Let’s Celebrate the 14th Amendment

tags: Constitution, Civil War, 14th Amendment

Amanda Brickell Bellows is a lecturer in history at the New School and a project historian at the New-York Historical Society.

Related Link How the 14th Amendment's Promise of Birthright Citizenship Redefined America By Martha Jones

Why are some events forgotten while others loom large in national memory? The Civil War, the deadliest American conflict, is a formative part of our history. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Mathew Brady’s photographs of soldiers remain etched in the public consciousness. We remember the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that slaves in Confederate-held territory were from that point free.

But the fundamental story of the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship to African-Americans, has been overlooked. One hundred and fifty years since the amendment’s ratification, that story is worth remembering.

When the Civil War began in 1861, approximately four million African-Americans were enslaved. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863, left three-quarters of a million people in bondage. Because the proclamation presaged slavery’s demise, however, African-Americans across the nation joyfully celebrated its anniversary in the years after.

Only after Confederate defeat in the spring of 1865 did the United States formally and entirely end slavery — ratifying the 13th Amendment later that year. At last, the A.M.E. bishop and former slave W. J. Gaines remembered, “the dark night, so full of suffering and unrequited toil, was gone forever.” Even so, African-American freedmen and women were not yet citizens. They remained in a kind of legal limbo in which they lacked constitutionally based civil rights.

For them, the decade of rebuilding that followed the Civil War was at once a time of trepidation and of hope for a better future. Called Reconstruction, it was characterized by political strife, economic peril and racial violence. In 1865, Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, welcomed former Confederates back into the Union, many of whom sought to re-establish control over emancipated African-Americans. Former Confederate states created laws known as “black codes” that restricted former slaves’ mobility and choice of employment and denied them civil and political rights. Black codes created conditions that were startlingly similar to slavery in parts of the South. ...

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