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The End of Slavery and the Reconstruction Amendments

The Constitution provided a process for states to enter the union, but had nothing to say about what would happen if a state wanted to leave. The tensions that had been temporarily calmed after the Nullification Crisis continued to rise. As President Jackson had predicted, slavery was put forth as a main cause of the conflict. And it was indeed the main cause. While Lincoln had believed it was “in the course of ultimate extinction”, slavery was not going to just go away.

The interests of Northern and Southern states grew increasingly divergent. As more states joined the United States, tensions about the balance of power between slave states and free states reached a tipping point. Southerners feared that Congress would try to ban slavery where it already existed, while Northerners feared the “slave power” in Congress and resented the injustice of federal laws that required people in free states to return escaped slaves to the their masters.

Upon the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in January 1861, southern states began withdrawing from the Union. South Carolina, the first state to secede, echoed the language and style of the Declaration of Independence in its Declaration of Secession. Eleven states eventually formed the Confederate States of America (CSA). President Lincoln did not acknowledge the CSA as a separate nation, but rather considered those states to be engaging in an unlawful rebellion.

Emancipation proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet.

Two years into the Civil War, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

In it, he declared that enslaved people in the rebelling states not under Union control were “forever free” and that suitable persons among them would be “received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service” (Abraham Lincoln, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” 1863)

He saw that northerners opposed slavery but were not generally willing to fight to abolish it; they were willing to fight for the Union, though. This was Lincoln’s strategy: to abolish slavery through defense of the Union.

Lincoln did not declare free the enslaved people in slave states loyal to the Union (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri), or in regions of Confederate states under Union control. The Emancipation Proclamation noted that slavery in those exempted places would be “left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”

Lincoln memorial

The Lincoln Memorial

After the Civil War, Congress required that the southern states approve the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments as a condition of their re-entry into the union.

The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) ended slavery throughout the U.S. and banned it forever. 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.” It was this amendment, not Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, that put an end to slavery in the entire Union.

Congress hoped to make protection of blacks’ civil rights permanent through the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) to the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment was a significant alteration of the practice of federalism. It dramatically limited the powers of states.

Section I of the Fourteenth Amendment reads: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state 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.”

Its clauses are known respectively as the Privileges and Immunities Clause; the Due Process Clause; and the Equal Protection Clause. The meaning of each of these clauses has been debated since the amendment’s ratification.

The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) protected the rights of blacks to vote, stating: “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.”

For a time after the passage of these amendments, African-Americans voted in large numbers despite coercion, fraud, and intimidation. Beginning in the 1890s, attempts to disenfranchise African-American voters became formalized through the adoption of voting requirements such as literacy tests, property qualifications, and, later, poll taxes. These measures deprived large numbers of black citizens of their right to vote.

The Supreme Court initially interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment narrowly. It held in the Slaughterhouse Cases that the amendment’s Due Process Clause applied the same limits to state governments that the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause imposed on the national government. The “privileges and immunities” of citizens, the Court also held, were limited to matters involving national citizenship.

Like all constitutional provisions and amendments, the significance of the Reconstruction amendments has not been limited to the time of their ratification.

During World War I, anti-war protestors used the Thirteenth Amendment to argue against the military draft. It has been invoked by some in contemporary times to argue against state laws that require individuals and small business to work against their will. (For example: does a Muslim wedding photographer have the right to refuse to photograph a gay wedding? Or, does a gay couple have the right to force a Muslim photographer to photograph their wedding?)

The significance of the Fourteenth Amendment over the last one hundred years cannot be overstated. The first time the Court was asked to decide if it meant that Bill of Rights protections applied to the states, it said no. Beginning in 1925 with Gitlow v. New York, the Court decided that it did some of the time. The Court began to use the Fourteenth Amendment to selectively incorporate (or apply) some sections of the Bill of Rights to state governments.

Though the idea may have surprised many people in 1868, over time many began to view the national government, and not state governments, as the primary protector of their rights. Further, as the definition of “rights” began to be changed by those in power during the Progressive Era, this new role for the federal government set the stage for a dramatic increase in its size, scope, and power.