Aftermath and Impacts of the Civil War

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Describe the power held by the federal government after the Civil War. 

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One of the many disputes that led to the Civil War concerned federalism. There was a fundamental disagreement regarding how much power the federal government should have over the states and their rights as a sovereign entity. Many Southerners felt that state governments alone had the right to make important...

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One of the many disputes that led to the Civil War concerned federalism. There was a fundamental disagreement regarding how much power the federal government should have over the states and their rights as a sovereign entity. Many Southerners felt that state governments alone had the right to make important decisions (like whether slavery should be legal).

When slavery and tariffs became controversial states' rights issues, John C. Calhoun (a senator from South Carolina and eventual Vice-President) claimed that states had the right to nullify, or reject, a federal law. Advocates of states’ rights, like Calhoun, believed that the individual state governments had power over the federal government because the states had ratified the Constitution to create the federal government in the first place.

Most Southern states declared independence in an effort to secede from the Union because they felt that secession was the only way to protect their rights. But Abraham Lincoln and many Northerners held that the Union could not be dissolved. When President Lincoln objected to the attempted succession of many southern states, the Civil War began. With the South's defeat in 1865, national supremacy was once again affirmed.

The Union victory solidified the federal government’s power over the states and ended the debate over states’ rights in that period. Several changes were made to the Constitution that granted more power to the federal government.  

The addition of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified a few years after the Civil War in 1868, includes three key clauses, which limit state power and protect the basic rights of citizens. The three clauses are as follows:

1. The privileges and immunities clause declares that no state can deny any citizen the privileges and immunities of American citizenship.

2. The due process clause limits states’ abilities to deprive citizens of their legal rights.

3. The equal protection clause declares that all people get the equal protection of the laws. 

This was a large shift in history, as the federal government took a more centralized role in the realm of individual rights. Prior to this time, states were more like tiny countries and were allowed to treat their citizens as they saw fit. The Civil War brought about the notion that anyone living in any state in the United States was granted certain protection, and that would be enforced by a strong centralized power that reigned supreme over states. 

The federal government enforced new laws and began Reconstruction, which was an era when the federal government attempted to transform the southern states’ economies, which were dependent upon slavery. Congress amended the Constitution for the first time in decades. These amendments included the thirteenth (abolishment of slavery), fourteenth (described earlier), and fifteenth amendment (the right to vote despite race).

As stated, this new idea that the federal government was responsible for the protection of a citizen's individual rights dramatically changed the dynamic of the American government system. It led to the growing ideology that the federal government was in place to protect each and every citizen from state governments that may be denying certain inalienable rights because of some arbitrary characteristic like race, sex, and so on.

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The federal government's power grew after the Civil War because the federal bureaucracy grew because of the conflict. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the United States had over one million men its armed forces. The federal government's budget grew as a result of the war due to pensions, infrastructure rebuilding projects in the South, and government contracts. The federal government took the lead in the civil rights movement, passing laws to free slaves and make former slaves citizens. In 1870, the federal government also gave all black males over the age of 21 the right to vote. The federal government also headed up humanitarian relief in the South through the Freedmen's Bureau which provided humanitarian aid for former slaves and whites displaced by the war. The Freedmen's Bureau also provided more opportunities for public education for both black and white students; this was the first time that many in the South had access to public education. The federal government also sent soldiers to enforce civil rights in the South through radical Reconstruction.

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The power of the federal government grew as a result of the Civil War. One of the causes of the Civil War was a difference of opinion over whether the federal government or the state governments should have more power. The North believed the federal government should have more power.

Once the Civil War ended, the southern states were still not a part of the Union. The federal government was in charge of Reconstruction. Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau to help African-Americans adjust to freedom. It also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that gave African-Americans full citizenship. New amendments to the Constitution were passed that ended slavery, determined who would be a citizen of the United States, and guaranteed voting rights for people regardless if they were slaves in the past or what their race or color was. The southern states were told they had to approve the 13th and 14th amendments before they would be readmitted to the Union. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 set the terms and the conditions of Reconstruction. These state governments had no say in the development of these Reconstruction policies.

The Civil War strengthened the power of the federal government. It made it clear that the federal government had more power than the state governments had.

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