particular among less-educated or less-skilled citizens who fear being forced to compete for jobs.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Brian Gratton, "Demography and Immigration Restriction in American History," in Jack A. Goldstone et al. eds, Political Demography: How Population Changes Are Reshaping International Security and National Politics (2011) pp 159-75
  2. ^ A. T. Lane, "American Trade Unions, Mass Immigration and the Literacy Test: 1900-1917," Labor History (1984) 25#1 pp 5-25.
  3. ^ Claudia Goldin, "The political economy of immigration restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921" in The regulated economy: A historical approach to political economy (U. of Chicago Press, 1994) pp 223-258
  4. ^ Robert F. Zeidel, "Hayseed Immigration Policy: 'Uncle Joe' Cannon and the Immigration Question," Illinois Historical Journal (1995) 88#3 pp 173-188.
  5. ^ Henry Bischoff (2002). Immigration Issues. Greenwood. p. 156. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Robert Caro, Master of the Senate, p. 691
  8. ^ Caro, Master of the Senate, p. x
  9. ^ United States v. Mississippi, 380 U.S. 128 (1965), South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S.301
  10. ^ Patricia Roy, A White Man's Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914 (1989) and Roy, The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man's Province, 1914-41 (2003)
  11. ^ Lorna McLean, "'To Become Part of Us': Ethnicity, Race, Literacy and the Canadian Immigration Act of 1919," Canadian Ethnic Studies, (2004) 36#2 pp 1-28
  12. ^ Anna Maria Mayda, "Who is against immigration? A cross-country investigation of individual attitudes toward immigrants," Review of Economics and Statistics (2006) 88#3 pp 510-530.
  13. ^ Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Global migration and the world economy: Two centuries of policy and performance (MIT Press, 2005)
  14. ^ Jens Hainmueller and Michael J. Hiscox. "Educated preferences: Explaining attitudes toward immigration in Europe," International Organization (2007) 61#2 pp 399-442.

Further reading

  • Petit, Jeanne D. The Men and Women We Want: Gender, Race, and the Progressive Era Literacy Test Debate (University of Rochester Press. 2010), On the USA

External links