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The coming of the 14th Amendment and Why

Summary:
The following sounds familiar, yes? Not much has changed since the Civil War. Still the same attitude, we belong but only on our terms. The Democrats of the South, now today’s Republicans starve for some type of leadership and glommed on to trump. What a compliment to trump that someone needed him and adored him. The murder of Lincoln was unfortunate. Southerners again had Black Americans under their thumb regardless of constitutional amendments and enforced by vigilantes. Just some thoughts taken from a commentary. “Enslavement, they believed, had enabled a few men to monopolize wealth and power in the American South, where they dominated state governments and wrote laws to protect their own interests. Those same men had taken over first

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The following sounds familiar, yes? Not much has changed since the Civil War. Still the same attitude, we belong but only on our terms. The Democrats of the South, now today’s Republicans starve for some type of leadership and glommed on to trump. What a compliment to trump that someone needed him and adored him.

The murder of Lincoln was unfortunate. Southerners again had Black Americans under their thumb regardless of constitutional amendments and enforced by vigilantes.

Just some thoughts taken from a commentary.

“Enslavement, they believed, had enabled a few men to monopolize wealth and power in the American South, where they dominated state governments and wrote laws to protect their own interests. Those same men had taken over first the Democratic Party and then the national government, controlling the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the presidency. 

The elite southerners were insisting the national government had no power to do anything not spelled out in the Constitution. It could protect the property interests of enslavers—through a law forcing free states to return escaped slaves, for example, or laws protecting enslavement in the western territories—but it could not do anything to help ordinary Americans, like dredging harbors, building roads, or establishing colleges, no matter how popular those measures might be.”

~~~~~~~~

February 4, 2024, Letters from an American, Prof. Heather Cox Richardson

On February 4, 1870, the Chicago Tribune announced:

“The rebellion may now be regarded as over and the great war finished.”

Referring to the Civil War, which had ended just five years before, the paper’s editor explained:

“That rebellion was undertaken to preserve and perpetuate human slavery, and, within ten years from the date of the first secession ordinance, the great struggle has been terminated in the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments….” 

On the previous day, February 3, 1870, enough states had ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to make it part of the U.S. Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment was the last of the three Reconstruction Amendments, added to the U.S. Constitution both to bring the United States closer to the ideal of liberty promised in the Declaration of Independence and to make sure that insurrectionists could never again try to destroy the nation.

Key to that protection was cementing into the nation’s fundamental law the power of the federal government over the states.

Congress passed the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments, the Thirteenth, in January 1865, and the states ratified it on December 6 of the same year. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished human enslavement in the United States, except as punishment for a crime (an exception that later enabled the use of chain gangs). President Abraham Lincoln and the congressmen who embraced this monumental change to the Constitution expected that ending enslavement would end the power of a few elite southerners to dismantle the United States.

Enslavement, they believed, had enabled a few men to monopolize wealth and power in the American South, where they dominated state governments and wrote laws to protect their own interests. Those same men had taken over first the Democratic Party and then the national government, controlling the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the presidency. 

The elite southerners were insisting the national government had no power to do anything not spelled out in the Constitution. It could protect the property interests of enslavers—through a law forcing free states to return escaped slaves, for example, or laws protecting enslavement in the western territories—but it could not do anything to help ordinary Americans, like dredging harbors, building roads, or establishing colleges, no matter how popular those measures might be.

During the Civil War, Lincoln and the Republicans rejected this old formula and created a new one. They pioneered a government that responded to the interests of ordinary Americans. Amending the Constitution to end enslavement was not simply an attempt to guarantee freedom for Black Americans; it was also designed to cement in place the government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Demonstrating that momentous change, the second section of the Thirteenth Amendment added: “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The first ten amendments to the Constitution—the Bill of Rights—limited the power of the federal government. The Thirteenth was the first to expand it. 

Republicans knew that Black southerners supported this new government. They believed that poorer white southerners who had been crushed economically before the war as wealthy white enslavers gobbled up the region’s best land and who had borne the brunt of the war would also embrace it. Under the Republicans’ new system, the North had defied all expectations and thrived during the war, and Republicans thought its superiority to the old system was so obvious that ordinary southerners would jump at it.

Many . . . but white lawmakers in the southern states did not. They agreed to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, but enabled by President Andrew Johnson, who took over the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, they passed a series of laws that bound Black Americans to yearlong contracts working in white-owned fields, prohibited Black Americans from meeting together or owning guns, demanded that Black Americans behave submissively to white Americans, and sometimes punished white people who interacted with their Black neighbors.

The Chicago Tribune wrote, “The men of the North will turn the State of Mississippi into a frog-pond before they will allow any such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves.” To counter these “Black Codes,” Congress wrote the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, and the states ratified it in 1868.  

Congress designed the Fourteenth Amendment to end forever the ability of state lawmakers to undermine the United States of America. The amendment declared anyone born or naturalized in the United States to be a U.S. citizen and then established the power of the federal government to stop states from discriminating against citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment establishes that states must treat everyone equally before the law, and they can’t take away someone’s rights without due process of the law.

With the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress tried to protect voting rights by establishing that states that did not permit Black men to vote would lose representation in Congress in proportion to the number of people they disfranchised. It also barred from office anyone who had previously taken an oath to support the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” Finally, to guard against former Confederates undermining the nation by refusing to honor its debt, Congress added that “[t]he validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law…, shall not be questioned.”

Once again, the amendment gave Congress the “power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

Two years later, when it became clear that the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment for protecting a man’s right to have a say in his government had fallen short, the nation amended the Constitution a fifteenth time. The Fifteenth Amendment established that the right of citizens to vote could not be denied or restricted either by the United States or by any state “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Congressmen believed that so long as people could vote, they could elect lawmakers who would protect their interests.

Once again, the amendment gave Congress the “power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

It seems clear that the men who wrote the Reconstruction Amendments expected men like former president Trump to be disqualified from the presidency under the Fourteenth Amendment, as 25 distinguished historians of Reconstruction outlined in their recent brief supporting Trump’s removal from the Colorado ballot. 

But the Fourteenth Amendment did far more than ban insurrectionists from office. Together with the other Reconstruction Amendments, it established the power of the federal government to defend civil rights, voting, and government finances from a minority that had entrenched itself in power in the states and from that power base tried to impose its ideology on the nation.

Notes:

Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1870, p. 2.

https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/13th-amendment

​​https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/23/23-719/298895/20240126151819211_23-719%20Brief.pdf 

https://www.theguardian.com/law/2024/jan/28/us-historians-sign-brief-to-support-colorados-removal-of-trump-from-ballot

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