Constitutional Amendments and Changes

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The controversies over interposition, nullification (both involving claims that states could defy Federal laws), secession, and slavery that led to the Civil War were settled on the battlefield but confirmed later by amendments to the Constitution.

the three postwar amendments

From 1865 to 1870, the states ratified three critical amendments. The first of these, the Thirteenth Amendment, abolished involuntary servitude in the United States except as a punishment for crimes. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, applied citizenship to all persons born and naturalized within the United States and guaranteed all such individuals certain fundamental rights, including equal protection under the law. The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed that no citizen would be denied the right to vote on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Each of these amendments vested Congress with enforcement powers.

Conflict over slavery was a major factor in the events leading up to the Civil War (1861–1865). Despite Lincoln's assurance that he did not plan to eliminate slavery from the states where it currently existed, Southern states seceded from the Union after he won the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln considered himself bound by oath to support the continuation of the Union by forcing the seceding states to rejoin it.

As casualties mounted, Lincoln considered ending slavery one of the larger purposes the war might serve. With the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), he used his war powers to declare an end to slavery behind enemy lines, but this limited proclamation lacked the security that an amendment firmly planted in the Constitution could provide. By the war's end, even the Confederacy had considered abolishing slavery as a war measure. Slavery had already led to one conflict, and the nation could not allow it to continue and thus lead to another. In January of 1865, Congress proposed the Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified that December. At the time, its passage was thought sufficient not only to end slavery but to entitle freed slaves to the rights of all American citizens. The legacy of the culture of slavery, however, was not removed by abolishing the institution of slavery.

After the war, many Southern states began to enact Black Codes restricting the rights of former slaves to own property and move freely. In 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill over President Andrew Johnson's veto to ensure the property and personal rights of African Americans. In addition, in 1866 Congress extended the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, also over Johnson's veto, to aid former slaves who were often uneducated and tied to the land by sharecropping agreements.

Although the intent of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was to extend full citizenship to free African Americans, the legislation could not guarantee protection in the future because it was vulnerable to repeal. More significantly, the legislation was at odds with the Constitution as it had been defined in the landmark Dred Scott decision of 1857, in which Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney had ruled that African Americans were not and could not be U.S. citizens, thus excluding all African Americans, whether free or slave, from the protections of the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to incorporate the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 into the Constitution. Its first sentence overturned the Dred Scott decision by confirming the citizenship of all persons born or naturalized within the United States. Section 1 further conferred the privileges and immunities of citizens, the right of due process of law, and the equal protection of the law upon all such citizens. Section 2 negated the three-fifths clause in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 2), which had counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining the number of representatives a state could send to Congress.

Free African Americans added hundreds of thousands of new voters to the political process and they became a new political force in the South; they were, however, often exploited by ambitious and corrupt politicians. The rise of African Americans to power was aided by federal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, which included a provision that prohibited any person who had "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the United States from holding public office. A significant number of African Americans voted and were elected to office during Reconstruction. A backlash, however, including intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan, resulted in efforts to deny African Americans the right to vote. In 1870, Congress responded by passing the Fifteenth Amendment, which stated that no state could deny the right of citizens to vote "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This was the first of a number of subsequent amendments (the nineteenth, twenty-third, twenty-fourth, and twenty-sixth) liberalizing voting rights.

The three post–Civil War amendments transformed the relationship between the national government and the states, diminishing the rights of states. They all, but especially the Fourteenth Amendment, created a new role for the national government by extending the protections of the Bill of Rights to all citizens of the nation. They also left legacies that have fundamentally affected American society and culture to the present day.

