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Reconstruction and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments Page 1
by Roger Smith

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 continue 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. 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, approximately 180,000 blacks under the age of forty-five had served in the Union Army, with the highest percentage coming from the border states where enlistment was, for the most of the war, the only route to freedom.

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 slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime, shall exist within the United States or its territories. The amendment further gave Congress power to enforce this prohibition by 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.

In 1863, The War Department created the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission to suggest methods for dealing with the emancipated slaves. What came about by March of 1865, was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands also known as the Freedmen's Bureau. "[It] was authorized to divide abandoned and confiscated land into forty-acre plots, for rental to freedmen and loyal refugees and ... to distribute clothing, food, and fuel to destitute freedmen and oversee 'all subjects' relating to their conditions in the South." 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 intergrate it into the proposed Fourteenth Amendment, which had been under consideration for two months before the veto.

© 2004-2014 - Roger Smith; All Rights Reserved

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