13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments

Also known as the Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution are some of the most important in U.S. history. These amendments (and the reasons for their creation) are definitely something you should know and understand well.

Before I launch into the full explanation, here’s a quick summary:

  • The 13th amendment ended slavery.
  • The 14th amendment established who is a citizen and how citizens would be treated.
  • The 15th amendment protected voting rights for minorities.
  • All three were intended to help African Americans, but unfortunately certain people found loopholes that allowed for the continued mistreatment of blacks.

And now, the details:

13th amendment

The 13th amendment abolished (ended) slavery in the United States.

The backstory: Many people in the United States had wanted to abolish slavery since long before the Civil War. The problem was voting power. Slave-owning states had enough voting power to keep slavery around until about ten years before the Civil War, and then at that point tensions between the North and South (and West) were running so high that no one chose to rock the boat any further by putting slavery up to a vote.

…fast forward through most of the Civil War (and the Emancipation Proclamation – which was a war tactic that freed all of the slaves in the rebelling states only) to the end of the Civil War … The Union had beaten the slave-owning southern states down so much that their surrender was inevitable. It was no longer necessary to try to woo them back into the Union, so the political climate finally allowed the U.S. to put an end to slavery. Plus, all the states who would have said no had declared themselves not part of the U.S. anymore, so there was no one to vote against the 13th amendment.

Unfortunately, things were worse in many ways for most African Americans in the South after slavery ended. When slavery existed, plantation owners at least cared about keeping their slaves alive. After the 13th amendment, African Americans were no longer anyone’s property. However, laws like the Black Codes and then later on Jim Crow Laws prevented blacks from having any sort of freedom. They had little to no access to education, land/property, or jobs that paid enough money to support themselves. Most freed slaves had no other option other than to work for essentially no money as sharecroppers or tenant farmers on the land of white southern elites (doing basically the same thing they did as slaves). They were “free” but had no opportunity to be successful. In fact they were prevented from being successful.

14th amendment

This amendment is certainly a powerhouse. The 14th amendment to the constitution did all of the following:

  • defined citizenship as anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. (which at the time was designed to ensure all freed slaves would become citizens)
  • declared that no state could make any law taking away a citizen’s rights (making the Black Codes illegal)
  • prevented states from taking away a citizen’s life, liberty, or property without due process of law (meaning a trial, etc.)
  • guaranteed equal protection under the law to all people in the United States

The backstory: After the 13th amendment freed all the slaves, racist white southern elites didn’t want to accept it. So they created laws called Black Codes that made it illegal for black people to own property, go to school, enter into contracts, stand on the street when they weren’t doing some type of work for white people, etc. These laws were designed to keep black people oppressed, just as they were when they were slaves. Thankfully the 14th amendment put an end to Black Codes.

Side note: This amendment is the first time citizenship is defined in the constitution, which I think says a lot about the debates over slavery that existed even when our country was formed.

Unfortunately, Black Codes were just replaced with segregation laws (“Jim Crow laws”) that separated blacks and whites in the South. Separate restrooms, separate water fountains, separate waiting rooms, separate entrances, separate railroad cars, separate schools, you name it – everything was separated for whites and non-whites. The Supreme Court said that was legal too, in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896. Their ruling in that case established the “separate but equal” doctrine. They said as long as the separate facilities were equal, segregation was ok.

But things were not equal. There was often no separate facility for non-whites. There were plenty of schools and restaurants and everything else for whites, but way too often there was nothing for blacks. No school for black children meant no education, and since their parents and ancestors had been uneducated slaves (for the most part), getting an education at home didn’t happen either. And that created a cycle of illiteracy that lasted  for decades. You could argue we still see some effects of this lack of opportunity today.

15th amendment

The 15th amendment says the government (both federal and state levels) can’t prevent any citizen from voting based on the color of their skin or whether or not they used to be a slave.

The backstory: Since white southern elites didn’t want blacks to have any job besides working on their plantations, among other things, it’s probably no surprise that they didn’t want African Americans to vote. And they did everything they could to stop it (including KKK violence). President Grant worked hard to stop all of that during his time in charge of Reconstruction, and he was largely successful. The 15th amendment was part of that success.

However, even after the 15th amendment was ratified, white southern democrats invented all sorts of barriers to voting. They were all directly targeted at the freedmen. There were poll taxes, which required you to pay money to vote. That was effective because the former slaves were very poor (actually they were usually in debt thanks to the sharecropping and tenant farming systems they were trapped in). There were also literacy tests, where you could vote only if you passed a test. But, like I just told you, there were pretty much no schools for African Americans, so they couldn’t pass the literacy tests. And what about poor or illiterate whites? That’s where the “grandfather clauses” came in. Those were stipulations that basically said if your grandfather could vote before the Civil War, you didn’t have to pay a tax or pass a test. So it was really only African Americans who were prevented from voting.

It wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s that all of these barriers to voting were finally stopped. That’s almost 100 years!

Side note about the 15th amendment, a few brave women, including Susan B. Anthony, attempted to vote after this amendment was ratified. They were arrested. The 15th amendment doesn’t mention gender, so men continued to bar women from voting. Women had been fighting for suffrage (the right to vote) since before the Civil War, but their fight was not over yet.


The three Reconstruction amendments were great changes to the Constitution. Unfortunately it took a very long time for those changes to become a reality. The time period after Reconstruction in the South is referred to as The Nadir. Nadir means low point. The late nineteenth century (1800s) and early to mid twentieth century (1900s) were the low point of race relations in U.S. history. Jim Crow segregation laws, debt peonage systems like sharecropping, and barriers to the only real American way to make change (voting) are the reason why.

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