Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the United States government was saddled with the responsibility of rebuilding and restructuring a devastated South. Tasked with discerning how to deal with the political, economic, and population breakdown of half of the reunited nation, the government, dominated by Northern Republicans, began to propose and pass legislation to transform the Southern states. This period, known as Reconstruction, established profound legal change. In instituting unprecedented laws, acts, and constitutional amendments, the Fortieth and Forty-First Congresses not only redefined the citizenship status and legal rights of former slaves and other free blacks, but they also expanded the authority of the national government over the states. The redefinition of the federal and state relationship codified in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was a highly controversial yet crucial aspect of Reconstruction that allowed the US government to institute and defend the newly established rights of black Americans.

Summary Overview

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the United States government was saddled with the responsibility of rebuilding and restructuring a devastated South. Tasked with discerning how to deal with the political, economic, and population breakdown of half of the reunited nation, the government, dominated by Northern Republicans, began to propose and pass legislation to transform the Southern states. This period, known as Reconstruction, established profound legal change. In instituting unprecedented laws, acts, and constitutional amendments, the Fortieth and Forty-First Congresses not only redefined the citizenship status and legal rights of former slaves and other free blacks, but they also expanded the authority of the national government over the states. The redefinition of the federal and state relationship codified in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was a highly controversial yet crucial aspect of Reconstruction that allowed the US government to institute and defend the newly established rights of black Americans.

Defining Moment

Signed in 1863, two years before the conclusion of the war, the Emancipation Proclamation declared the slave population of the Confederate states free from the bondage of slavery. In December 1865, the Thirty-Eighth Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout the rest of the Union, including the border slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland that had remained in the Union and were previously exempted from the dictates of the Proclamation. With almost four million newly freed African Americans, the majority of whom resided in Southern states that were hostile to their new status; the US government knew that a permanent solution was needed to ensure the rights of former slaves. The government became determined to enact new legislation to ensure that the rights of freedmen would not be immediately abridged as soon as Southern states were reintegrated into the Union.

The government was also facing the question of what criteria Confederate states would have to meet in order to be allowed back into the Union. At the conclusion of the Civil War, Union troops remained an occupying force in the Southern states and the South had no federal representation in Congress. The federal government was in a position to wield unprecedented power over the rebuilding of Southern state governments. Congress also had the power to dictate the conditions under which these states could receive reinstatement to full federal representation. Seen as an affront by some to the critical issue of state rights, much debate ensued concerning what proof of loyalty or other qualifications rebel states would have to meet to be fully readmitted to the Union. Another crucial question for Reconstruction legislators was how to enforce these legal changes and requirements on the states without violating the constitutional limitations on the federal government. The writing and passing of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments reflects the struggles and attempted solutions by the Reconstruction-era Congress to establish legal equality between blacks and whites in the United States. Beyond these immediate goals, however, the Reconstruction amendments redefined the balance of power between the individual states and the federal government.

Author Biography

The Thirty-Ninth through the Forty-First Congresses of the United States were convened during one of the most unstable and demanding times in American political history. The Union victory in the Civil War provided a remarkable opportunity for Congress to institute sweeping legal, social, and constitutional changes, not only over the defeated Southern states, but over the nation as a whole. The efforts to bring these changes to fruition, however, were disrupted and marred by a presidential assassination, uncooperative Southern states, and repeated presidential vetoes to their legislative efforts.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Thirty-Ninth Congress was composed only of representatives from states loyal to the Union; Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Mississippi were all denied federal representation. Tennessee, though having seceded from the Union during the Civil War, became the only Southern state to regain congressional seats during the session. The Thirty-Ninth Congress was only assembled for one month before Abraham Lincoln's assassination, which shook the foundation of the newly victorious federal government. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor to the presidency, vetoed nearly every bill, act, and amendment proposed by the Congress. Despite these hurdles, however, the Thirty-Ninth Congress used a two-thirds majority vote to override Johnson's presidential vetoes in order to pass landmark legislation. During its tenure, the Thirty-Ninth Congress debated and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It would be an additional two years before the amendment was ratified.

