Reconstruction

This is the seventh chapter of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided links.

We pick up with the fourteenth amendment. When we look at countries torn by civil war, we often fail to empathize. We were there ourselves, and the effects on society are devastating. Look around you at how passionate people can be about their beliefs, and imagine if the passion increased to the point they were killing each other rather than making snarky comments. Now imagine they’ve been killing each other for four years, taking the lives of three out of ten of your neighbors. Just because someone signed a treaty doesn’t mean it all goes away.

Following the Civil War, the United States went through a period called reconstruction, literally rebuilding the union. The thirteenth amendment was the first step, abolishing slavery, six months later the fourteenth amendment was submitted for ratification. In order to abolish slavery, definitions would be required for some people. The amendment also addresses those involved in the civil war or any future insurrection. It reads as follows;

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article

The first section is one of the more litigated parts of the constitution, containing clauses establishing Citizenship, Privileges or Immunities, Due Process, and Equal Protection. These clauses form the basis for such diverse cases as Roe v Wade and Bush v Gore. When you compare it to the amendments of the Bill of Rights, there’s nothing new here other than the force of the idea of reconstruction, these rules apply to everyone.

Sections two and three address counting of people as people, apportioning representatives based on population of all people rather than all white people, and requiring representatives to have not been involved in insurrection.

Section four is rather interesting. It basically states that the expenses of the the Civil War incurred by the Union will be paid by the newly reunited states, but the expenses of the Confederacy will not, with the allowance any debts incurred by the Confederacy are invalid. The words “The validity of the public debt…shall not be questioned” took me by surprise only because it is established in the amendment. How many times have you heard people refer to some democratization of the budget, as in “I only want to pay taxes if they pay for what I want”. Forty years later in the sixteenth amendment this concept takes force.

The next amendment of the reconstruction era was submitted for ratification just six months after the fourteenth amendment was ratified. During those six months, the first presidential election since the War was held, in which twenty three electoral votes from formerly Confederate states were discarded and only eight Northern states allowed blacks to vote. The fifteenth amendment was determined necessary despite section two of the fourteenth. It reads;

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

While Northerners had assumed allowing former slaves to vote would maintain a Republican majority, they had wished to preserve restrictions denying the right to vote to foreign-born citizens, as did Representatives from the West, where Chinese Americans were banned from voting. The amendment passed with voting defined by party lines, not a single Democrat voting for the amendment.

The first known black voter after the amendment’s adoption was Thomas Mundy Peterson, who cast his ballot on March 31, 1870 in the Perth Amboy, New Jersey mayoral election. Although Blacks had been elected and appointed to local and state offices previously, following the ratification of the fifteenth amendment it would still be one hundred and twenty years before a black governor was elected, Douglas Wilder of Virginia in 1990.

When we consider the difficulties of our own reconstruction, the wounds that still haven’t healed, perhaps we can find some sympathy for nations that have civil wars continuing for centuries. We’re all growing, sometimes it takes a while to heal so growth can continue.

It took another forty years before another amendment was submitted, we’ll pick up there next time.

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One comment on “Reconstruction

  1. […] of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided […]

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