Civil War Amendments

The Civil War Amendments, also known as the Reconstruction Amendments, profoundly transformed the meaning and practice of American democracy. The Thirteenth Amendment, passed and ratified in 1865, abolished the institution of slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1866 and ratified in 1868, established birthright citizenship, prohibited states from abridging the privileges and immunities of citizenship, guaranteed due process and equal protection of the law, proportionally reduced representation in Congress for states that denied suffrage to any of their adult male citizens, prohibited certain classes of Confederates from holding federal or state office, and repudiated the Confederate debt and compensation for emancipated slaves. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1869 and ratified in 1870, prohibited states from denying citizens the right to vote on account of race. All three amendments included unprecedented clauses that potentially invested the federal government with significant power by authorizing Congress to enforce their provisions with appropriate legislation.

The Civil War Amendments were the first additions to the US Constitution in more than six decades. The ideas underlying the amendments emerged in the antebellum era as abolitionists debated the Constitution's relationship to slavery and defined the nature of citizenship and its attendant rights and privileges. Abolitionists, both black and white, promoted the concept of equality before the law regardless of race. In the aftermath of the Civil War, these ideas gained widespread influence as former Unionists sought to secure their victory. Proponents regarded the amendments as guarantees to protect the freedoms of former slaves and thereby strengthen Union sentiment and the Republican Party in the former Confederate states. Many former Unionists were convinced that former Confederates would not faithfully abide by emancipation. The Thirteenth Amendment passed to ease doubts about the peacetime applicability and constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Fourteenth Amendment emerged as a response to former Confederates' attempts to limit the freedoms of former slaves. The Fifteenth Amendment combatted efforts by former Confederates to suppress black men's vote in the South.

The Civil War Amendments reflected the dominant view during Reconstruction that civil equality and manhood suffrage were essential features of American freedom. Opponents, in contrast, viewed the Civil War Amendments as federal intervention into state affairs that threatened traditional racial hierarchies. Their resistance resulted in phrasing that left the meaning of the measures vague and in compromises that sought to protect the separation of powers between federal and state governments. Nonetheless, the Civil War Amendments had a profound effect on American federalism in establishing the primacy of national citizenship over state citizenship and the role of the federal government in protecting the equal rights of citizens.

In the 1870s and 1880s, the Supreme Court drastically limited the meaning of the Civil War Amendments, specifically the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 ( 1873 ), United States v. Cruik-shank, 92 U.S. 542 ( 1875 ), and the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 ( 1883 ). The net result of these decisions was to severely weaken the ability of the federal government to make use of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in upholding the rights of African Americans. The Civil War Amendments lay largely moribund for a hundred years, at least for persons of color, until revived in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Civil War Amendments radically departed from American traditions that limited the rights and privileges of American citizenship according to race. In establishing the idea of a national citizenship and equal rights for all Americans, the Civil War Amendments changed official policies and government practices related to who qualified as American citizens and who deserved the benefits of citizenship. The use of federal power to define and protect citizens' rights was unprecedented. As a result, the Civil War Amendments enabled a new relationship between citizens and their government through the assertion of federal responsibility to protect the people's freedoms.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement ; Fifteenth Amendment ; Fourteenth Amendment ; Fourteenth Amendment: Citizenship Clause ; Fourteenth Amendment: Due Process Clause ; Fourteenth Amendment: Enforcement Clause ; Fourteenth Amendment: Equal Protection Clause ; Fourteenth Amendment: Privileges or Immunities Clause ; Thirteenth Amendment .


Brandwein, Pamela. Reconstructing Reconstruction: The Supreme Court and the Production of Historical Truth. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Edwards, Laura F. A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Foner, Eric. “The Strange Career of the Reconstruction Amendments.” Yale Law Journal 108, no. 8 (1999): 2003–09.

Susanna Michele Lee
North Carolina State University