The Fortieth Congress convened in March of 1867 and was populated largely by a political faction known as the Radical Republicans. The Radical Republicans pushed hard for the implementation of Reconstruction policies, which gave substantial civil rights to former slaves and doled out tough guidelines to govern Southern states. The Radical Republicans often clashed with President Andrew Johnson, who was much more conciliatory toward the ex-Confederate states. These tensions came to a head in 1868, when the Fortieth Congress impeached Johnson on charges of violating congressional policy (he was acquitted and finished his term). Despite these intragovernmental tensions, the Fortieth Congress was able to compose and pass three Reconstruction Acts and the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would be ratified within the next year.

The Forty-First Congress convened in March of 1869 and contained the first African American member of Congress, Hiram Rhodes Revels from Mississippi, and the first African American member of the House of Representatives, Joseph H. Rainey from South Carolina. Ulysses S. Grant, the former Civil War general, was elected president of the United States during Congress's first session, and the following year, the four remaining Southern states were readmitted to the Union: Virginia (January), Mississippi (February), Texas (March), and Georgia (July) were once again granted federal representation.

Although the Fifteenth Amendment was passed by the Fortieth Congress one month before its final session, several states resisted ratification. The Forty-First Congress ruled, therefore, that in order for the remaining four Southern states to be readmitted to the Union, they had to accept both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, which, having no other choice, they eventually did. For many, this was the final step in Reconstruction.

Document Analysis

Throughout the South during the Civil War, both the rumored and real proximity of Union forces often resulted in slaves refusing to work, abandoning their plantations, or demanding to be paid wages by their masters. Even in yet unoccupied areas, slaves began fleeing to the Northern lines in substantial numbers. Eventually runaway slaves were permitted to join the Union Army to assist in combat. Military service had long been understood in the United States as linked to rights of citizenship. In enlisting with Union forces, escaped slaves were manifestly claiming access to rights –an issue with which the federal government was soon forced to grapple. Simultaneously, the social philosophy and governmental theory of equal rights for slaves, long championed by abolitionist groups, was becoming increasingly influential in the halls of power. Many of the abolitionists' calls for equality under the law worked to inform the ideas ultimately contained in the Reconstruction amendments. Though a controversial and barely articulated goal at the start of the war, by the conclusion of the conflict, the freeing of slaves and the codification of their equal status became a defining objective of the Union forces as well as a political and legal goal of the US government. After the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, the Thirty-Ninth through the Forty-First Congresses set about writing and passing amendments to the Constitution that empowered the government to enact and enforce among all the states the equality of African Americans before the law. In doing so, the Reconstruction Congress expanded the definition of United States citizenship, the authority of the federal government over the states, and the legal status of African Americans.

The Fourteenth Amendment

The first section of the Fourteenth Amendment served to define the parameters of national citizenship. In 1857, the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford had classified people of African ancestry, slave or free, as noncitizens. Within the jurisdiction of the United States, blacks had no citizenship rights and enjoyed no constitutional protections. The Fourteenth Amendment directly refuted this decision by declaring all people born in the United States to be US citizens. Citizenship rights would henceforth be determined at the national level and the enumerated rights of citizens were to be considered unalterable by the states. This codification of citizenship was noted by Congressman Wendell Phillips, who participated in its passage, as being a profound step for the United States, a country that had previously left undefined the parameters of what constituted a citizen. The clause guaranteeing the “privileges and immunities” of citizenship, however, had a contested meaning almost from the moment of its writing. Crafted by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and principally authored by John Bingham, a representative from Ohio, the clause likely sought to constitutionally protect the Civil Rights Act, which dictated that rights extended to whites must likewise be extended to all citizens. By constitutionalizing the equal rights of citizens within states, Congress sought to prevent a repeal of the acts that enumerated the civil liberties states were required to provide for all of their citizens. The guarantees of “due process of law” and “equal protection under the law” were clauses that, at the time of their writing, were primarily concerned with guaranteeing that no citizen could be denied his or her liberty without just cause. Additionally, “just cause” could only derive from the applied rights and legal structures that operated equally for all citizens of the day.

