As part of the Congressional version of Reconstruction, Republicans in Congress negotiated the passage of the 14th Amendment in June 1866, which was ratified by 1868. The 14th Amendment dramatically altered the constitutional landscape. It declared “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” to be “citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside,” finally offering a national definition of citizenship. It effectively reversed the infamous Dred Scott decision, erasing all doubt or ambiguity that African Americans were in fact citizens. The 14th Amendment also took further steps to protect the civil rights of African Americans: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The first section of the 14th Amendment is the most well-known, and has become one of the most important parts of the Constitution, allowing for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights against the states. But in three additional sections, the 14th Amendment went on to address specific aspects of Reconstruction and the status of the former Confederate States and their leaders. Section 3 prevented former Confederate political leaders from holding office, and Section 4 affirmed the South’s responsibility for a share of the national debt.
Section 2 of the 14th Amendment has the most direct application to the question of suffrage, but it only addressed the question indirectly. The amendment took an oblique approach: any state that denied the right to vote to a portion of its citizens would have its representation in Congress—and thus the Electoral College—reduced in proportion to the percentage of male citizens excluded. In theory, this language would penalize any southern state that prevented blacks from voting. Congress hoped it would protect black voting rights in the South; it was a way also to get around more controversial proposals that would have addressed race directly, making them much harder to pass. Of equal importance, the use of the word male in the 14th Amendment legitimized the exclusion of women from the franchise.
In March of 1867, the Republican-led Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, which became the legal centerpiece of Radical Reconstruction. It denied recognition to the existing state governments of the South and placed the South under military occupation overseen and administered by Congress. Each state was assigned a military governor, and former Confederate leaders removed from political life. The Reconstruction Act defined the terms under which states could finally be readmitted to the Union. First, they were required to ratify the 14th Amendment. Each state was required to draft a new state constitution abolishing the institution of slavery, and implementing manhood suffrage, allowing blacks to vote on the same terms as whites.
The Reconstruction Act, its requirements, and the military occupation it sanctioned dramatically transformed the South. African Americans were granted the right to vote across the South, and voted in monumental numbers. In 1867 and 1868, African Americans with poor white and Unionist allies elected new state governments and wrote progressive constitutions. These constitutions were strong statements in favor of universal rights—guaranteeing universal suffrage providing for social goods like public education.
By June 1868, seven states, with manhood suffrage, had been readmitted to the Union, and the process was well underway elsewhere. All this was achieved despite fierce opposition from upper class whites, who feared that a biracial alliance of blacks and poor whites would revolutionize the economic and political order.