One immediate effect was that women who had supported Abolition and rights for African Americans felt betrayed when the vote was extended to African Americans but not to women. Although women had been fighting for the right to vote since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, they had to wait until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 to gain that right. Another effect was seething resentment in the white South against these amendments, which not only overturned the previous planter-slave culture but were forced on the Southern states by Congress's requirement that the Southern states approve them before they could have their military governors replaced with civilian authorities. Despite these fundamental changes in the Constitution, however, the national will to enforce these amendments largely dissipated when the national government withdrew the last federal troops from the South in 1877, thereby ending Reconstruction.

waning enforcement of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments

Even prior to the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the national government began to withdraw its protection of African-American civil rights. In 1873, the Supreme Court had given a very narrow reading to the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse Cases in which the court held that the clause did not protect the interests of butchers who were forced to conduct their business in state-approved slaughterhouses. This interpretation was made easier by a system of government that valued federalism and the exercise of state prerogatives over matters considered to be local in nature. The Supreme Court actively utilized the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment through early 1937 but applied it primarily to striking down what it considered to be arbitrary interference with economic rights rather than to guaranteeing the rights of racial minorities. In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the court further invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had outlawed racial discrimination in places of public accommodation, on the basis that the amendment's provision of equal protection only vested government with the right to strike down discriminatory state (as opposed to private) action. Perhaps more significantly, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court upheld the proliferating Jim Crow laws that provided for racial segregation and separate facilities as long as such separate facilities were equal. This decision remained law until the court's historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which struck down laws segregating schools.

For decades, the Fifteenth Amendment was even less effective than the Fourteenth. States adopted literacy tests, understanding clauses (both of which were applied in a discriminatory fashion), grandfather clauses (requiring such tests only of individuals, like the descendants of slaves, whose grandfathers had not voted prior to the abolition of slavery), poll taxes, and all-white primaries, supplemented by physical intimidation by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, to prevent African Americans and other racial minorities from voting. Although federal courts eventually struck down some discriminatory measures, including grandfather clauses and all-white primaries, African-American voting remained severely depressed well into the 1960s, when the force of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other federal legislation, supplemented by civil rights marches and voter registration drives, finally began to alleviate the situation.

legacy of the postwar amendments

The post-Civil War amendments were revived in the twentieth century. In Gitlow v. New York (1925) and subsequent cases, the Supreme Court began applying the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Court rulings significantly expanded federal oversight of areas once entrusted almost exclusively to state control. African-American troops returning from World War II brought with them a renewed sense that it was hypocritical for the nation to pursue equality abroad and deny it at home. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court reversed the doctrine of separate but equal and insisted on racial desegregation in public schools. Soon the principle was applied to all public accommodations.

As the Civil Rights movement, sparked by the Brown decision, gained power in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, Congress again turned to ensuring that African Americans had the same personal and property rights as other citizens, including access to public accommodations. In 1964, it passed the most sweeping civil rights bill since the Civil War, making it illegal to deny African Americans access to public facilities such as lunch counters. In 1965, Congress turned to the issue of voting rights, which had been guaranteed under the Fifteenth Amendment. Despite that amendment, most African Americans in the South had been denied the right to vote. The 1965 act removed all the barriers that had been erected to keep African Americans from the polls. Nearly a hundred years after the Civil War, and after years of struggles by African Americans, the nation's promise to guarantee equal rights to slaves was kept to their descendants.

Of all America's wars, the Civil War may have had the most profound effect on America's culture, society, and identity. The three amendments passed as a result of that war ended slavery, fundamentally changed the Constitution, helped create a biracial society on a scale never before seen in history, contributed to the expansion of voting rights that later included women, laid the foundation for the decline of sectionalism and states' rights that had divided the nation, and defined the concepts of liberty and citizenship in ways that shape American political culture and society in the twenty-first century.


Flack, Horace E. The Adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment (1908). Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965.

James, Joseph B. The Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1984.

Kyvig, David E. Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the Constitution, 1776–1995. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Maltz, Earl M. Civil Rights, the Constitution, and Congress, 1863–1869. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Nelson, William E. The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Richards, David A. J. Conscience and the Constitution: History, Theory, and Law of the Reconstruction Amendments. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

John R. Vile

See also:African Americans (Freed People); Black Codes; Reconstruction; Women's Rights Movement.

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Constitutional Amendments and Changes

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Constitutional Amendments and Changes