The second section of the Fourteenth Amendment was written specifically to address the limitations on population representation in the Constitution's first article. When writing the original Constitution, Southern states were profoundly concerned that their seats in the House of Representatives could easily be overwhelmed by Northern states if they were prevented from including slave numbers into their overall population. As a result of vigorous negotiating over the manner in which populations should be calculated for the purpose of representation and taxation, Northern and Southern states came to a compromise regarding how to count Southern slaves. Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution states, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” The section denoting “three fifths of all other persons” was a reference to slaves' inclusion in determining the amount of federal representation allowed to Southern states. Though every five slaves would count as three additional people in the South's representative populous, the slaves were barred from ever contributing to the selection of the representatives their numbers allowed. In the wake of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment sought to reverse this constitutional edict. The second section of the amendment mandated that former slaves be counted as whole people. Additionally, the amendment dictated that if a state denied any men of voting age access to the vote, the number of representatives claimed by that state in Congress must likewise be reduced. This clause served the purpose of preserving federalism by keeping the right to create voting laws in the hands of the states while also attempting to prevent Southern states from instituting legislation specifically preventing former slaves from voting. According to the section, if states did institute such targeted discriminatory legislation, they would lose representation proportional to the population excluded from voting, thereby weakening their influence at the federal level.

The third section of the Fourteenth Amendment sought to deal with the reestablishment of Southern state governments as well as the reintegration of Southern delegates into the federal government. Of major concern to the Reconstruction Congress was the possibility of the immediate return of Confederate officials to positions of political and legal authority and thus a rapid return to the racial dynamics of Southern slavery and the immediate oppression of freedmen. Additionally, Congress feared that rebel leaders would escape punishment by simply retaking their positions of power without any apparent consequences for their betrayal of the Union. Congress' concern was well-founded: Andrew Johnson had already begun to assemble new state governments in the South that were replete with former Confederate leaders. To prevent a de-facto reenslavement of the African American population in the South, the Fourteenth Amendment precluded from holding office at the state or federal level those who had “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the government as well as those who had “given aid or comfort to [its] enemies.”

The fourth section of the amendment expressed the commitment of the federal government to paying all Union debts and pensions, but it prohibited not only the federal government but also states from paying off debts to those who had supported the Confederacy. Most importantly, neither the government nor the states were permitted to reimburse former slaveholders for the value of their slaves. The majority of Southern wealth before the Civil War was located in the value of their slave population. When slaves were emancipated, the vast majority of the wealth held by slaveholders was instantly eliminated. Early in the war, President Lincoln had proposed that slave states still in the Union participate in “compensated emancipation,” in which slaves residing within Union borders would be gradually freed in exchange for the government providing slave owners monetary compensation for the freed slaves' value. Though Lincoln's proposal was rejected by the slaveholding border states, the concept of “compensated emancipation” continued to be debated by those concerned about the postwar decimation of the South's economy. The Fourteenth Amendment prevented either the federal government or the states from compensating former slave owners for the slaves that had been emancipated.

Finally, and considered of paramount importance by the Reconstruction Congress, the Fourteenth Amendment granted Congress the right to make compulsory the provisions of the amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment clearly located the political authority to generate and enforce civil rights laws in the hands of the federal government. Prior to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, states retained authority over all aspects of the general welfare, heath, and safety of those citizens who resided within its borders. The federal government's powers over state action were restricted exclusively to issues of commerce, taxation, interstate disputes, and foreign relations. All other powers were reserved for the states. The Fourteenth Amendment was a defining moment in which the federal government was given license to override any state law or action that violated the rights of national citizenship.

