reconstruction amendments

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December 6th 1865: 13th Amendment ratified

On this day in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the states, formally banning slavery in the United States. Ratification does not require unanimous approval, and some states rejected the amendment; Mississippi only ratified the 13th Amendment in 2013, 148 years after the amendment’s passage. The 13th amendment marks the first of the three so-called ‘Reconstruction’ amendments, which secured civil and voting rights for African-Americans after the Civil War. The amendment was proposed by the Lincoln administration following the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation - which was a temporary war measure abolishing slavery in the Confederacy - to assert that the ban on slavery was to be permanent. Lincoln did not initially intend to free the slaves, and always prioritised saving the Union, but emancipation became intriscially tied to Union victory. This was due to the actions of slaves, who fled to Union lines and tried to enlist in the army. The Reconstruction period that followed the American Civil War was largely a contest over the implications of the 13th Amendment and the emancipation of four million slaves. Radicals in Congress pushed for equality of the law and opportunity, while white Southerners, with assistance from violent groups like the Ku Klux Klan, sought to maintain racial subordination and white supremacy. Reconstruction ultimately failed to truly implement freedom for African-Americans, and it was not until the Civil Rights Movement one hundred years later that America again tried to come to terms with the legacy of emancipation.

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July 9th 1868: 14th Amendment ratified

On this day in 1868, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the required number of states and thus officially adopted. The amendment, which was one of the three post-Civil War Reconstruction amendments, was crucial in guaranteeing rights to newly freed slaves. The 13th Amendment had abolished slavery, and in 1870 the 15th Amendment was ratified, providing former slaves with the right to vote. The 14th Amendment was a momentous achievement, but the final version (written by Ohio Republican congressman John Bingham) which passed by Congress was one of the most conservative of the over 70 proposed drafts. More radical proposals included black suffrage, and included women in their furnishing of civil rights. However, the amendment was radical in that it gave African-Americans full citizenship, thus overruling Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) which ruled that African-Americans were not US citizens. The amendment also guaranteed people due process of law and “equal protection of the laws”. These clauses have especially lent the amendment to interpretation, and has been frequently used by the Supreme Court to guarantee rights and strike down actions which violate ‘equal protection’, famously ruling against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

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February 3rd 1870: Fifteenth Amendment ratified

On this day in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. This measure came as the third and last of the so-called ‘Reconstruction amendments’, passed after the end of the Civil War by the Radical Republicans in Congress. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the country, expanding on President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation which freed slaves in the Confederacy. The second Reconstruction Amendment, the Fourteenth, provided citizenship and equal protection for freedmen. The Fifteenth granted African-American men the right to vote. It was passed by Congress in February 1869, and received ratification from the requisite number of states the following year, being formally adopted in March 1870. For many abolitionists, this was the most important measure of the Reconstruction effort. In the words of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot”. Black enfranchisement meant that for the first time in American history, African-Americans were elected to political office. These included first black Senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels, Representative Joseph Rainey, and Governor P.B.S. Pinchback of Louisiana (who until 1990 was the only black state governor in U.S. history). In states such as South Carolina, slaves made up a majority of the population, meaning that once enfranchised they dominated state politics. Despite being enshrined in constitutional law, African-Americans were prevented from voting through discriminatory measures like poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses, as well as by the violent intimidation of the recently formed Ku Klux Klan. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, finally provided for the full registration of black voters in the U.S. This measure came in the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement, which also targetted post-Reconstruction injustices such as Jim Crow segregation.

“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”