In the years following the American Civil War, radical changes were made to the United States Constitution to ensure civil rights for all, regardless of race. These changes are known as Reconstruction Amendments, and they had a massive impact on American society, as one of the Amendments abolished slavery nationwide.
However, everything didn’t turn into sunshine and rainbows as soon as they were introduced: This article will give an overview of these Amendments and discuss their significance, but also touch on the issues that arose following their introduction.
Events Preceding the Reconstruction Amendments
Before we get into the definition of the Reconstruction Amendments, let’s look at the monumental events that led to their introduction.
The Civil War
The American Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865, between the Northern and Southern states of the US. The main cause of the war was the disagreement over the issue of slavery and state rights. The Southern states depended on slave labor to support their plantation-fueled economy, while the Northern states had already abolished slavery, and industrialization was underway.
With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, seven Southern slaveholding states seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked a US military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
Over the next four years, more than 620,000 Americans would lose their lives in what remains the bloodiest conflict on US soil. In 1865, Union forces emerged victorious, as the Confederate states surrendered. Reconstruction was an effort to rebuild the nation and ensure civil rights for all citizens, but this period was marked by turmoil and violence as well.
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The purpose of this Proclamation was abolishing slavery. However, while it applied to the states in rebellion against the Union, it did not immediately free all enslaved people in America.
It did not provide any means for enforcing the freedom of those emancipated. Nevertheless, the proclamation was an important step in the long process of ending slavery in the US.
What Are the Reconstruction Amendments?
This is a set of three amendments passed after the Civil War, following the Emancipation Proclamation, which is why they are also referred to as Civil War amendments. Their goal was to ensure equality for all Americans, regardless of race. They include the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.
The Thirteenth Amendment
The first Reconstruction amendment was ratified in 1865, after the Civil War ended. Ohio House Republican James Ashley first proposed the amendment to end slavery in all US states on December 14, 1863. Almost a month later, a Missouri Senator named John Henderson supported this proposal by submitting the Joint Resolution.
The amendment needed support from two-thirds of the states to be ratified. On December 6, 1865, this majority was finally achieved. The amendment states:
“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.”
The Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on June 13, 1866, and finally ratified on July 9, 1868, after the Reconstruction Act of 1867 required the Southern states to do so. It ensured anyone could be granted citizenship, including formerly enslaved people, and guaranteed equal protection under the law. The first section of this amendment states:
“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.”
Essentially, the purpose of this amendment was to extend the Bill of Rights to state law, as the civil liberties addressed in the Bill were only guaranteed at the federal level at that point. However, in practice, this amendment failed to protect Black Americans for decades to come, as the Supreme Court refused to implement it.
The Fifteenth Amendment
This amendment was passed by Congress on February 26, 1869, and ratified on February 3, 1870. It gave Black Americans the right to vote. This was half a century before women were granted voting rights, so this Amendment concerned only Black American men. It states:
“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.”
Despite the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, the struggle for equality didn’t end there. States used discriminatory means, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, to prevent Black Americans from voting. This issue was legally solved almost a century later with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but Black voter suppression remains an issue to this day.
Racial Tension and Issues in the Reconstruction Era
The Reconstruction Amendments didn’t exactly solve racial discrimination in the country. Let’s look at some of the events that took place during the Reconstruction era and the issues that arose.
The Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln
The assassination of President Lincoln in April, 1865, had a considerable impact on the Reconstruction. While Lincoln was in favor of freeing enslaved people and giving them equal rights, his successor, Andrew Johnson, was a former slave owner and had different goals.
For instance, Johnson was not in favor of the Civil War amendments. Also, he vetoed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 that declared that “all persons born in the United States” are to be considered US citizens, and thereby afforded equal rights regardless of race. However, for the first time in American history, Congress overrode the presidential veto.
The Broken Promise of “40 Acres and a Mule”
In January, 1865, a Union Army General, William T. Sherman, met up with a group of Black ministers in Savannah, Georgia. They devised a plan to help newly freed Black Americans have a fresh start.
This meant giving each formerly enslaved family 40 acres of land confiscated from landowners from the Confederate States. It also included one mule for each family. The mules were to be donated by the Union army. However, President Andrew Johnson ordered the land to be returned to the original owners, which was a huge step back.
Southern plantation owners were having trouble accepting the new regime after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned them from owning enslaved people. Thus, they came up with the sharecropping system.
This system involved the tenants renting land from landowners in exchange for a portion of their crops. Many freed enslaved people became sharecroppers because they had no money to buy their land. Landlords would often lease the tools, and give seeds necessary for planting, as well as food and clothing, to their tenants on credit.
While sharecropping gave Black Americans some measure of economic independence, it also kept them in a state of semi-slavery because they were often cheated out of their earnings, and the interest rates for the credit they had to work off were usually extremely high.
The Black Codes were racist laws passed by Southern states in 1865 and 1866 in an attempt to control the newly freed Black American population due to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. While these laws allowed Black people the right to marry and own property, they also contained many provisions that limited their freedom.
For example, Black people couldn’t be anything other than servants or farmers, unless they paid tax. Moreover, they were forced to sign yearly labor contracts, and could be arrested if they didn’t want to sign or broke those contracts.
Intimidation and Violence
The Reconstruction era and the years that followed were filled with violence toward Black Americans. White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of White Camellia, and the White League instigated the violence.
One example is the Colfax Massacre of 1873, considered one of the most horrific incidents of racism-motivated violence in American history. The massacre began due to the discontent of white supremacists over the 1872 Louisiana gubernatorial election, where Republicans won over Democrats. It resulted in the deaths of approximately 150 Black Americans and three whites.
While these three amendments were undoubtedly a step in the right direction, they did not guarantee equality in practice. In fact, many Black Americans continued to face discrimination and violence, particularly in the Southern states. This was due in part to the fact that Reconstruction came to an end with the so-called Bargain of 1877.
Under this informal agreement, also termed the Compromise of 1877, the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South, and Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president in exchange for Southern support. This effectively ended Reconstruction and allowed white Southerners to regain control of their state governments.
As a result, Black Americans lost many of the gains they had made during Reconstruction. They were forced into second-class citizenship and subjected to Jim Crow laws, a new form of Black Codes, which mandated segregation in all public areas, among other restrictions. They also continued to face violence and intimidation from terrorist groups.
In short, while the Reconstruction Amendments were a step in the right direction, the end of Reconstruction led to a dramatic reversal of these gains, leaving Black Americans subject to discrimination and violence.
The Reconstruction Amendments were a turning point in American history, but their impact was limited by the end of Reconstruction. African Americans continued to face discrimination and violence, particularly in the Southern states. It would not be until the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century that these Amendments would truly begin to be enforced.