Robbins: The Civil War Amendments
Although the precise number remains elusive, and at time when the U.S. population was about one-tenth its present count, around 750,000 lives were lost over the idiocy of slavery. According to some estimates, 22.6 percent of Southern men between the ages of 20 and 24 in 1860 lost their lives fighting for the “right” to own another being.
Think the war was, as some still claim, over “state’s rights?” Think again.
In a speech delivered on March 21, 1861, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, declared with no apparent shame that disagreements over the enslavement of Africans was the “immediate cause” of secession. In part, he held:
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, alI the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact … It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time … Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error …
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth …”
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Yeah, so there’s that.
When all the dust had settled and the spilled blood of brother upon brother had soaked into the earth, what little good flowered from the killing fields of the war were the Civil War Amendments which redefined America and, Reconstruction and Jim Crow notwithstanding, at last resolved the thorny, moral question of slavery around which the founders had danced at the nation’s founding and which had bedeviled the nation ever since.
Long before the Union victory in April, 1865, led by Abraham Lincoln, Congress prepared for the myriad challenges the nation would face at war’s end, particularly the integration of four million newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of the nation, and the readmission to federal representation of former states in rebellion.
Congressional Reconstruction included the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution which extended civil and legal protections to former enslaved people.
Although Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862, and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ended the practice of slavery in rebellious states in 1863, at war’s end in 1865 the question of slavery had not been resolved at the national level. The federal government required new state constitutions in the former Confederate states to include the abolition of slavery, but there was nothing to prevent states from reinstituting the practice with revised state constitutions.
Sens. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, and John Henderson of Missouri, sponsored resolutions for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery nationwide. The 13th Amendment — passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864; by the House on January 31, 1865; and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865 — abolished slavery “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Congress required former Confederate states to ratify the 13th Amendment as a condition of regaining federal representation.
Ratified July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including former enslaved persons, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” extending the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. The amendment authorized the government to punish states that abridged citizens’ right to vote by proportionally reducing their representation in Congress.
It banned those who “engaged in insurrection” against the United States from holding any civil, military, or elected office without the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate. The amendment prohibited former Confederate states from repaying war debts and compensating former slave owners for the emancipation of their enslaved people. Finally, it granted Congress the power to enforce this amendment, a provision that led to the passage of other landmark legislation in the 20th century, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As with the 13th Amendment, Congress required former Confederate states to ratify the 14th Amendment as a condition of regaining federal representation.
As a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, William Stewart of Nevada guided the 15th Amendment through the Senate. Ratified on February 3, 1870, the amendment prohibited states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment left open the possibility, however, that states could institute voter qualifications equally to all races, and many former confederate states took advantage of this provision, instituting poll taxes, and literacy tests, among other qualifications. Clearly, the vestige of these discriminatory practices persist even today — one needs look no further than the State of Georgia, circa 2021— to glimpse its ghost.
The Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution extended new constitutional protections to African Americans, though the struggle to fully achieve equality continues into the 21st century. Still, what the bloodshed of this deepest fracture ultimately wrought was a “more perfect union,” the first words that animate the Constitution, the ideal — if not always the practice — towards which this nation has imperfectly steered the ship of state.