1 minute read

The Early Years of American Law

Extending Protection To Black Americans

At the conclusion of the Revolution the northern states abolished slavery but in the South it remained a major part of the plantation economy. While many in the North sought to ban slavery, Southerners considered slaves as property, to be bought and sold. Slave masters could punish slaves as they saw fit; whipping was the most common form of punishment.

The threat of slavery expanding into new U.S. territories raised the issue of slavery to a new level. The U.S. Supreme Court in Dred Scott (1857) ruled that neither slaves nor freed blacks were entitled to U.S. citizenship or the protection citizenship provided under the criminal justice system. It was becoming clear that war was the only means to resolve this legal question.

Following the Union's victory in the Civil War, the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 making slavery a federal crime. In response, Southern states passed Black Codes in 1865 and 1866. The Black Codes were state laws denying basic freedoms to the newly freed slaves. Blacks still could not legally own property, sign contracts, testify against whites in court, or travel freely. In reaction, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified by the states in 1868. The amendment made all people born in the United States citizens of both the United States and the state in which they were born. It gave black Americans the same legal protections as whites, such as the right to fair treatment in criminal justice procedures.

The Supreme Court, however, was slow in recognizing these Fourteenth Amendment rights. Minorities would not see the benefits of the Fourteenth Amendment until later in the twentieth century when courts became less concerned about protecting economic interests and more focused on civil liberties.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawThe Early Years of American Law - Colonial Freedom, Britain's Push For Greater Control, A New Start, A New Criminal Court System