Reconstruction: 1865–1877

13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were Reconstruction amendments that provided civil rights protections to formerly enslaved African Americans.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution legally abolished slavery in the United States. On January 1, 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln announced his intention to free enslaved persons in the Confederate states. The Senate then voted on and passed the 13th Amendment on April 8, 1864—a full year before the end of the Civil War. In 1865 Lincoln signed an order sending the amendment to the states for ratification. The 13th Amendment was finally ratified on December 6, 1865, eight months after Lincoln's assassination. Slavery was now legally abolished.

The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to the formerly enslaved African Americans by declaring that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" are citizens. This amendment further declared that any person born in the United States is a citizen of both the country and the state in which that person resides. States were prohibited from depriving any citizen the benefits of citizenship without due process or denying them "equal protection of the law." States were also forced to grant freed African American men the right to vote or risk losing representation in the House of Representatives. Furthermore, Confederate officials were banned from holding elected office, though the war debt of the Confederacy was excused. Thaddeus Stevens, a notable leader among the Radical Republicans, helped to draft this legislation. The 14th Amendment was sent to the states for ratification in 1866 and was ratified in 1868.

The 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote. According to this amendment, the right 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." Women's suffrage was excluded, and women would not gain the right to vote until 1920. The 15th Amendment was proposed in 1869 and ratified in 1870.

The Reconstruction amendments were intended to ensure the civil rights of the formerly enslaved. Nevertheless, Southern states continued to restrict the rights of African Americans. Laws were imposed that placed conditions on voting outside the scope of the 15th Amendment. Violence and intimidation were used to further disenfranchise African American voters.
Celebrating ratification of the 15th Amendment, artist Thomas Kelly's 1870 print features African Americans and scenes of African American life.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-34808