All Men Are Created Equal

The Legacy of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments


Days before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861, seven southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. On April 12, southern forces opened fire on Fort Sumpter. Four more states, including Tennessee, joined the Confederacy and the Civil War was in full throttle. The Union suffered early defeats, but beginning in early 1862, under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union gained major victories. By June, the entire Mississippi River was in the control of the northern states. The Union, however, suffered a setback in August when its army lost the Second Battle of Bull Run and retreated to Washington.

In that historical context, President Abraham Lincoln presented to his cabinet a draft of what became known as the Emancipation Proclamation. By the use of his war powers as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy under Article II, section 2, of the Constitution, Lincoln proposed to free all slaves in the rebellious southern states. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton supported the measure, but Secretary of State William Seward, mindful of the second defeat at Bull Run, cautioned that the announcement be delayed until a Union victory was secured on the battlefield.

On September 17, 1862, the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, pitted General Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia against General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. In the bloodiest single day of the Civil War, with 22,717 dead, wounded, or missing, Lee withdrew his troops first, providing Lincoln with the strategic victory he needed. He announced that he intended to free all slaves in those southern states that refused to lay down their arms before January 1, 1863. When none of the states capitulated, Lincoln signed the historic proclamation, changing the legal status of 3.5 of the 4 million slaves in the country. While an enormous achievement for the abolitionists and African Americans, both free and slave, a further positive effect was to deter any support to the South from England or France, neither of which condoned slavery.

In the following year, President Lincoln, who had expressed concern about a legal challenge to the Proclamation, championed a resolution in the House of Representatives designed to abolish slavery throughout the entire country by way of constitutional amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime . . . , shall exist within the United States, or in any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Although congressional attempts to abolish slavery in 1818 and 1839 had failed to gain support, the Senate quickly passed the bill by a vote of 38 to 6. The House, however, failed by thirteen votes to gain the requisite 2/3 majority.

Undeterred, Lincoln, after winning reelection in the fall of 1864, made passage of the 13th Amendment in the House his top priority in the “lame duck” period before his second inauguration. His position was unmistakable: “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” In a session dramatized by the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” based upon Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” every House Republican voted for the resolution. They were joined by 16 Democrats, most of whom had been defeated in the November elections and, therefore, were free to vote their consciences. A vote of 119 to 56, barely enough, assured that the amendment would be sent to the states for approval. Republican House leader, Thaddeus Stevens, a long-time abolitionist, famously remarked of Lincoln’s role in the vote: “The greatest measure of the 19th Century was passed by corruption aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

The amendment, of course, required the approval of 3/4 of the states in order to become a part of our constitution. By early April, 20 states, including Tennessee, had approved the measure. Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated on April 13. Eight months after his death, when Georgia became the 27th state to consent, the 13th Amendment became the law of the land.

Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Greeneville, Tennessee, supported the Amendment. He “helped” by assuring the former Confederate states of its limited effect—neither granting the freed slaves the right to vote nor any other rights of citizenship. In consequence, the 14th Amendment had to be ushered through Congress by Stevens and other “Radical Republicans” without the help of the new president. Section one granted citizenship to the freed slaves and prohibited states from depriving them “of life, liberty, or property without due process of the law” or from otherwise denying “the equal protection of the laws.” With the exception of Tennessee, all legislatures in the southern states refused to approve of the measure. When, however, Congress adopted legislation that deprived those states of representation in the House and Senate until its adoption, all the other southern states fell in line.

After Lincoln’s assassination, President Johnson’s strategies were generally favorable toward the “entrenched white South.” When the mistreatment of the newly freed slaves reached epoch and often fatal proportions, the Radical Republicans again took the lead. Johnson, a former slave owner, had refused to support a measure which granted the former slaves the right to vote. Things got worse when Johnson vetoed a bill which would have continued the existence of the Freedman’s Bureau, the agency designed to help the former slaves make the transition to their new status. Another Johnson veto of legislation designed to assure the freed slaves in southern states the right to own land was quickly overridden by Congress, elevating the tension between the President and the legislative branch.

By then, General Ulysses S. Grant, the country’s military leader, had fully embraced the view of the Radical Republicans and, in consequence, had become the favorite to succeed Johnson as President. Grant, while not having voted for Lincoln in 1860, had adopted the “sacred goals” of preserving the Union and ending slavery forever “There are but two parties,” he remarked, when South Carolina had seceded from the Union, “Traitors and Patriots and I want to be hereafter ranked with the latter.” As the first four-star general since George Washington, he had walked the political tightrope, loyal to his duty to President Johnson and yet opposing Johnson’s promise to preserve the traditions of the South. Their differences finally came to a head when Johnson tried to fire Secretary of War Stanton. Congress had purportedly overturned the decision on the basis that it violated the Tenure of Office Act. Grant, as Commander General of the Army, declined to support the President’s position. The standoff resulted in Johnson’s impeachment by the House. Although Johnson narrowly won an acquittal in his Senate trial, the result further benefitted Grant’s political fortunes. In 1868, Johnson tried and failed to gain the Democratic nomination, losing to Horatio Seymour. Grant became the Republican candidate. In what historian David Blight described as the most explicitly racist campaign in American history, hundreds of thousands of African American votes made the difference in Grant’s 1868 victory. Johnson, embittered by the course of events, refused to attend Grant’s inauguration.

The 15th Amendment was the hallmark of the Grant administration. While the 13th abolished slavery and the 14th granted citizenship to African Americans, the 15th Amendment prohibited states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The measure became law when ratified by the states on February 3, 1870. Grant believed this, the last amendment affecting the former slaves, represented all he and his Union troops had fought for during the war, fulfilling our forefather’s promise in the Declaration of Independence . . . “that all men are created equal.” It was “a measure” Grant contended on March 30, 1870, “of grander importance than any other act of the kind from the foundation of our free government . . . since the nation came into life.”

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