The United States always has been an experiment in democracy.
Not everyone had the freedoms we all have today; and some argue that Americans still don’t. But the Civil War enabled the US to extend democracy to more people.
The ending of the Civil War allowed the US government to give African-Americans the same rights as the rest of the population. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were added to the US Constitution between 1865 and 1870, and they are referred to as the second bill of rights.
Times were chaotic during these years. The reconstruction era was just beginning as the southern states were considered a foreign country after seceding a few years earlier. The South’s agrarian economy and infrastructure were turned upside down; fields that once grew cotton were filled with weeds, roads and bridges were destroyed by the invading Northern armies. Military governors were the executive authorities in the states, and civilian governments were not allowed to be installed until new state constitutions were written and loyalty oaths were taken.
In early 1865, everyone was realizing that the war was coming to an end as Confederate armies were depleted of soldiers and supplies. The main issue of the war was slavery, and President Lincoln was suspicious that the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t hold up as law after the war. Besides that, the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in lands under federal control, which left millions of slaves unprotected. A permanent law was needed for complete emancipation.
The Republicans in the House of Representatives and Senate were on a crusade. The senate had approved the 13th Amendment in the spring of 1864, but in the house, Democrats blocked its passage. The November elections brought a larger majority of Republicans to the house, and the bill passed in January, 1865. By December, the required three-fourths of the states ratified the 13th Amendment.
Now that slavery was over, the Radical Republicans wanted to go further. A civil rights act was introduced in 1866 that gave citizenship to African-Americans, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill twice. Eventually the act became law as congress overrode the president’s second veto. Congress had no confidence in it, however. Senators and representatives knew that this act could be challenged in court, especially if there was nothing supporting it. Again, congress needed something stronger.
The 14th Amendment was ratified by the states in 1868. African-Americans were granted citizenship and equal protection under the law (due process), and Southern states were required to ratify the amendment before readmission to the union. It also gave the southern states an ultimatum: denying the right to vote to any male, blacks included, will reduce the number of representatives in the house. And despite the uproar by Southerners and Democrats, it barred former confederates from holding office at state or federal levels.
If the 14th Amendment would penalize states for denying the right to vote, the US government still had to extend that right. The 15th Amendment gave African-American men the right to vote in 1870, but left some loopholes that would allow voting restrictions. A different version of this bill suggested that there should be no literacy tests or property requirements. But these were excluded from the bill that passed because of anti-Chinese discrimination and the possibility of states losing authority over their own election process.
After the Reconstruction era, southern states passed laws requiring literacy tests and poll taxes to restrict voting. It wasn’t until the 24th Amendment (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) that these restrictions were finally abolished.
The United States had some bad episodes in its history, but it finally made the right steps to include more people under the ideals of democracy. There was still a long way to go before everyone was included but it shows how the US can change for the better.
Note: Illinois was the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment, on Feb. 1, 1865. Pennsylvania was among 5 states to ratify on Feb. 3.