The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution were adopted between 1865 and 1870, the five years immediately following the American Civil War. This group of amendments is referred to as “The Reconstruction Amendments,” or the “Civil War Amendments.” These amendments were important in implementing the Reconstruction of the South after the war, transforming the United States from a country that was (in Abraham Lincoln’s words) “half slave and half free” to one in which the constitutionally guaranteed “blessings of liberty” would be extended to the entire male populace, including former slaves.
Before the war ended, Congress had passed the 13th Amendment to reinforce the Emancipation Proclamation and extend the banning of slavery to all U.S. states. The Civil Rights Act that was passed on April 9, 1866, guaranteed citizenship to all people born in the United States. But a powerful faction in Congress known as the “Radical Republicans” wanted to ensure that citizenship for freedmen would be protected by the Constitution, and they sought to institute equal rights for black slaves.
The 14th amendment would extend liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights to former slaves. The 14th Amendment was bitterly contested in the Southern state legislatures, and most of the former Confederate states (except for Tennessee) rejected the amendment at first. The southern states of Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, and South Carolina eventually did ratify the 14th Amendment; and with the necessary three-quarters majority (28 of 37 states) having ratified it, the 14th Amendment became part of the Constitution.
The 14th Amendment forbade any state to deny any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” However, this amendment did not grant African Americans the right to vote and it allowed for segregation with “separate but equal” facilities. It was the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which gave African Americans the right to vote. Segregation was finally declared unconstitutional in 1954.
14th Amendment Resources (from the Library of Congress)
Our Documents: the 14th Amendment (The “Our Documents” initiative is a cooperative effort among National History Day, The National Archives and Records Administration, and USA Freedom Corps to make history come alive through 100 milestone documents that have shaped our nation. The site contains downloadable documents and teaching resources.)