The Reconstruction Amendments

Between 1865 and 1870, three Amendments to the Constitution were ratified, which would become known as the Reconstruction Amendments. Numerically, they are the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and had major ramifications for the country as well as newly freed slaves. Much of the legislation that came after 1865 is credited to the work of the Radical Republicans, who favored abolition and did not look to compromise on ending slavery. Despite Congressional support, there were many Southerners who were not in favor of these amendments, and they served to increase the tensions that had begun right before the Civil War.

The 13th Amendment passed in Congress on January 31, 1865, a few months before President Lincoln was assassinated. It was not formally ratified until December 6 of that year. The 13th Amendment is remembered as the one which formally ended slavery in the United States; however, there is an important section of the Amendment that is frequently overlooked.

The Amendment states that neither slavery nor indentured servitude shall exist “except as punishment for a crime” for which the individual has been convicted. This is a controversial statement in the Amendment, and allowed for slave-like treatment of people in jail during the Reconstruction Era.

The 14th Amendment, which was ratified on July 28, 1868, defined a citizen as any person born in the United States, and effectively overturned the Dred Scott decision of 1857. Former slaves were included in this population, and according to the law of the land, no citizen could be denied equal protection under the law. Just eleven years prior, as a result of the Dred Scott case, it was stipulated that no black person in the United States could claim citizenship, and therefore could not exercise his/her right to sue or petition a court. Later sections made it legal for the federal government to punish any states that did not uphold the 14th Amendment by threatening lower representation from that state in Congress.

Finally, the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote. The actual language of the amendment said that no African American man could be denied his voting privileges “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. The amendment passed in Congress on February 26, 1869, and was formally ratified on February 3, 1850. This provided millions of formerly enslaved men the opportunity to participate politically, whereas before they were excluded from exercising this right.