After the Civil War ended in 1865, Americans began the business of reconstructing their country, and along with it, their Constitution. Kurt Lash, Professor of Law at the University of Richmond, analyzes the three amendments that ushered in a new era of freedom for all.
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As Americans began the business of reconstructing their country after a bloody civil war, they also reconstructed their Constitution. That was the purpose of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
The 13th amendment abolished slavery.
The 14th amendment enhanced the civil rights of all citizens.
And the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race.
Together, these three amendments, known as the Reconstruction Amendments, declared a new birth of freedom in the United States.
In January 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. That Proclamation declared free any person held as a slave in the rebel states. But ending slavery would require much more than a wartime executive order.
First, the Union would have to win the war — that wasn’t certain in 1863 — and second, Lincoln would have to persuade the American people to amend the Constitution to ban slavery forever.
In January 1865, with Lincoln’s encouragement, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment proclaimed, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
On April 9th of that year, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War was finally over. Less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln was dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet. But his ambition to free the slaves lived on. On December 6th, 1865, the American people ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery could no longer find sanctuary in the Constitution.
Although the now-former slaves had attained freedom, that didn’t mean they had attained equality. Taking advantage of the chaos following Lincoln’s assassination, the southern states passed the infamous “Black Codes” — laws and local ordinances which denied blacks basic rights such as free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to peaceably assemble.
You might well ask, weren’t blacks — now that they were free — protected like every other free American by the Bill of Rights? No — not according to the Supreme Court. In 1833, the Court had ruled in Barron v. Baltimore that the first ten amendments applied only to the federal government, and not to the states.
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