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Fact check: Historical claims about constitutional amendments lack context

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Angola was barely mentioned in the history of the slave trade. USA TODAY invited Wanda Tucker there to search for her roots.

The claim: The 14th Amendment was passed with 94% Republican support. The 15th Amendment was passed with 100% Republican support.

Historical claims are often the subject of furious debate. What history is remembered, emphasized and included can shape critical aspects of a narrative. Missing information is sometimes more important than the present facts.

“The 14th Amendment, giving full citizenship to freed slaves, passed in 1868 with 94% Republican support in congress. The 15th Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote, passed in 1870 with 100% Republican support and 0% Democrat support in congress,” an image shared over 50,000 times on Facebook reads.

The meme, which has been shared elsewhere online, is accurate in its claims but misses critical historical context. Most importantly, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, there were few Democrats in Congress to give support to the constitutional amendments.

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Historians are also in broad agreement that the Republican Party during and after the Civil War was in a politically and ideologically unique position in American history, which shaped the norms they followed while governing the country.

The Union’s Republican Congress

The Republican Party, founded in 1854, was established as an explicitly anti-slavery party in response to Southern intransigence on slavery’s expansion.

By 1857, Republicans held 90 of the House of Representatives’ 237 seats, making them the largest opposition party to the Democrats. The party also held 20 seats in the Senate, which was about a third of the Democrat-controlled chamber.

“A core element of the Republican Party were former Whigs, who favored an activist national government and greater centralization of power,” Fergus Bordewich, a historian and the author of “Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America,” told USA TODAY.

“Abolitionists gravitated toward the Republicans but weren’t ascendant at first. Then you had many activists — the temperance movement was especially prominent in the 19th century,” he continued.

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While prior to the Civil War, Republicans and their Whig predecessors were the minority parties in a government heavily controlled by Southern Democrats, the South’s secession handed the national government to the young party.

Between 1861 and 1863, for instance, there were only 44 Democrats and 26 Unionists to the Republicans’ 108 members in the House of Representatives. Republicans also dominated the Senate and had elected their first president, Abraham Lincoln.

In 1865, after the Civil War’s end, there were only 38 Democratic representatives to the Republicans’ 136 members. Republicans also held a veto-proof majority in the Senate, which helped the party enforce its expansive reformist platform.

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“The Republican Party believed in using the power of the federal government to support economic development,” Michael Benedict, an American historian and professor emeritus at Ohio State University, told USA TODAY.

“Until about 1876, it believed strongly in using the power of the federal government to protect the civil and political rights of American citizens and other persons,” Benedict continued.

“It was a coalition of people who wanted to improve upon the American project,” Bordewich emphasized. “Republicans had such large majorities they were able to ignore (the Democrats).”

Democratic opposition in Congress

The remaining Democrats in Congress were divided along pro- and anti-war lines, though remained obstinate in their opposition to Republican government.

“They acted like a thorn in the side of the Lincoln administration,” said Manisha Sinha, chair of American history department at the University of Connecticut and author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.”

“Even though they were a minority, they were often able to subvert the interests of the Lincoln administration, including during the war effort, and then later the Freedmen’s Bureaus and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments,” Sinha continued.

“The Democrats were essentially the party of ‘No.’ No to absolutely any and everything possible,” Doug Egerton, a professor of American history at Le Moyne College, said.

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“Many of them are slaveholders themselves from the border slave states and they fought tooth and nail to avoid the abolition of slavery or the empowerment of Black people,” Sinha emphasized.

“During the Civil War, Republicans accorded little courtesy to anti-war Democrats, expelling a few from the House. But rules of courtesy generally revived after the war.  There were friendships across political divisions,” Benedict said.

Congressional Republicans became especially frustrated with both Democratic opposition and President Andrew Johnson during the Reconstruction period. Johnson was later impeached in a move widely understood to be for his opposition to Reconstruction.

In an attempt to protect the Black rights and other policy gains of the Reconstruction era, and overcome Southern resistance, congressional Republicans looked to enshrine their platform in the Constitution.

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Democrats were at first included in the deliberations over the amendments but were then ignored after it became clear the party still supported Confederate states’ efforts to terrorize and disenfranchise their Black populations.

Race riots from white Southerners, the enactment of “Black Codes” in the South and growing war weariness in the North added urgency to Republican efforts.

“There was widespread white supremacist violence across the South, often led by the Ku Klux Klan. It really shifted how Republicans approached reintegrating the South,” Egerton said.

“It was a kind of political realpolitik,” Bordewich said. “The 14th Amendment simply put into the Constitution many laws that were already on the books. Republicans knew that their era of dominance would come to an end, and unless they somehow enshrined Black rights into policy, newly enfranchised, unreformed Confederates would wipe away all the progress that had been made.”

“At the time Republicans sent the 14th Amendment to the states for ratification, there was not a majority in the country favoring the enfranchisement of former slaves,” Benedict said.

“Republicans required the former Confederate states to ratify the amendment as a condition for restoration to normal relations in the Union,” Benedict said, which all but Tennessee refused, leading Republicans to implement pro-Reconstruction governments in the South, often with Black voters and elected officials.

This context made supporting the amendments a nonstarter among Democrats, who agitated for an end to Reconstruction and a return to white supremacy in the American South.

Our ruling: Missing context

The Republican Party of the 19th century did ratify the 14th and 15th amendments on heavily partisan lines. This is mostly, however, because of the party’s domination of the federal government at the time. Republicans also faced harsh opposition from a largely Southern Democratic Party committed to white supremacy. This dynamic, echoed in the lead up to Civil War, made bipartisanship impossible. We rate this claim MISSING CONTEXT.

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