2022 Constitution Day - Reconstruction Amendments: The Roots of American Civil Rights

Kurt Lash, Kiana McAllister, and Erica Croft respond to questions Sept. 15 during Constitution Day 2022.

Kurt Lash, left; Kiana McAllister, center; and Erica Croft respond to questions Sept. 15 during Constitution Day 2022.

See video of presentations:  Kurt Lash, Grace Mallon, Nicholas Cole, Kiana McAllister and Erica Croft, Bradley Rebeiro

Constitution Day: The Reconstruction Amendments

Legal scholars and researchers from around the world gathered Sept. 15 at Utah Valley University for its Constitution Day Conference, organized by UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies (CCS).

The event is held each year in commemoration of the Sept. 17, 1787, ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Topics revolve around current and historical questions concerning our nation’s founding document, and this year’s theme was Reconstruction Amendments: The Roots of American Civil Rights.

Called the Reconstruction amendments because they were enacted in the years following the U.S. Civil War, they formed the legal basis for many of the civil rights Americans enjoy today: the abolition of slavery (13th); guarantees of citizenship, equal protection, and due process (14th); and granting the right to vote, regardless of race (15th).

More than 500 attended the conference, including UVU students and social-studies classes from high schools and middle schools around Utah. Presenters included Professor Kurt Lash, Drs. Grace Mallon, Bradley Rebeiro, and Nicholas Cole, as well as recent UVU graduates Kiana McAllister and Erica Croft.

Lash: Amendments "Almost Didn't Happen"

Lash is a professor of law at the University of Richmond and author of The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents, a two-volume collection related to the framing of the Reconstruction amendments. He spoke on what he called “Constitutional Reconstruction,” which he deemed “a success because it gave us the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.”

“It was an extraordinary project and it almost didn’t happen,” Lash recounted. “It was only due to extraordinary Americans—white and black, men and women, who involved themselves to the last effort—that we actually successfully completed constitutional reconstruction and received the three amendments that are so important to American liberty today.”

Unlike the original framers of the Constitution, who worked in secret, Lash explained that all of this took place in the public eye.

“There were so many voices in play,” he said, “that it is something of a miracle that any proposed amendment survived the process at all. And the fact that three survived is beyond comprehension.”

Mallon: What Citizenship Looked Like before 14th Amendment

Mallon, a research fellow in Atlantic History at Oxford University, who studies intergovernmental relations and politics and government from the American Revolution to the Civil War, spoke on the era preceding Reconstruction and what citizenship might have looked like for Black Americans before the 14th Amendment was passed.

“In the new United States,” Mallon explained, “the poor, people of color, and immigrants were seen as particularly troublesome subgroups who should be closely monitored and regulated.”

She outlined the network of regulations that were designed to limit freedoms for certain classes of people and gave examples of requirements imposed upon people of color, such as prohibitions on Black children attending public schools and that Blacks could not testify in court in cases involving whites.

“The movement of free Black people, along with many of their other civil and political rights, was so restricted and contested that their citizenship was fragile, tenuous, and contingent, even within so-called free states in the North,” Mallon said.

“The idea of American citizenship, even though it was vaguely defined, held so much promise for these groups of people,” she concluded. “Having their claims of citizenship accepted, especially through the passage of the 14th Amendment, would become the baseline for further claims about the rights that citizenship should allow them to enjoy in the United States.”

Rebeiro on Frederick Douglas and the 15th Amendment: "We Live in a New World"

Rebeiro, an associate professor of law at Brigham Young University, studies U.S. constitutional history and the influence of political thought on constitutional jurisprudence before and after Reconstruction.

Much of Rebeiro’s research centers around Frederick Douglass, an African American born into slavery, who achieved his freedom and later became an activist and statesman, pressing for the abolition of slavery and the right to vote.

With the 13th Amendment passed, “former slaves were now free, but the work had only just begun,” explained Rebeiro. “The next natural step in that progression was to secure their civil rights.”

As others focused on those civil rights, however, Douglass remained fixated on political rights because he felt that the 14th amendment would not be enough. “While it did guarantee citizenship, it did not grant Blacks equal political rights,” Rebeiro said.

According to Rebeiro, one source of opposition for Black suffrage was apathy. The other was the opposition posed by women suffragists, who found the prospect of Black suffrage without granting women the right to vote to be unpalatable. Douglass was a strong advocate for women suffrage before the war, but afterward he argued that voting was ultimately a duty that Blacks had to fulfill, and for Reconstruction to be successful, Blacks needed the right to vote.

Upon passage of the 15th Amendment, Rebeiro shared what Douglass wrote at the time:  “Henceforth we live in a new world, breathe a new atmosphere, have a new earth beneath and a new sky above us. We were always men; now we are citizens and men among men.”

As for what Douglass’s vision means for us today, “Each citizen benefits from ensuring that other citizens are able to exercise their right to vote, and each citizen has a solemn duty to exercise their own right to vote,” said Rebeiro. “I encourage you to read Douglass’s personal narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom. I promise you will look at the history of the U.S. but also its promises differently.”

Cole: "The Hard Work of the Students Here at UVU"

Cole is a senior research fellow at Oxford University and director of the Quill Project, a joint effort between CCS and Oxford’s Pembroke College to digitally model the creation of constitutions and other similar documents. He joined McAllister and Croft on stage to reprise a talk the three gave at Oxford University July 30 at the History and Legacy of the Reconstruction Amendments conference, sponsored by Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute.

When introducing McAllister and Croft, Cole gave his assessment of the research his two UVU colleagues have done for Quill and in preparing for this presentation.

“Anything good that has been done in the detailed archival work, selection, and transcription of the material, that is the product of the hard work of the students here at UVU,” Cole said, adding with a smile, “And anything that is not to your liking in terms of method, difficult interfaces, and deficiencies, that’s all my fault.”

McAllister and Croft: "We Are Better People and Better Historians"

McAllister, of Pleasant Grove, graduated with a degree in Political Science from UVU. She attended a study-abroad program at Oxford and has been a researcher on the Federalism Index Project and is currently working on the Quill Project.

Croft, of Ogden, is also a UVU graduate in Political Science with a minor in Constitutional Studies. She worked on the Quill Project and contributed to the 1895 Utah State Convention Project.

McAllister walked the audience through the process of researching and visualizing the drafting and ratifying of the three amendments. As an example, she showed the first draft of the 15th amendment and traced it from early versions to the final wording.

“We brought together various sources and put them all in one place,” said McAllister. “There was complexity, and we had to be selective with the material. We engaged with thousands of pages and a lot of difficult content. The blatant racism in them was shocking, but it was also illuminating and helped us to be better people and better historians.”

“This Reconstruction was a success,” Croft added. “It gave us the abolition of slavery, the creation and establishment of the rights of national citizenship, and raised the color bar from the right to vote. Building these amendments was an extraordinary project.”

Program

September 15

9:00 AM:  Session 1 – Clarke Building (CB) 101A/B
 

      Professor Kurt Lash (Professor of Law, University of Richmond

      Kiana McAllister (CCS Wood Research Assistant, Utah Valley University) 

      Erica Croft  (CCS Wood Research Assistant, Utah Valley University) 

      Dr. Nicholas Cole (Director of the Quill Project, Senior Research Fellow, Oxford University)

10:35 AM: 15-Minute Break

 

10:50 AM: Session 2 – Clarke Building (CB) Room 101A/B

        Dr. Grace Mallon (Kinder Junior Research Fellow in Atlantic History, Oxford University)
 

        Dr. Bradley Rebeiro  (Associate Professor of Law, Brigham Young University)