Between 1865 and 1870, during the historical era known as Reconstruction, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified to establish political equality for all Americans. Together, they are known as the Reconstruction Amendments.
The Reconstruction Amendments
The Fourteenth Amendment overturned the Dred Scott Decision
On October 17, 2006, the population of the United States hit 300,000,000. According to demographers, the famous baby was a little boy, born in Los Angeles County to Mexican parents. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted this little one citizenship at birth. But his heritage (not to mention the illegal status of his parents) brought to light a politically charged question: should children born on U.S. soil automatically become American citizens? It's not actually a new question.
Back in 1857, a Supreme Court case known as the Dred Scott Decision determined that black Americans were not citizens. The Fourteenth 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.' This was one of three Constitutional amendments aimed at establishing political equality for Americans of any race.
Together, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are referred to as the Reconstruction Amendments. They address slavery, citizenship and voting rights. The Radical Republicans didn't always have the purest motives, they didn't always use the most democratic methods of achieving their goals and America is still not always perfectly equal. But history has proven that the controversial Reconstruction Amendments, which were designed to guarantee the rights of freed slaves, have helped to create one of the most free, most democratic societies in the world today.
Gradual abolition began soon after the Revolution in Pennsylvania, and for nearly a century, various states and territories either abolished slavery or prohibited it from the outset. Then came the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which legally freed all slaves held within rebellious states - but not those within Union border states like Missouri and Maryland. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, slavery was still not technically illegal in America.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery but allowed for the use of inmate labor
On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery within the United States and its territories. It reads: '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 exception that allows servitude as punishment for a crime allows prisons to use inmate labor.
With five separate sections, the Fourteenth is the lengthiest of the Reconstruction Amendments. The most significant and far-reaching was the first section, stipulating that 'All persons born or naturalized in the United States...are citizens.' It also explicitly declares that states may not 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. Later sections address suffrage, the right to hold public office, war debts and compensation for emancipation.
Concerned that the Fourteenth Amendment would not have the necessary support for ratification, Congress passed additional legislation requiring former Confederate states to approve it as a condition of regaining federal representation. The amendment was ratified on July 28, 1868. Despite this shaky start, the Fourteenth Amendment, granting citizenship, due process and equal protection under the law for anyone born in the U.S., is cited more often than any other Constitutional amendment. It was used to make states enforce the Bill of Rights and it was the foundation for landmark Supreme Court cases like Brown v. Board of Education (which integrated schools) as well as legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Fourteenth Amendment has also been applied to gender discrimination and is currently in the spotlight because of the immigration debate. Some Americans feel that the amendment needs to be revised so that citizenship is not granted automatically.
The Brown v. Board of Education decision integrated schools
The last of the Reconstruction Amendments was ratified by the states in 1870. The Fifteenth Amendment declares: '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.' However, it didn't keep states from disenfranchising Americans with restrictions like poll taxes and literacy tests, nor did it ban gender discrimination at the polls. It would be almost another century before all American men and women could truly exercise the right to vote.
Let's review. The Reconstruction Amendments are a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution that helped bring political equality to African Americans in the years following the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery within the United States and its territories. The Fourteenth Amendment grants citizenship, due process and equal protection under the law for anyone born in the U.S. And the Fifteenth Amendment prohibits disenfranchisement based on 'race, color, or previous condition of servitude.'
After watching this lesson, you should be able to paraphrase the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and explain their purposes and effects.