Reconstruction: The Civil Rights Amendments

Figure 1.--

The central step taken during Reconstruction, in effect the crown jewels, was the passage of the 13th-15th amendments. These amaendments abolished slavery and guaranted the civil rights, including the freed slaves right to vote, and ensured access to equal protection of the law. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) was an exective order and open to legal chalenge. It was inevitable that once the former Condereate states were readmitted to the Union that slave owners would sue in the Federal courts for the return of their 'property'. Only incorporating emancipation in the Constitution through an amendment would make emancipation permanent and unasailable. The Republicans decided to go beyond simple emancipation and take the further step of granting citizenship to the freed slaves. The final amendment resulted from Southern efforts to prevent the freed slaves now citizens from voting. White opposition in the South largely undermined the achievement of tee goals invisioned. But enshrined n the Coinstitution, these amendments would evetually a century later make it possible to achieve the goals envisioned.

13th Amendment (1865)

The 13th Amendment was set in motion by President Lincoln in order to make emancipation 'court proof'. He was concerned with considerable reason that the Taney Court would look favorably on legal challenges to the Emancipation Proclamation by the form,er slave owners. Lincoln sheapared it through Comgress and state legislatures had begun to ratify it at the time of his assasination. It is one of the shortest and most terse of the amendments. It read," Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." Several hundred thousand men died to get those few words added to the Constitution. It went into effect during the first months of Reconstruction (December 1865).

14th Amendment (1868)

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation effectively ended slavery in the United States, but it was an emergency war measure. Lincoln fully realized, however, that it was vulnerable to legal challenge after the War. The Taney Court had ruled in the Dread Scoot case (1857) that slaves even if freed could not claim civil citzenship and civil rights. Thus it was likely that the Taney court would over rule the Emancipation Proclamation if as was inevitab;le that former slave masters would demand thir property back after the War. The 13th Amendment made that impossible. But the Republicans went further than this. The 14th Amendment guaranteed their civil rights and ability of the freed slaves to obtain equitable treatment in the courts. The 14th Amendment read in part, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The key phrase was "equal protection of the laws". The Amendment was proposed in 1866 and ratified in 1868. The Southern states were required to ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to gain reamitance to the Union. This put emancipation and black citizenship beyond the reach of even the Taney court. The 14th Amendments was undermined by the prevalent racism of the day and eventually by "Plessy vs. Fergusson" (1896). Racists could not do away with the 14th Amendment or the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. With Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, appointments were made to the Federal judiciary installed jurist that were willing to use these amendments to secure black civil rights.

15th Amendment (1870)

Congress dominated by Radical Republicans refused to recognize the Southern regimes organized under President Johnson's soft Reconstruction policies. Congress insisted the seceeding states to adopt new state constitutions permitting black suffrage. This put America in the seemingly ironic condition that the ex-Confederate states now granted black sufferage , but 16 of the Union states did not permit black suffrage. Radical Reublicans thus proposed a Constitutional amendment to guarantee black sufferage (February 1869). Here there were two motivations. There was on the part of many Republicans to guarantee this central civil right to all black citizens. There was also the political advantage that virtually all the newly enfranchised blacks would vote Republicam. The Amendment read, "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." It was ratified February 3, 1870.

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Created: 5:46 PM 5/3/2015
Last updated: 5:46 PM 5/3/2015