Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The 150th Anniversary Of The Second Founding

On September 17, 1787, George Washington, James Madison, and their fellow Framers made the momentous decision to sign the Constitution and send it along to the American people for ratification – marking a new beginning in our Nation’s profound experiment in democracy.

While the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 established the firm foundation for our democracy, it was not complete because it did not address the vexing issue of slavery.  It would take more than seven decades and a bloody Civil War before our founding charter would right that wrong.

This year marks the Sesquicentennial or the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment, which, along with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, has been described by scholars as our Nation’s “Second Founding.”  Ratified by President Lincoln and his generation after the Civil War, these Second Founding Amendments transformed our original charter by ending slavery, banning racial discrimination in voting, and elevating liberty and equality to a central place in our constitutional order.  While we rightly celebrate our original founding charter, we have often overlooked the importance of these subsequent amendments, which has served as the bedrock and inspiration to procuring equality for racial minorities and women.

On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery and sent it to the States for ratification.  Passage of that amendment was by no means an easy feat.  As brilliantly captured by Steven Spielberg in his film Lincoln, the final vote was every bit as dramatic as the film’s portrayal.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s award-winning book, Team of Rivals, noted that before this historic vote:  “Every available foot of space, both in the galleries and on the floor of the House, was crowded at an early hour,” and the attendees included Chief Justice Chase and the members of the Supreme Court, along with Secretary of State William Seward.

Without the support of five Democrats who became the swing votes, the amendment would never have passed.  One Pennsylvania congressman, knowing that his vote could very well cost him his seat, said right before he cast his vote that “If by my action today I dig my political grave, I will descend into it without a murmur.”  I am proud to say that both of Vermont’s Senators voted in favor of the amendment, including Senator Solomon Foot, who served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate during the Civil War, and Senator Jacob Collamer, who was called the “Green Mountain Socrates” by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.  Upon the amendment’s passage, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered 100 guns to fire with their heaviest charges while the names of those who voted in favor of the amendment were read aloud because “History [would] embalm them in great honor.”


Upon passage, President Lincoln received praise from even his most ardent critics, including the prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who once burned a copy of the Constitution while calling it a pro-slavery document.


While this year marks the 150th anniversary of the passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, we should celebrate the Second Founding Amendments together, for they are inextricably bound.  The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1866 and ratified in 1868, is perhaps the single most influential amendment passed after the Bill of Rights.  This week also marks the 149th anniversary of the passage of the 14th Amendment in the Senate.  It was under the command of the Fourteenth Amendment providing equal protection for all citizens that the Supreme Court held that separate was inherently unequal in Brown vs. Board of Education; that marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be tainted with racial discrimination in Loving v. Virginia; that women could not be denied admission into an all-male military institute because of their gender in United States v. Virginia; and many others, including hopefully, that the fundamental right to marriage extends to all individuals regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity in Obergefell v. Hodges.


Ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments cannot be separated from the Fifteenth, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting.  In 1865, one month after the end of the Civil War, William Lloyd Garrison called for disbanding an anti-slavery society of which Frederick Douglass and others were members.  Prescient as ever, and about 100 years before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Frederick Douglass responded that “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”


As we celebrate the Second Founding Amendments, we must also take time to recognize that issues of race continue to plague our Nation.  And as far as we have come, we still have a lot further to go in our march toward a more perfect union.  There are some who would confine the fight for civil rights to a bygone era.  They see it as a remnant of the distant past in our Nation’s history.  And they cite the election of an African American president as evidence that we have somehow achieved full equality under the law.  But we know the struggle for equality and for civil rights is ongoing.  The fight for a more perfect union is one that every generation must contribute to – including this one.


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