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"The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents," Vol. 1: The Antebellum Constitution and The Thirteenth Amendment

The first of two volumes on constitutional reconstruction presents the antebellum struggle to determine whether the Constitution was a pro-slavery or anti-slavery document, the passage of two Thirteenth Amendments, and the end of American chattel slavery. [UPDATE: Sorry, initially inadvertently posted under my name, just corrected to reflect that this is Kurt Lash's post. -EV]


In my last post, I described the general nature and theory behind the collection, "The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents," (2 volumes) (Kurt T. Lash, ed.) (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

In this post, I describe the theory and contents of Volume One, The Antebellum Constitution and the Thirteenth Amendment. This volume presents the antebellum constitutional debates which ultimately inform the framing and adoption of all three Reconstruction Amendments, and the public and legislative debates accompanying the framing and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. The two volumes are meant to be read (yes, read) in tandem; the debates and ideas documented in Volume One play key roles in the constitutional debates presented in Volume Two. That said, Volume One stands on its own as a documentary history of the antebellum national debate over whether the original Constitution was pro-slavery or anti-slavery (the current "1619 Project" debate), and the national abolition of slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment.

Volume One begins with documents representing the various theories of constitutional federalism that arose in the period between the Founding and the Civil War. The issue is important because theories of federalism later play key roles in the debates over the shape of the three Reconstruction Amendments (references to the Federalist Papers, for example, occur over and over again during the Reconstruction debates). Documents in this opening section include the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and "the principles of '98," the nationalist theories of John Marshall and Joseph Story, the radical state rights theories of John C. Calhoun, and James Madison's elderly efforts to oppose both John Calhoun and John Marshall.

Readers may be surprised to learn that some of the strongest supporters of constitutional federalism during this period were northern abolitionists who relied on theories of federalism in their resistance to the nationalization of slavery. This is most dramatically illustrated in the state of Wisconsin's 1850s decision to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act and reject the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Despite the wide-spread embrace of federalism, this same period also witnessed a growing nationalist interpretation of the originally federalist Bill of Rights. For example, the abolitionist Joel Tiffany insisted that the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States included the rights declared in the first eight amendments (Tiffany, "A Treatise on the Unconstitutionality of Slavery").

A similar example can be found in an 1859 speech by a young Republican congressman from Ohio who declared that the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV impliedly bound the states to respect the federal Bill of Rights (John Bingham, "Speech Against the Admission of Oregon"). Bingham's speech is critically important for anyone seeking to understand the theoretical roots of Bingham's later drafts of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Much of the first half of Volume One presents the antebellum debates over slavery and its relationship to the original Constitution. These materials include the debates over slavery in the Philadelphia Convention, the Missouri admission debates, the rise of northern abolitionism, slave state efforts to suppress abolitionist literature, northern resistance to the extension of slavery into the territories and the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott. Although the collection includes key congressional and political debates, the materials also include a vast array of voices from outside the halls of power demanding an end to the practice of chattel slavery. These include black activist David Walker's "Appeal," Susan B. Anthony's "Let's Make the Slave's Case Our Own," and Frederick Douglass's "The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?"

The Second Half of Volume One documents the country's remarkable journey from proposing a pro-slavery Thirteenth Amendment in 1861 to ratifying the anti-slavery Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. In a last-ditch effort to stanch the secession movement, Congress passed the "Corwin Amendment" which declared that "no amendment shall be made to the Constitution" which would authorize Congress to "abolish or interfere" with slavery in the states. The gambit did not work and, despite being ratified by a number of states, this first Thirteenth Amendment was forgotten with the outbreak of Civil War.

The dramatic framing and passage of the second Thirteenth Amendment takes up the remainder of Volume One. Documents include anti-slavery amendment petitions from the Women's Loyal National League, Charles Sumner's failed efforts to broaden the language of the Thirteenth Amendment, Democratic opposition speeches declaring that the proposed abolition amendment was an unconstitutional attempt to alter an irrevocably pro-slavery Constitution, the House of Representatives' failed first effort to pass the amendment, Frederick Douglass's "The Final Test of Self-Government, and the dramatic second round of debates and a second vote that turned on the decision of a handful of Democrats who might, or might not, change their original vote.

Volume One closes with the public debates over the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Most of these materials, as far as I know, have never appeared in any prior collection. The proposed amendment raised a host of difficult questions that were discussed in newspapers around the country.

Were the states of the soon-to-be defeated Confederacy still in the Union and, if so, should they be allowed to vote on (and potentially defeat) the proposed amendment? ("Is the Union Destroyed?" New York Times editorial). Would ratification result in Democrats taking control of Congress since the formerly enslaved population of the southern states would now count as a full five-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional representation (and membership in the electoral college)? ("Dr. Lieber's Letter to Senator E.D. Morgan," New York Tribune).

Lincoln's tragic assassination resulted in Vice President Andrew Johnson taking the lead in securing the abolition amendment's ratification. Johnson established provisional governments in the south and prodded their governors to ratify the abolition amendment and, perhaps, "extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution" in order to quell congressional opposition to readmitting the southern states (Pres. Johnson to Provisional Mississippi Governor William Sharkey).

Meanwhile, anti-slavery societies, sensing that ratification was imminent, pivoted to calls for black suffrage, with advocates like Francis W. Harper declaring it would be unpardonable to say to black men "You are good enough for a soldier, but not for a citizen" (New York Times, "Speeches at the 1865 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society"). Similarly, the signatories of "An Address from the Colored Citizens of Norfolk Virginia to the People of the United States," demanded the rights of suffrage, not only as protection from discriminatory black codes, but also because "[n]o sane person will for a moment contend that color or birth are recognized by the Constitution of the United States as a bar to the acquisition or enjoyment of citizenship."

As the above documents illustrate, the drama of the Fifteenth Amendment began even before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. In the meantime, however, ratification of the Thirteenth remained uncertain. Northern states like Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey rejected the amendment. Provisional state legislatures feared Section Two of the proposed amendment would empower Congress to regulate local civil rights and establish black suffrage (see, e.g., Mississippi Joint Committee Report and Rejection of Proposed Amendment).

In response, Pres. Johnson's Secretary of State William Seward wrote letters to the southern governors insisting that their concerns were "querulous and unreasonable, since that clause [Section Two] is really restraining in its effect, instead of enlarging the powers of Congress" ("Seward to S.C. Provisional Governor Perry" New York Times). A number of southern legislatures ratified the amendment along with resolutions declaring their understanding that Seward's construction of Section Two was correct (see, South Carolina, "Ratification and Accompanying Resolutions," Nov. 3, 1865).

When Secretary of State Seward declared the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, the question of congressional power under Section Two moved to center stage. In November and December of 1865, multiple national newspapers published editorials with competing interpretations of congressional power to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment. The issue would dominate the early debates of the Thirty-Ninth Congress and ultimately influence their decision to pass a Fourteenth Amendment.

Tomorrow: Documenting the extraordinary drama of the framing and ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.