Learning about America through primary sources: The 13th-15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution

Written by Derek Monson

November 12, 2021

This is part 10 in the Sutherland series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution were enacted during the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877). Together, they were an attempt to establish and protect Black Americans’ constitutional and civil rights in the post-slavery period.

The 13th Amendment, ratified by the states in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States and empowered Congress to legislate to enforce this policy.

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868: (1) required states to provide all people due process of law and equal protection under the law, (2) settled the question of formal American citizenship for Black Americans and required that Black Americans be counted like everyone else for questions of federal representation in Congress, (3) prevented former Confederate leaders from serving in public office, (4) prevented states from compensating citizens for the loss of slaves, and (5) empowered Congress to legislate to enforce these policies.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, made it illegal for the federal or state governments to deny the right to vote to anyone based on race and empowered Congress to legislate to enforce this policy.

Where did it come from in our history?

Toward the end of the Civil War and in the months immediately following its conclusion, there was legal uncertainty about the civil rights and standing of Black Americans. This was especially true in the Southern states. The Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln had freed slaves in Confederate states, but it did not abolish slavery. The Constitution at the time did not explicitly mention slavery, while it continued to count only 3/5 of Black Americans for purposes of federal representation.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Black Americans could not be citizens of the United States had not been overturned. And some states had begun enacting “black codes” to attempt to limit Black Americans’ freedoms and “ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished.”

The 13th-15th amendments to the Constitution attempted to address and resolve these concerns either directly or indirectly. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. The 14th Amendment repealed the 3/5 provision of the Constitution and overturned the citizenship component of the Dred Scott decision. The legislative empowerment of Congress by the 13th Amendment led to laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (enacted by overriding President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the legislation) which “invalidated black codes.”

Why are the 13th-15th amendments an important element of civics and history education?

These amendments to the Constitution were significant steps of progress toward fulfillment of the American aspiration of equality, contained in the Declaration of Independence, for Black Americans. Subsequent post-Reconstruction historical developments, such as segregation laws and the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, would be steps backward from the progress symbolized by those amendments – emblematic of the United States’ pattern of inconsistent and halting progress in its ideal of equality.

However, these three amendments to the Constitution – the 14th Amendment in particular – would eventually prove the downfall of segregation in the 20th century. They continue to protect the civil rights of Black Americans today through the laws that they authorized, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

If students are to truly understand American history and the evolution of our civic institutions, they must understand the historical treatment of Black Americans and the progress (or lack thereof) of civil rights for Black Americans. This is impossible without understanding the historical and ongoing civic impact of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

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