Preserving the union was just the beginning. When the Civil War ended in 1865, the reunited states had to secure the peace by facing thorny issues left unaddressed or ambiguous in the founding documents. In Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality, the National Constitution Center (NCC) examines the causes and aftermath of the conflict.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution were born in this postbellum era. Through personal stories, rare artifacts, original documents, interactive displays, and a live theater performance, the NCC’s new permanent exhibit explores the period Akhil Reed Amar of Yale University calls “America’s second founding.”
Douglass and Lincoln
“If the South has made the Constitution bend to the purposes of slavery, let the North now make that instrument bend to the cause of freedom and justice,” Frederick Douglass said in 1860. His is just one story threading through the exhibit, which reveals the struggle to repair a nation shredded by conflict. Douglass, an abolitionist and statesman, escaped slavery pretending to be a free black sailor, then traveled the country recruiting men for the United States Colored Volunteers. The display includes the handwritten document that gave him safe passage on this mission.
Abraham Lincoln is represented throughout, including a mold of his hands—the right one swollen from shaking hands on the stump—and a campaign ribbon bearing a postage stamp-sized portrait and a tiny rail-splitter figure. Artifacts from his 1861 pre-inaugural visit to Independence Hall are on view as well, including a fragment of the flag Lincoln raised.
The most haunting Lincoln item is a notebook written by Corporal James Turner late on April 14, 1865, as he sat near the dying president in a house across from Ford’s Theatre. Turner, a War Department clerk, took down eyewitness accounts of the assassination, shifting from handwriting into shorthand to keep up with the descriptions.
The stuff of war… and what followed
Though the main focus is Reconstruction, wartime artifacts are displayed, including a silver pocket watch that caught a bullet meant for Captain John O. Foering and an 1863 letter from Union soldier Carlton Birch to his uncle, complaining of the weight of his kit. It seems impossible that Birch’s florid penmanship, accompanied by an illustration of a marching soldier, was produced anywhere near a battlefield.
Surprisingly, the Confederacy found time to compose its own constitution, and a copy is here. Captions explain the 1861 document mirrored the US Constitution, with a couple of alterations: “In addition to explicitly protecting slavery, they…increased executive powers, created one six-year term for the president, and strengthened states’ rights.”
There are shackles that were worn by an enslaved person and spurs worn by Union General George Meade, who led the campaign at Gettysburg and is buried in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. Telegrams from 1861 announce Virginia’s secession and the capture of Fort Sumter by Confederate forces, the act that began the Civil War.
Few words, enormous impact
The amendments are short, allowing them to be displayed on large touchscreens that enable visitors to read and, with a few taps, parse them, to learn how and why specific words and phrases were chosen. The presentation is similar to the NCC’s comprehensive Interactive Constitution, a useful online tool to explore the entire document and view scholarly essays on each section’s impact over time.
The 13th Amendment (ratified 1865) abolished slavery throughout the nation, expanding the Emancipation Proclamation’s prohibition in the former Confederacy. The 13th is also noteworthy because it enjoins people from enslaving or indenturing other persons, whereas most amendments limit governmental action.
The 14th Amendment (ratified 1868) is frequently invoked in questions of individual rights. In just 80 words, it establishes birthright citizenship, limits state restrictions on individual rights (the Privileges and Immunities clause and Due Process clause), and prevents states from discriminating based on race.
This amendment repudiated the Supreme Court’s notorious Dred Scott decision (1857) by establishing that those born or naturalized in the United States are citizens. Scott’s 1846 petition for freedom, signed with his cross, is on view.
Reforms and racism
The 15th Amendment (ratified 1870) prohibits denial of voting rights on the basis of race. After its passage, black men voted and ran for office; they won almost 2,000 public offices. This success triggered a rise in subversive measures to erase electoral gains, deny voting rights, limit economic rights and social mobility and, with the birth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866, threaten and intimidate Black Americans.
A reproduction chocolate-brown KKK robe is on display (the familiar white garment was not adopted until the 1920s). Next to it is an 1872 Klan death threat sent to Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who advocated for equality: “America’s infamous equal rights will if passed secure your death inside of eight months.”
The US president only exacerbated these divisions. Andrew Johnson, who assumed office on Lincoln’s assassination, avoided enforcing Reconstruction measures and delayed ratification of the amendments. In 1868, he was impeached by a Republican Congress, and though he avoided removal from office by a single vote, Johnson was sufficiently weakened for Reconstruction to progress.
Where we are
Developed by the NCC, the exhibit transports viewers to an era bristling with issues that reverberate in modern courts and communities—a realization that’s both disturbing and reassuring.
Intellectually, the presentation meets visitors wherever they are. Regardless of how much they know, viewers will find much to enlighten and surprise and many ways to experience the exhibit. Civil War and Reconstruction demonstrates why this period matters, making plain what was at stake and how the Constitution was amended to reinforce the values first expressed in the Declaration and to strengthen individual rights.
What, When, Where
Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality. National Constitution Center, Independence Mall, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia. (215) 409-6700 or constitutioncenter.org.
The National Constitution Center is committed to making its facilities, exhibits, and programs accessible for everyone. All entrances and public spaces are wheelchair-accessible, and a number of programs are offered, including accommodations for deaf, blind, or low-vision visitors and Sensory-Friendly Sundays.