Legal Changes After the Civil War and the 14th Amendment

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Reconstruction Era followed, during which time the American states came back together again and worked to rebuild as a single nation. Andrew Johnson, a former slaveholder from Tennessee who supported emancipation of the slaves, was president during the Reconstruction Era.

A key element of the Reconstruction Era was the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which were focused on civil rights. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment covers citizenship, stating that every person who was born or naturalized in America is a citizen of both the nation and their state of residence. And the 15th Amendment decreed that a person’s race could not be used to deny them the right to vote. 

Some states in the south tried to restrict the rights of former slaves after the Civil War ended, and as a result, Congress instituted the 14th Amendment, which limited states’ powers and protected civil rights. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. For a state to be readmitted to the United States, it first had to ratify the 13th and 14th amendments. The Union Army was present in the southern states during this time to make sure that they complied. Native Americans weren’t included in this amendment initially because they were covered by tribal laws; later, in 1924, Native Americans were also granted citizenship.

The 14th Amendment includes five separate sections. The first section covers citizenship for every person who is either born in the United States or has been naturalized. This section also limits state laws so they can’t supersede federal laws. The amendment says that states can’t deprive citizens of their life, liberty, or property without due process of law. This means that any legal proceedings that happen have to be conducted fairly, and citizens have to receive notice and be given a chance to speak before any rulings happen. Under the amendment, citizenship can’t be revoked unless a person gives it up or unless a person lies during the naturalization process.

When the delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were trying to reach a compromise about the number of representatives each state would have in the House of Representatives, their agreement was called the “three-fifths compromise.” This agreement meant that every five slaves would count as three people when it came to determining the population for state representation and for calculating taxes. The second section of the 14th Amendment eliminated the three-fifths law, giving freed slaves full weight as citizens of the United States.

The third section of the 14th Amendment covers rebellion. This section prohibits anyone from being elected to a state or federal office or being appointed to one if a person has engaged in rebellion or treason. Congress can override this law with a two-thirds majority vote. In section four, Congress is given the power to legitimize public debt. This section also said that the United States would not be responsible for the Confederacy’s debt or for compensating the owners of freed slaves.

Section five covers the power of legal enforcement of the 14th Amendment. Congress was given power to pass laws to enforce all provisions of the amendment. There was considerable debate about the scope of power of Congress, and in 1879, the Supreme Court confirmed this power. Section five was an important point because it changed the balance of power between the state and federal governments.