US History Spotlight

Reconstruction Amendments

After the Civil War, the United States found itself with over 4 million newly freed Black people and no legal way to identify their status within the Nation. As they were no longer enslaved, no legislature had been created to establish their rights or citizenship in this country. Birthright citizenship had, of course, been denied as before the Emancipation Proclamation all enslaved people were considered property. So it didn’t matter at all that you were born in the United States, you, as a slave were not a person, but an object. Therefore citizenship was null.

The Reconstruction Amendments, also known as the Civil War Amendments, are the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the United States Constitution respectively. These amendments were created by the Radical Republicans of Congress to permanently solidify the citizenship and civil rights of the newly emancipated. They are as follows:

The Thirteenth Amendment, 1865


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.


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

The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States, except for as a punishment for a crime. As we well know, the second clause of this amendment was then weaponized against the newly freed as they were arrested for the smallest infractions or nothing at all. This clause has been used to perpetrate everything from convict leasing for the free labor in states to our current levels of mass incarceration in the US. (This is something will talk more about in another post.)

The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868


All persons born or naturalized [to legally become a citizen of a country] 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 [to deprive someone of something] the privileges or immunities [bans states from violating rights of a citizen] of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law [apply rules equally]; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws . . . .


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

The Fourteenth Amendment made all newly emancipated people citizens of the United States. This overturned the Dred Scott Decision made by Judge Roger Taney in 1857. In recent years, this amendment has found itself being invoked in courts across the nation as citizenship continues to be questioned.

The Fifteenth Amendment, 1870


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.


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

The Fifteenth Amendment gave Black men the right to vote. Please let me say they were given the right, but immediately voter suppression began to make sure that they did not take part in the democratic process. Some of the most used tactics were intimidation, violence, poll taxes, literacy tests and the like. Sadly, we are seeing a return of voter suppression here in the 21st Century. Also, let us remember that this amendment was for Black men, Black women didn’t get the vote until the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But even with the passing of the 19th, Black women and men, especially in the South, continued to have obstacles and suppression until the mid 1960’s and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The final section of all of these amendments states that Congress has the power to enforce them. This means that through legislation Congress is to make sure that these amendments are carried out as intended.

Here are a few of my favorite reads on the Constitution and Constitutional Law:

America’s Constitution: A Biography

America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By

The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era

The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation 1760-1840

The Law of the Land: A Grand Tour of Our Constitutional Republic

All by Akhil Reed Amar

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