The Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

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Reconstruction Amendments Helped Freedmen

Each Reconstruction amendment addressed specific issues regarding former slaves, such as the right to vote, citizenship status, and equal protection.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are referred to as the “Reconstruction Amendments.” Each amendment addressed specific issues regarding Southern slavery, citizenship, and suffrage. Of the three, the 14th Amendment is still applied in contemporary cases that violate the “equal protection” clause. All three amendments radically altered the social and political landscape of American society at a time the Civil War was ending. Although the motives of Radical Republicans crafting the amendments were partisan, their efforts paved the way toward a society that was on the path to a democracy that would ultimately provide absolute equality for every citizen.

The 13th Amendment Ends Slavery

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became law January 1, 1863. Yet the document did not end all slavery in the United States. Slaves held in key Border States like Missouri and Maryland were not affected. Only slaves in the South, held in areas not yet occupied by advancing Union troops, were declared free.

The 13th Amendment assured that all slaves were declared free. The amendment used both the terms “slavery” and “involuntary servitude.” The only exception was in cases of “punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted…” This exception allowed for the use of slave labor by the state in regard to prison inmates.

In the South after the Civil War, many communities enacted laws that resurrected provisions of former slave codes. Vagrants could be arrested and, upon certain conviction, be forced into involuntary servitude. The same was true for minor infractions. In this sense, the “loophole” in the amendment continued the process of slavery, albeit by another definition.

The 14th Amendment Defines Citizenship and Provides Equal Protection

The 1857 Dred Scott Decision denied citizenship to African Americans. The 14th Amendment overturned that ruling, stating that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Significantly, citizenship was defined in terms of both federal and state jurisdictions. The Scott Decision, as detailed by Chief Justice Roger Taney, differentiated between state and federal citizenship.

The contemporary debate on immigration reform has prompted some Republican lawmakers to suggest a revision of the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause or even submitting a new amendment that addresses citizenship. But Section 1 of the 14th Amendment also includes the “equal protection clause,” which has been applied to dozens of cases of discrimination and violations of civil rights. This clause must never be removed.

The 15th Amendment Provides for Universal Male Suffrage

Ever since the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, female activists tied their cause of women’s suffrage to abolition. The passage of the 15th Amendment shattered that goal. The right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race, color, or “previous condition of servitude.” But the amendment failed to address gender. Not until the 1920 19th Amendment would gender be addressed.

The 15th Amendment, however, did not stop newly admitted Southern states from placing legal conditions on voting, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. These state laws effectively deprived the very people the amendment targeted from political participation. Future amendments and Civil Rights Acts during the turmoil of the post-World War II Civil Rights movement would resolve those issues.

Reconstruction Amendments Represented a Positive Step

Ultimately, the Reconstruction amendments attempted to swiftly address the issues that came with Confederate defeat in 1865. They clarified and enhanced Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Although loopholes were used to circumvent the intent of the amendments, they helped to forge an American society based on equality, respect for diversity, and guaranteed civil rights for all citizens.