The Civil War remains one the most momentous events in American history. The survival of the United States as one nation was at risk and on the outcome of the war depended the nation's ability to bring to reality the ideals of liberty, equality, justice, and human dignity.
The war put constitutional government to its severest test as a long festering debate over the power of the federal government vs. state rights reached a climax.
The Civil War and the bloodshed preserved the Union while releasing African-Americans as well as the entire nation from the oppressive weight of slavery.
Reconstruction was the period after the Civil War in which attempts were made to solve the political, social and economic problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 Confederate states that had seceded at or before the outbreak of war. Reconstruction was greatly affected by the most fundamental amendments of the Constitution, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Through examining the core elements of these amendments, the fight for full equality can be illustrated.
Section one of the 13th Amendment states that "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 two states "Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislative means."
The final version of the 13th Amendment was passed during the Civil War years, when southern congressional representatives were not present for debate. African-Americans had hoped for full equality, as did many white lawmakers. Northerners, like southerners, did not support schemes to redistribute wealth under Reconstruction because of the need to protect private property, such as slaves. Northerners, like southerners, believed in the social inferiority of blacks. Abolishing slavery was almost exclusively a Republican Party effort -- only four Democrats voted for it.
President Abraham Lincoln took the active role in pushing it through Congress, and used all of his political skill and influence to convince additional Democrats to support the amendments' passage. The fact that Lincoln had difficulty in gaining passage of the amendment towards the closing months of the war and after his Emancipation Proclamation is illustrative. There was still a reasonably large body of the northern people, or at least their elected representatives, that were either indifferent towards, or directly opposed to, freeing the slaves.
Although the Emancipation Proclamation had no theoretical effect on the legal status of slaves in the border states, it had a great deal of practical impact on the legality of slavery everywhere. Until the 13th amendment was fully ratified, the Emancipation Proclamation was the beginning of the end of slavery.
Reconstruction was affected by the 13 amendment in several ways. The Southern states, with their agricultural economies, relied on the slavery system to ensure the cash crops (cotton, hemp, rice, indigo, and tobacco, primarily) were tended and cultivated. Slaves were not unknown in the North, but abolition in the North was completed by the 1830's. A series of compromises, laws, acts, and bills tried to keep the balance between the slave states and the non-slave states, but were unable to. South Carolina voted to secede from the United States as a result of Abraham Lincoln's election to the Presidency, who had voiced strong objections to slavery. His incoming administration was viewed as a threat to the right of the states to keep their institutions, particularly that of slavery, the business of the states. More states seceded, eleven in all, forming the Confederate States of America. The secession movement led to the Civil War. In the waning days of the war, which ran from 1861 to 1865, the Congress approved an amendment to abolish slavery in all of the United States.
Most white Americans were diverted from completing Reconstruction toward new goals brought about by social change. A new generation sought new fields of endeavor afforded by industrialization. In the meantime, Northern armies continued to occupy the South and to enforce the decrees of Congress. In many parts of the South, the newly freed slaves labored under conditions similar to those existing before the war. The Union army could offer only limited protection to the ex-slaves, and Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, clearly had no interest in ensuring the freedom of southern blacks. The new president's appointments as governors of southern states formed conservative, proslavery governments. The new state legislatures passed laws designed to keep blacks in poverty and in positions of servitude.
The struggle for black rights was underway, but many abolitionists left the movement. Fortunately, abolitionists were not the only ones interested in giving blacks the right to vote. The Republican party was worried that the Democrats would regain their power in the South. If this happened, the Republicans would lose their dominant position in Congress when the southern states were readmitted to the Union. A group of radical Republicans joined with abolitionists in a campaign for voting rights for black men, who, they believed, would naturally support the Republicans.
In the summer of 1866, Congress passed two bills over the president's veto. One, the Freedmen's Bureau Bill, extended the powers of a government agency that had been established in 1865 for the purpose of providing medical, educational, and financial assistance for the millions of impoverished southern blacks. Congress also passed the Civil Rights Bill, which gave full citizenship to blacks, along with all the rights enjoyed by other Americans. President Johnson's supporters, mainly Democrats and conservative Republicans, organized in the summer of 1866 to stop the movement for further black rights. The radical Republicans also held a meeting in Philadelphia to vote on a resolution calling for black suffrage.
The movement for black suffrage grew rapidly after the Philadelphia convention. With President Johnson's supporters greatly outnumbered, in June 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment,
which was designed to ensure that rights guaranteed earlier to blacks under the Civil Rights Bill were protected by the Constitution. The amendment was finally ratified in July 1868 after all the states approved it. Although the new amendment declared that no state could deny any person his full rights as an American citizen, it did not guarantee blacks the right to vote. In most states, however, blacks were already voting.
The 14th amendment affected the Reconstruction in a subtler manner. The 13th Amendment was a major victory for the North, and it was hoped that with the effects of slavery in the United States would quickly diminish. The ensuing Reconstruction Acts placed the former CSA states under military rule, and prohibited their congressmen's readmittance to Congress until after several steps had been taken, including the approval of the 14th amendment, designed to ensure that all former slaves were granted automatic United States.
During the 1868 presidential contest, Douglass campaigned for the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant, the former commander in chief of the Union army. In a famous speech, "The Work Before Us," Douglass attacked the Democratic party for ignoring black citizens and warned about the rise in the South of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. These secret societies attempted to intimidate blacks with fire and the hangman's noose. They also attacked northerners who had flooded into the South at the end of the Civil War and southern whites who cooperated with the federal Reconstruction authorities. Douglass feared that the terrorist tactics of the Klan would succeed in frightening blacks into giving up the civil rights they had gained in the South.
Black voters came out strongly for the Republicans in the 1868 elections, helping Grant win the presidency. With Grant in office, the Fifteenth Amendment
passed through Congress and was submitted to the states for ratification. This amendment guaranteed all citizens the right to vote, regardless of their race. The campaign for state ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment was successful. Between 1868 and 1870, the southern states were readmitted to the Union, and large numbers of blacks were elected to the state legislatures.
During 1872, Douglass campaigned hard for the reelection of President Grant. At the time, the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations were burning black schools and murdering schoolteachers in an effort to keep southern blacks from learning how to read. As Douglass traveled, he continued the battle against the daily humiliations that blacks were forced to endure throughout the country. Whenever he encountered discriminatory practices in a restaurant, hotel, or railway car, he would write a letter of protest to the local newspapers. In such ways, he retained his position as the foremost spokesman for black Americans.
The last of the Reconstruction Amendments, the 15th amendment, affected Reconstruction in that it was designed to close the last loophole in the establishment of civil rights for the newly freed black slaves. It ensured that a person's race, color, or prior history as a slave could not be used to bar that person from voting. Though a…