On April 9, 1865, barely three months after his promotion to serve as general-in-chief of Confederate forces serving in the Civil War, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington.
Lincoln died the following morning.
One hundred and fifty years later, the stunning events of April 1865 continue to shape and challenge the American experience. With Lincoln’s death, an inept and irresponsible vice president, Andrew Johnson, succeeded to the presidency. Had it been left to Johnson, the great sacrifices of the Civil War would have been imperiled. But the rough outlines for securing the victory were not left to a president. They were enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Three amendments to the founding document were enacted during the five-year period from 1865 to 1870, and they remain transformational statements — even if their promise has yet to be fully recognized or realized.
The first of these amendments addressed the great failure of the founding moment: a “compromise” that recognized — and effectively permitted — human bondage.
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution affirmed: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Those words confronted the indefensible “Three-Fifths Compromise,” which was outlined in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution as it was framed in 1787. That paragraph did not speak specifically of slavery, but instead referred to two groups of Americans: “the whole Number of free Persons” and “all other Persons.”
The 13th Amendment was an essential first step toward an official embrace of Thomas Jefferson’s “immortal declaration” of 1776 — that “all men are created equal.”
But it was not enough.
To the 13th Amendment of 1865 was added a 14th Amendment of 1868, which confirmed: “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 14th Amendment, remarkable in its clarity and detail, provided for due process and equal protection under the law.
But it was not enough.
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To the 13th Amendment of 1865 and the 14th Amendment of 1868 was added the 15th Amendment of 1870, which avowed: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Congress was given the power to enforce these articles by appropriate legislation.
But that was still not enough, as became obvious with the collapse of Reconstruction and the establishment of “Jim Crow” segregation in states that had been part of the Confederacy. With these ruptures came overt discrimination against voting rights.
It took more than a century of litigation, boycotts, protests and marches to restore the promise of equal protection and voting rights.
But that was not enough.
Despite the protections delineated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the 24th Amendment to the Constitution (which in 1964 formally banned poll taxes), headlines remind us that the right to vote is “still threatened.” The U.S. Supreme Court has mangled the Voting Rights Act, and the Congress has failed to repair the damage done. The Brennan Center for Justice has determined that at least 83 restrictive bills were introduced in 29 states where legislatures had floor activity in 2014, including proposals to require a photo ID, make voter registration more difficult, reduce early voting opportunities, and make it harder for students to vote.
“The stark and simple truth is this — the right to vote is threatened today — in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” said President Obama.
The great American process of forming a more perfect union is not yet complete. The events of 150 years ago were not the end of anything. They were a pivot point that took the United States in a better direction. But they have proven to be insufficient to establish justice. So the process continues.
That is why Congressmen Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, have proposed to amend the Constitution to declare clearly and unequivocally:
“SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
“SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.”
The Pocan-Ellison amendment will not, in and of itself, form a more perfect union. But it provides a tool for those who understand that we best honor our history by recognizing unmet promises — and seeking, finally, to keep them.