Consider the three Reconstruction amendments – the 13th, the book, the 14th, and the 15th-- discussed in the book Team of Rivals. Why did the Radicals insist on constitutional amendments to set policy after the Civil War? Did these amendments achieve their desired goal? Why or why not? How might reformers better have achieved their goals after the Civil War?
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There are a number of reasons why the Radical Republicans wanted to pass the Reconstruction Amendments. Some of these reasons were political while others were based more on principle. Let us look at a few of these reasons.
One principled reason to propose these amendments was to ensure that slavery and the oppression of African Americans would end. The three Reconstruction Amendments were written so as to accomplish just that task. The 13th ended slavery, the 14th required state governments to treat blacks and whites equally under the law, and the 15th guaranteed that blacks should have the right to vote. If these promises had been carried out, they would have done much to remedy the evils of the slave system that had dominated the South. A second principled reason to propose these amendments was to make sure that these changes would be permanent. Simple laws passed by Congress would be too easy to repeal. By contrast, it would be very hard to repeal amendments guaranteeing black rights.
A less principled reason had to do with the political fortunes of the Republican Party. The Republicans knew that they had very little chance of winning over white voters in the South. They also knew that this would harm their chances in national politics once the Southern states were fully restored to the Union. Therefore, they wanted to be sure that blacks would be able to vote. This would help the Republican Party retain power. This was a more cynical reason for proposing the amendments.
The amendments clearly did not achieve their desired goal in the short term. More accurately, the 13th Amendment did, but the others did not. Even before the end of Reconstruction, whites in the South were working to restrict the rights of African Americans. Once Reconstruction ended, whites used various legal tricks to restrict black suffrage and to treat blacks differently under the law. These problems happened largely because whites in the North did not care enough about black rights to keep allowing the federal government to control the Southern states. The amendments’ goal was not really achieved until the 1960s.
I do not think there was any way that reformers could have achieved true equality for blacks after the Civil War. They might possibly have helped move African Americans out of the South, but even that would not necessarily have worked. So long as the majority of whites did not have much sympathy for the cause of black rights, there would be no way to truly protect those rights.
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