The Fifteenth Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment addressed the issue of political citizenship rights that had been largely ignored not only by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, but also by the Reconstruction bills Congress had passed during its Thirty-Ninth session. Although no legislation had been put into place guaranteeing freedmen's voting rights, a precedent had already been set by the federal government in making black suffrage a requirement for Southern states seeking readmission to the Union. The Fortieth congressional session, which was comprised of a significant number of Radical Republicans, first attempted to remedy this oversight by implementing a voting rights bill. Constitutional debates soon began, however, over the right of the federal government to dictate voting parameters that were widely understood to be reserved to the states. Additionally, questions concerning the second section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which allowed states to restrict voting rights as long as they abdicated the right to added representation, was understood to indicate that states retained the right to create parameters around what part of their state population was allowed to vote. As a result, the Congress turned once again to the task of making constitutional the political rights of former slaves.

In debating the form the amendment would take, several congressmen proposed including additional disenfranchised groups into the amendment's guarantee of voting rights. It was proposed that the amendment protect from voting discrimination the Irish, women, religious dissenters, nonpropertied citizens, and immigrants. There was also concern that if race were the only protection mentioned by the amendment, states could find indirect means of excluding blacks from voting, such as requiring educational tests or proof of property ownership–problems that would indeed arise after the era of Reconstruction ended. Despite these more comprehensive proposals, the final result was direct and succinct. The amendment simply prohibited the federal and state government from denying any citizen the right to vote on “account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Additionally, just as in the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth conferred on Congress the ability to enforce African American voting rights through legislation. Though soon to face massive resistance by state law and even the federal judiciary, the protection of voting rights by the Fifteenth Amendment gave freedmen full political rights for the first time in United States history.

Essential Themes

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had a profound and long-term legal effect in protecting the rights of the people outlined in the Bill of Rights against infringement by the states. Additionally, as a result of the federal enforcement of the amendments and acts implemented during the era of Reconstruction, African Americans experienced unprecedented access to political participation in the South. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the gains of citizenship rights for African Americans began to experience a rapid and devastating decline. The Jim Crow era of social and legal subordination of the black population of the South began to emerge in full force. Jim Crow laws effectively functioned to dismantle the authority of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments over civil rights law in the South. The federal Congress and judiciary did little to prevent these racially discriminatory laws and, indeed, upheld many of their tenets. For example, the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, made constitutional the doctrine of “separate but equal” and is an unambiguous example of just how quickly the Reconstruction amendments were taken apart through political and legal means. It would take nearly one hundred years for civil rights enforcement to receive federal support once more, and only as a result of mounting pressure from the activism of the civil rights movement.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Benedict, Michael Less. “Preserving the Constitution: The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction.” Journal of American History 61.1 (1974): 65–90. Print.
  • Bergesen, Albert, “Nation-Building and Constitutional Amendments: The Role of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments in the Legal Reconstitution of the American Polity Following the Civil War.” Pacific Sociological Review 24.1 (1981): 3–15. Print.
  • Currie, David P. “The Reconstruction Congress.” University of Chicago Law Review 75.1 (2008): 383–495. Print.
  • Epps, Garrett. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post–Civil War America. New York: Holt, 2006. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Perennial, 2002. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. “The Strange Career of the Reconstruction Amendments.” Yale Law Journal 108.8 Symposium: Moments of Change: Transformation in American Constitutionalism (1999): 2003–9. Print.
  • Goldstone, Lawrence. Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Equal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865–1903. New York: Walker, 2011. Print.
  • Heiny, Louisa M. A. “Radical Abolitionist Influence on Federalism and the Fourteenth Amendment.” American Journal of Legal History 49.2 (2007): 180–96. Print.
  • Mathews, John M. Legislative and Judicial History of the Fifteenth Amendment. New York: Da Capo, 1971. Print.
  • McKitrick, Eric L. Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1960. Print.
  • Meyer, Howard N. The Amendment That Refused to Die: Equality and Justice Deferred: The History of the Fourteenth Amendment. Lanham: Madison, 2000. Print.
  • Perry, Michael J. We the People: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
  • Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” American Experience. PBS Online/WGBH, 2004. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
  • Richards, David A. J. Conscience and the Constitution: History, Theory, and Law of the Reconstruction Amendments. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Print.
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