BHM 2017 Day 5 — Going back in Time: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments

Hi folks,

Sorry for the delay. Work has been a bear. I wanted to take a few minutes to go back in time and go over the 13th-15th amendments and the miracle of getting them passed. You will find that we as a people had virtually NOTHING to do with this process. And the tangled reasons for it. Maybe 13 was somewhat altruistic, but 14 and 15 were pure politics. What will be interesting is to see the wording of #14, and how it has been used in the future.

As most of you know, only the states that ceded were impacted by the Emancipation Proclamation, and Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware were not required to set their slave free. So what changed?

Let’s start with the 13th amendment. It reads as follows:

Amendment XIII

Section 1

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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


In the final years of the Civil War, a bill proposing a constitutional amendment was introduced by a Congressman from Ohio. Another was introduced by a Congressman from Iowa, and a 3rd was introduced in January 1864 by a Senator from Missouri.  There were several additional wordings of the amendment debated in the Senate, but it was finally passed, 38 to 6, with only two Democrat Senators saying aye, in April, 1864. Then it went to Congress, where it failed, 93 to 65, short of the 2/3rds majority. The controversy continued after the presidential candidates debated putting it in their platforms. It was not considered a moral argument, although there was talk that it would lead to revolution. But some said that slavery was uncivilized, and even had negative effects on white people, such as lower wages. Finally, after his re-election, Lincoln was able to push the bill through in late 1864. Next was the effort to get it ratified by 3/4th of the states. Lincoln offered “any means necessary” to get ratification, promising government posts and campaign contributions. Representative Thaddeus Stevens commented later that “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”; however, Lincoln’s precise role in making deals for votes remains unknown. They did get the necessary votes in February 1865, 119 to 56 with 17 abstentions. So, next was ratification. Within the end of February, 18 states had ratified. Including Virginia and Louisiana, due to Reconstruction governments. And then next, in April, Lincoln was assassinated. President Johnson was went “hard-core” on Reconstruction, only allowing politicians in favor of Reconstruction to hold office. So of course, those states ratified the amendment. But there was still a fear that blacks would be able to vote and become politically active. Johnson and others in his administration assured the Southern states that this would not happen. And so, Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia ratified the amendment, securing the 3/4ths majority.


I want to point out that there is a “twist” to the 13th amendment, and that is the clause about being convicted. It is in the best interests of Americans trying to suppress the black vote to incarcerate us, and thus disenfranchise us, and put us to work as indentured servants. This is happening now in private prisons, it happened after Reconstruction with the Birmingham mines and steel works, as well as the building of the railroads. Incarcerated men, for as little as vagrancy, were hauled off to work in inhumane conditions. Some wrote home about it to their families. And some died. So, it is important to fight against unreasonable incarceration, and for the restoration of voting rights of those who have completed their sentences, because it hurts us in so many ways.


Now, back to the “story”. So what happened next? The 14th Amendment.


Amendment XIV

Section 1

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. 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.


Section 2

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.


Section 3

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.


Section 4

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.


Section 5.

The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article



It’s rather obvious from the 4 following sections that the intent of this Amendment was to be punitive, almost as if conferring citizen rights to blacks was an afterthought, or simply a way to hurt Southern whites, emotionally, financially and politically. However, the first section of the 14th Amendment is actually very powerful in its sweeping conferral of citizenry, and equal protection under the law to all residents of the US. It propelled Brown v. Board of Education (integration), overturned Dred Scot v. Sandford (blacks are entitled to representation in court) and even supported Roe v. Wade (abortion rights), and the Obergfell v. Hodges case regarding same-sex marriage.

The entire reason for the first clause was to dilute the power of Southern states in how they could influence Congress. It started with a Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was overturned by veto to give ex-slaves citizen rights and combat the “Black Codes” passed in the Southern states which attempted to return ex-slaves to something like their former condition by, among other things, restricting their movement, forcing them to enter into year-long labor contracts, prohibiting them from owning firearms, and preventing them from suing or testifying in court.  After the Civil Rights Act was passed, efforts toward an amendment were crafted. 70 proposals were drafted. For example, an amendment was drafted stating that any citizens barred from voting on the basis of race by a state would not be counted for purposes of representation of that state. Another one that failed would enable Congress to safeguard “equal protection of life, liberty, and property” of all citizens. The final version did pass, the Senate, 33 to 11, and the House 138 to 36 in 1866. Ratification in the states was bitterly contested. Every former confederate state refused it. As a result, military government was imposed, and states that wouldn’t ratify were denied seats in Congress. That did it. By July 1868, the amendment was ratified.

The Radical Republicans were satisfied that they had secured civil rights for blacks, but were disappointed that the amendment would not also secure political rights for blacks, in particular the right to vote.  For example, Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the disappointed Radical Republicans said: “I find that we shall be obliged to be content with patching up the worst portions of the ancient edifice, and leaving it, in many of its parts, to be swept through by the tempests, the frosts, and the storms of despotism. Abolitionst Wendell Phillips  called it a “fatal and total surrender”.  This point would later be addressed by the Fifteenth Amendment.


By comparison to the 14th Amendment, the 15th was simple.


Amendment XV

Section 1

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.


Section 2

The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


By 1869, amendments had been passed to abolish slavery and provide citizenship and equal protection under the laws, but the election of Ulysses Grant to the presidency in 1868 convinced a majority of Republicans that protecting the franchise of black male voters was important for the party’s future. On February 26, 1869, after rejecting more sweeping versions of a suffrage amendment, Congress proposed a compromise amendment banning franchise restrictions on the basis of race, color, or previous servitude. The amendment survived a difficult ratification fight and was adopted on March 30, 1870.


I wrote all of this, not just because it’s interesting, but because it’s an important forebear to the Civil Rights Movement. These amendments clearly state our rights, and white Americans clearly obstructed them through numerous means. So, our efforts to fight back were more than reasonable. It was just a matter of convincing the majority, 100 years later, that these rights were earned, deserved, and mandated.

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Filed under Black History Month, Uncategorized

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