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An overview and the 13th Amendment

Jeffrey Rosen of the National Constitution Center in conversation with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute. 
Created by Aspen Institute.

Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute and more here with another lesson in our American civics series this under reconstruction amendments after the Civil War and I'm here with Jeffrey Rosen a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University and the president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia Jeffrey let's start with the end of the Civil War let's go on this timeline here and and Appomattox we have the surrender of general robert e lee to the Union General Ulysses Grant and April of 1865 so take us from there and tell us when we start having these Reconstruction Amendments well the debates over the Reconstruction Amendments had actually begun before the end of the Civil War President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 but he wasn't sure that he had the constitutional authority to free the slaves and therefore it was part of his party platform in 1864 that he would pass constitutional amendments abolishing slavery so as you said the Civil War ended in April 1865 even before then the Senate had already introduced the Thirteenth Amendment which would abolish slavery the House passed it in January of 1865 and it was ratified at the end of that year in December of 1865 so that's the one that Spielberg did that movie about the movie Lincoln is about the Thirteenth Amendment right exactly and we all think we know the story from that great movie yes right well you know the Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal but the original Constitution contains no guarantee of equality how did that become a constitutional right it was Lincoln who proclaimed at Gettysburg a new birth of freedom that would ensure that Jefferson's promised that all men are created equal would actually become a legal reality but again Lincoln's promise in Gettysburg wasn't enshrined in the Constitution until the 13th amendment was passed and that's the amendment that abolishes slavery it says neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction so that did that actually end slavery right away well it formally ended slavery but of the southern states fought back they passed a series of laws known as the Black Codes that basically reinstated slavery by other means they denied african-americans the right to make and enforce contracts the right to sue and be sued and basically denied them the equal civil rights that white people were so didn't the Thirteenth Amendment apply also to the states or just to the federal government the Thirteenth Amendment does indeed apply to the federal government to the states and to private parties to private parties are forbidden from putting others in peonage or slavery the problem is that the southern states just ignored it and even though they'd formally emancipated the slaves they continue to deny slaves their equal civil so how did Congress push back on that so they pushed back by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that law basically said that African Americans shall have the same rights to make and enforce contracts to soon be sued to inherit property as white people the problem was once again there was question about Congress's constitutional authority to pass that Civil Rights Act and President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act claiming Congress lacked the constitutional authority to pass it that's why the 14th amendment is necessary to make clear that Congress had the power to pass the Civil Rights Act and at that point all of the states that had been in rebellion as part of the Confederacy were back as part of the United States no not at all this is part of the fascinating bit of the story it was a condition to be readmitted to the union that the states ratified the 14th amendment so basically they were forced at gunpoint to ratify the 14th amendment Congress told him unless you ratified this amendment you will not be allowed back and what about the Thirteenth Amendment they had to ratify that as well the Thirteenth Amendment began to be debated before the Civil War and it as as we remember from the movie it was a nail-biter but basically I have that one passed without the force of arms behind it but it passed by not all of the states being participants in the process because the southern states hadn't all come back in by the time the 13th is ratified that's exactly right and that's why there's a serious question about whether the 13th and the 14th amendment actually were legally ratified but of course the same question arose with the ratification of the original Constitution which broke the rules of the Articles of Confederation therefore our greatest constitutional guarantees may have been ratified by arguably illegal means but everybody now accepts and every Court has now accepted that the Thirteenth Amendment was fide justifiably they certainly do in the 14th and 15th - these are now the centerpiece of our constitutional jurisprudence arguably the most important constitutional amendments we have well in the next session we'll get to the 14th amendment Thank You Jeffrey thank you