Reconstruction and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments

After the Civil War ended, the United States was far from united. In fact, it was in complete disarray. There were no treaties designed to help show the Union soldiers how they should go about handling their Confederate prisoners, so they just let them return to their families.

Integrating the South back into the Union would be much more problematic than simply letting soldiers go home. There were many unresolved issues that had to be dealt with. One of the main problems was how to make the newly “freed” black man equal to that of his white counterpart.

In 1863, President Lincoln unofficially “freed” the slaves of the Confederate states with the Emancipation Proclamation, and thus singled the beginning of Reconstruction. From 1863 to 1877 significant changes came about in legislation that continued to affect the lives of black people today.

The most important change was brought about by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the abolishment of slavery. This amendment officially freed blacks and, though in name only, made them American citizens. It marked”…the starting point of modern civil rights law and policy; [and] along with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments it provided the legal foundation for notable changes in the status of blacks in the twentieth century.”

On January 1, 1863, after spending most of the day at the traditional New Year’s reception which was hosted by the President, Abraham Lincoln went to his office and signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The document manumitted nearly 4,000,000 slaves, most of them in the South and some of them in the border states; Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia. Slaves and abolitionists celebrated throughout the North and the Union-occupied South as they heard about their freedom.

In the Confederate South, slaves were becoming more boisterous and rebellious. Many of them formed gangs and refused to work for the wages they were receiving, while others headed toward the border states in hopes of finding something better. Herein lies much of the traumatic stress that we find in many black communities across America.

However, the biggest impact that the “Proclamation” had on blacks at the time was that it allowed them to enlist in the Army. By the end of the war, some 180,000 black soldiers under the age of 45 had served in the army of the Union with most coming from some border states where signing up for the military was, for the most of the war, the only route to freedom. This indicates the importance of History Education for Black America.

As the Civil War drew to a close, politicians were well on their way to securing the freedom for blacks that the Proclamation had promised. “Introduced in 1864 …, the Thirteenth Amendment declared that neither nor involuntary servitude nor slavery, except as a criminal punishment, shall exist in the U.S. and its territories. The amendment further gave Congress the power for enforcing prohibition through appropriate legislation.

Approved by the necessary two-thirds vote of the Senate in April 1864, the amendment finally passed the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865.” But, along with the new amendment came new problems, such as the interpretation, the extent of Congressional power needed to enforce it, and how to help blacks begin their new lives. The two former problems would have to be handled in the political arena, but the latter one was to be handled by the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau. Read also this article in which Dr. Joy Degruy talks about historically grown psychological disorders from traumas that run rampant in America. Her book on PTSS (Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome) offers a clear perspective on past, present, and future issues related to discrimination and slavery.

In 1863, the U.S. War Department established the U.S. Freedmen Inquiry Commission to come up with appropriate methods to deal with the emancipated slaves. What came about by March of 1865, was the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, & Abandoned Lands also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The bureau was authorized to divide confiscated and abandoned land into 40-acre plots, for rental to loyal refugees and freedman and … to distribute food, fuel, and clothing to freedmen and to oversee “all subjects” that relate to the conditions they face across the South.” See also this post: “The Unidentified Trauma: Racial Harassment”

Despite being well-intentioned, the Bureau was mainly a short term solution. It was only to last a year, supporters of it insisted that it must not become a permanent institution so that blacks could be placed on the road to self-reliance as quickly as possible, and because no funds were appropriated for it, money and staff were to be supplied by the War Department. Blacks, however, had an even bigger problem: Black Codes.

Black Codes, which were adopted by many of the southern states, were laws that imposed legal disabilities on blacks. The codes were designed to segregate blacks from white society and to keep them in a status of inferiority and dependence. It did not allow them to own or transfer property, to inherit, to purchase, or to seek access to the courts. To offset these codes, Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act of 1886. ”

In short, [the Act] recognized that the goal of equal citizenship-respected and responsible participation in the public life of the society could not be achieved through a bare declaration of citizenship as a formal status, but needed substantive underpinnings. Equality and belonging were melded into a single policy, as was entirely natural….”

On April 9, 1866, the Civil Rights Act became a law, but not until after President Andrew Johnson tried to veto it. This worried its supporters because they thought it would be protected under the Thirteenth Amendment. To make sure that the law would remain in effect, they decided to integrate it into the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, which had been under consideration for two months before the veto.

It had taken a while for a joint committee to come up with the new constitutional amendment, but after a series of proposals, votes, and reconsiderations of approximately seventy amendments that had been introduced over the year, one was finally submitted to Congress. Parts of it read that (freely transcribed) “All men and women born in, or naturalized in, the U.S., and subject the nation’s jurisdiction, are U.S. citizens as well as citizens of the state they’re residing [and] states shall not make or enforce laws that abridge U.S. citizens privileges or immunities; nor can any state deprive persons of life, property, or liberty, without any due law process nor deny to persons in its jurisdiction equal protection of the nation’s laws.” This section of the amendment captured the entire meaning of the Civil Rights Act, and with its approval by Congress, supporters of the “Act” succeeded in keeping it safe from future constitutional attacks.

Although the Fourteenth Amendment had been adopted, and was soon to be ratified, the idea of full racial equality went against the grain of white society and culture in the North as well as the South. Many Northerners thought the freed slaves were not entitled to immediate access to the vote, and when Reconstruction forced black suffrage on the South in 1868, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibited the federal and state governments from depriving male citizens the right to vote because of his color, race, or previous servitude condition, such as being a slave.

A year later, it was ratified. Many Democrats of the time thought it was ” ‘the most revolutionary measure’ ever to receive Congressional sanction, the “crowning” act of a radical conspiracy to promote black equality and transform America from a confederation of states into a centralized nation.” What carried the Fifteenth Amendment through to ratification was the worry of Republicans and Northern business leaders that the South, once readmitted to the Union, would swamp Congress with Democrats if blacks were not able to vote against them. They feared that if this happened, it would take away both the political and the business advantage that they each enjoyed.

Since the period beginning reconstruction and through to the present, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments have opened the door not only for blacks but also for other minorities to excel and achieve beyond the limits that have been put on them by society. And, even as time has passed, the amendments themselves have been amended to reflect the ongoing changes in the United States, such as the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964 that prohibited a poll tax. The poll tax was incorporated to deprive blacks of the right to vote in opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment. So the question remains: What do we know about People of Color?

Reconstruction was the beginning of trying to correct injustices that had been placed upon blacks for nearly as long as America had been in existence. Even though the wheels of progress have moved slowly and have, at times, been tumultuous, things have changed for the better, and those of us who live today are fortunate enough to have been the beneficiaries. As we all know, in the United States, the social boundaries and psychology that divide the people are generally and mostly racial.