Reconstruction Amendments

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A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, 1865, entitled "The Rail Splitter At Work Repairing the Union." The caption reads (Johnson): Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever. (Lincoln): A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended.

The Reconstruction Amendments are the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution,[1] adopted between 1865 and 1870, the five years immediately following the Civil War. The amendments were important in implementing the Reconstruction of the American South after the war. Their proponents saw them as transforming the United States from a country that was (in Abraham Lincoln's words) "half slave and half free" to one in which the constitutionally guaranteed "blessings of liberty" would be extended to the entire populace, including the former slaves and their descendants.

The Thirteenth Amendment (proposed and ratified in 1865) abolished slavery.[2] The Fourteenth Amendment (proposed in 1866 and ratified in 1868) included the privileges and immunities clause, applicable to all citizens, and the due process and equal protection clauses applicable to all persons.[3] The Fifteenth Amendment, (proposed in 1869 and ratified in 1870) prohibits discrimination in voting rights of citizens on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."[4] This amendment did not include a specific prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex; it took another amendment—the Nineteenth, ratified in 1920—to prohibit such discrimination explicitly.[5] Men and women of all races, regardless of prior slavery, could vote in some states of the early United States, such as New Jersey, provided that they could meet other requirements, such as property ownership.

These amendments were intended to guarantee freedom to former slaves and to establish and prevent discrimination in civil rights to former slaves and all citizens of the United States. The promise of these amendments was eroded by state laws and federal court decisions over the course of the 19th century. Women were prohibited by some state constitutions and laws from voting, leading to Susan B. Anthony attempting to vote in New York in the 1872 Presidential election as an act of civil disobedience. In 1876 and later, some states passed Jim Crow laws that limited the rights of African-Americans. Important Supreme Court decisions that undermined these amendments were the Slaughter-House Cases in 1873, which prevented rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment's privileges or immunities clause from being extended to rights under state law; and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 which originated the phrase "separate but equal" and gave federal approval to Jim Crow laws. The full benefits of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments were not realized until the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Thirteenth Amendment[edit]

Text of the 13th Amendment

The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It was passed by the U.S. Senate on April 8, 1864, and, after one unsuccessful vote and extensive legislative maneuvering by the Lincoln administration, the House followed suit on January 31, 1865. The measure was swiftly ratified by all but three Union states (the exceptions were Delaware, New Jersey, and Kentucky), and by a sufficient number of border and "reconstructed" Southern states, to be ratified by December 6, 1865. On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward proclaimed it to have been incorporated into the federal Constitution.

Slavery had been tacitly protected in the original Constitution through clauses such as the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which three-fifths of the slave population was counted for representation in the United States House of Representatives. Prior to the Thirteenth Amendment, more than sixty years had passed since the last amendment to the Constitution (the Twelfth) had been successfully ratified. Though many slaves had been declared free by Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, their legal status after the Civil War was uncertain.

Though the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States, Black Codes and selective enforcement of statutes such as vagrancy laws continued to subject some black Americans to involuntary labor, particularly in the South. In contrast to the other Reconstruction Amendments, the Thirteenth Amendment was rarely cited in later case law, but has been used to strike down debt peonage and some race-based discrimination. Congress first responded to the Black Codes by passing an act extending the life of the Freedman's Bureau and widening its powers so that it could nullify work agreements forced on freedmen under the Black Codes. The Thirteenth Amendment also enables Congress to pass laws against sex trafficking and other modern forms of slavery.

Fourteenth Amendment[edit]

The two pages of the Fourteenth Amendment in the National Archives

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was proposed by Congress on June 13, 1866. By July 9, 1868, it had received ratifications by the legislatures of the required number of states in order to officially become the Fourteenth Amendment. On July 20, 1868, Secretary of State William Seward certified that it had indeed been ratified and been added to the federal Constitution. The amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws, and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the war. The amendment was bitterly contested, particularly by Southern states, which were forced to ratify it in order to return their delegations to Congress. The Fourteenth Amendment, particularly its first section, is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, forming the basis for landmark decisions such as Roe v. Wade (1973), regarding abortion, and Bush v. Gore (2000), regarding the 2000 presidential election.

The second, third, and fourth sections of the amendment are seldom, if ever, litigated. The fifth section gives Congress enforcement power. The amendment's first section includes several clauses: the Citizenship Clause, Privileges or Immunities Clause, Due Process Clause, and Equal Protection Clause. The Citizenship Clause provides a broad definition of citizenship, overruling the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which had held that Americans descended from African slaves could not be citizens of the United States. The Privileges or Immunities Clause has been interpreted in such a way that it does very little.

The Due Process Clause prohibits state and local government officials from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without legislative authorization. This clause has also been used by the federal judiciary to make most of the Bill of Rights applicable to the states, as well as to recognize substantive and procedural requirements that state laws must satisfy.

The Equal Protection Clause requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction. This clause was the basis for Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court decision that precipitated the dismantling of racial segregation; and for many other decisions rejecting irrational or unnecessary discrimination against people belonging to various groups.

Fifteenth Amendment[edit]

Text of the 15th Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". It was ratified on February 3, 1870, as the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments.

By 1869, amendments had been passed to abolish slavery and provide citizenship and equal protection under the laws, but the narrow election of Ulysses S. Grant to the presidency in 1868 convinced a majority of Republicans that protecting the franchise of black voters was important for the party's future. After rejecting more sweeping versions of a suffrage amendment, Congress proposed a compromise amendment banning franchise restrictions on the basis of race, color, or previous servitude on February 26, 1869. The amendment survived a difficult ratification fight and was adopted on March 30, 1870.

Supreme Court decisions in the late nineteenth century interpreted the amendment narrowly, and by 1910, most black voters in the South faced obstacles such as poll taxes and literacy tests, from which white voters were exempted by grandfather clauses. A system of whites-only primaries and violent reprisals by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan also suppressed black participation.

In the twentieth century, the Court interpreted the amendment more broadly, striking down grandfather clauses in Guinn v. United States (1915) and dismantling the white primary system in the "Texas primary cases" (1927–1953). Along with later measures such as the Twenty-fourth Amendment, which forbade poll taxes in federal elections, and Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966), which forbade poll taxes in state elections, these decisions significantly increased black participation in the American political system.

Selected Supreme Court cases[edit]


Privileges or immunities[edit]


Substantive due process[edit]

Equal protection[edit]

Apportionment of Representatives[edit]

Power of enforcement[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Foner, Eric. "The Reconstruction Amendments: Official Documents as Social History." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2012(subscription required)
  2. ^ "13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery." National Archives, n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.
  3. ^ Kelly, Martin. "14th Amendment Summary - What Is the Fourteenth Amendment." N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.
  4. ^ "Primary Documents in American History." 15th Amendment to the Constitution: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.
  5. ^ "The Constitution: The 19th Amendment." National Archives, n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.