Why The 14th Amendment?
After the Civil War, the United States needed to swiftly deal with several aspects of citizenship and the rights of citizens. Three amendments were ratified in July of 1868 and were collectively known as the “Reconstruction Amendments”. The 14th Amendment was intended to protect the rights of formerly enslaved people, but has continued to play a role in constitutional politics.
In response to the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln, the first step to free slaves, and The 13th Amendment, which freed slaves, some Southern states enacted laws known as “Black Codes”. These “Black Codes” targeted recently freed slaves and restricted their ability to travel widely, own certain types of property and-or to bring lawsuits to courts. The “Black Codes” often also allowed former slaves to be jailed for inability to repay debts and for those owing debt to be leased to private businesses for labor to repay debt.
The Goal to Enforce
One of the goals of the 14th Amendment was to reinforce The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which ensured that all persons born in the United States were citizens and thus given the full benefit of all laws to protect their rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 also protected all civil rights of all citizens, including the right to sue, make contracts, purchase or sell property. But, it was unforeseen that The Civil Rights Act of 1866 would end up, by not specifically listing these rights, fail to protect the ability to vote, run for office, have equal access to schooling and other public accommodations. The omission of those additional protections was done to avoid then President Andrew Johnson’s veto.
Johnson did veto the Act, but the Republican-controlled Congress overrode his veto and immediately began to work on Amendment 14. The Republican-controlled Congress, fearing President Johnson and Southern politicians would undo the protections of The Civil Rights Act of 1866, quickly cleared the 14th Amendment and made ratifying it a condition for Confederate States to be readmitted to the Union. The amendment was declared to be formerly ratified by the states on July 28, 1868.
The 14th Amendment in Brief:
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former enslaved people—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” One of three amendments passed during the Reconstruction era to abolish slavery and establish civil and legal rights for Black Americans, it would become the basis for many landmark Supreme Court decisions over the years.
In its later sections, the 14th Amendment authorized the federal government to punish states that violated or abridged their citizens’ right to vote by proportionally reducing the states’ representation in Congress, and mandated that anyone who “engaged in insurrection” against the United States could not hold civil, military or elected office (without the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate).
It also upheld the national debt, but exempted federal and state governments from paying any debts incurred by the former Confederate states.
Amendment Fourteen’s vital role
Prior to the 14th, states were free to ignore the Bill of Rights; a series of Supreme Court rulings made it clear that the Bill was to apply to acts of the Federal Government only. With the establishment of the 14th, the Bill, or at least parts of it, is made to apply to state law, too. This clause has resulted in some good law, such as the Voting Rights Act. But States’ Rights proponents are opposed to the Amendment in parts and/or as a whole.
The Supreme Court, at first, did not allow the Due Process clause to be used to expand individual liberties (1870’s and 1880’s). Eventually, though, it was used to protect more than just former slaves. In the 1900’s and 1930’s, it extended the clause to the protection of workers against state regulations, allowing national standards for work conditions and minimum wage to be set. The due process clause has been used to extend the Bill of Rights Amendments to all Americans.
The Civil Rights Act of 1875
To further support Amendment 14, the Republican-led Congress also passed The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was also known as the “Enforcement Act”. The Act guaranteed all citizens, regardless of race or color, equal access to all public accommodations and transportation and made it illegal to exempt them from serving on juries.
The Supreme Court Weighs In
Several civil rights cases brought to the Supreme Court of the United States were determined in 1883. In that decision of 1883, the court overturned the public accommodation section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, declaring that the 14th Amendment did not give Congress the power to dictate to private businesses.
The rest of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 remained intact.
In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that Southern states could continue their practice of school segregation “as long as separate but equal” facilities existed for all. It wasn’t until 1954 that this opinion was reconsidered and separate facilities was ruled as being unconstitutional.
The 14th Amendment in Full:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
The Longstanding Effects of The 14th Amendment
Many lawsuits involved references to the 14th Amendment. The Amendment’s use of the word “state” and the interpretation of the Due Process Clause has meant that all state and federal governments are subject to the Bill of Rights.
While written to protect the rights of emancipated slaves, the 14th Amendment has also served to protect the rights of many others and has assured the benefits of citizenship, both natural born and naturalized, and the protections of Rights that accompany citizenship.
Editor’s Note: Clay Blanche is a guest co-author for The Founding Project, who studied law with a concentration on the Constitution. He is now retired and is most proud of his service in the U.S. military and to our nation. Clay is also known for his blog site, The Conservative Minuteman, which is also on varying social media.
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