Story of Our Constitution - E. M. Tappan

The War Amendments

After the Twelfth Amendment was declared in force, in 1804, the Constitution remained unchanged for more than half a century. In that time the thirteen States had grown to thirty-four, and the 4,000,000 inhabitants had become 31,000,000. Civil War was raging between North and South. Negro slavery was not then forbidden by the Constitution and was in operation throughout the Southern States. The slaves remaining at home cared for their masters' families and worked for them, leaving the white men of the household free to join the Southern armies. To prevent this would be a valuable military measure, of great help to the forces of the Government.

One morning in July, 1862, President Lincoln called his Cabinet together. He read to its members a paper which he had just prepared, declaring all slaves free in those States which were at war with the Union. It is no wonder that the Cabinet were surprised and almost bewildered. "It will cost you your election," said one member, but this did not move the President. One suggestion, however, he did follow, and this was to postpone issuing the Proclamation until the Union forces should have won some decided victory.



Two months later he felt that the time had come. Again he called his Cabinet together, and read them the Emancipation Proclamation. At the end he said, "I know very well that many others might, in this matter as in others, do better than I can. . . . There is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here; I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take." The Proclamation was then carried to the State Department, and the great seal of the United States was affixed. The paper was signed by the President that same day, and on the following morning it was published in the leading newspapers of the country.

This Proclamation declared that on January 1, 1863, just one hundred days later, "all persons held as slaves in the States then at war with the United States should be then, thenceforward, and forever free." It was added that the Government of the United States would maintain the freedom of such persons.

This Proclamation did not free all the slaves, but only those of the States at war with the Union. Several of what were called the Border States allowed slavery, but some of these had of their own accord set their slaves free. Toward the close of the war, the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed all slaves in the United States or in any place under its rule, was laid before Congress. Late in the afternoon came the roll-call and the registering of each vote. The members on the floor and the spectators in the galleries listened with breathless interest to every name, eager and anxious. After the last name had been called, the speaker announced that the resolve was passed by a two-thirds vote. Visitors in the galleries waved hats and handkerchiefs, while even the members forgot all rules for behavior in a law-making assembly, and joined in the cheers. This Amendment was submitted to the States, and before the close of the year 1865, it had become the law of the land.

One year after the end of the war, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, and in July 1868 this had been ratified by a sufficient number of States to be declared in force. This Amendment gave to Negroes the right of citizenship, and lessened the number of votes to any State denying this right. It forbade, without a special Act of Congress, any one to become a member of Congress or hold any office under the United States or under any State who, having once taken an oath to support the Government of the United States, had taken part in the war.

The Constitution had given to each House of Congress the right to decide who were or were not qualified to become its members, and Congress had refused to receive any man from the seceding States as Senator or Representative who would not take what was called the "ironclad oath," that is, an oath declaring that he had taken no part in secession. As almost every white man in those States had taken part in the secession, few of the white inhabitants of the State had a legal right to vote, while this right was given by Congress to their former slaves. This caused trouble and interference with the Negro vote. To protect the Negroes in their right to vote, Congress now passed the Fifteenth Amendment. This declared that neither the United States nor any State Government could refuse the right to vote to a citizen "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."