The 14th Amendment: Defending All Americans

The 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified in 1868. This amendment gave full citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in America, including former slaves. Under the 14th Amendment, all citizens received equal protection under the law. The 14th Amendment was one of three different amendments that were ratified during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, designed to move past slavery and establish civil liberties for black Americans.

This amendment has become the foundation for a wealth of important Supreme Court rulings since this time.

Reconstruction Amendments

Because President Abraham Lincoln did not live to see the Reconstruction era, President Andrew Johnson was left with the responsibilities of pulling the nation back together again. Reincorporating the Confederate states back into the Union at the conclusion of the Civil War was a complex process, and it involved establishing civil and legal rights for former slaves to make them equal citizens. Johnson was from Tennessee, and he was a former slave owner. Although he supported emancipation for the slaves, he had differing views from Congress about how reconstruction should be managed. Johnson’s perspective positioned him to have greater leniency toward the Southern states as they rejoined the Union. People in the Northern states did not like the black codes passed by the Southern state legislatures because these laws imposed strict regulations on black citizens. Many of these laws were designed to repress and control black people.

  • Reconstruction Era: 1865-77: Reconstruction occurred between 1865 and 1877, and it involved reuniting the states as one country again.
  • Overview of Reconstruction: The Southern states were faced with many challenges as they had to figure out how to manage plantations without a slave workforce.
  • An Outline of the Reconstruction Era: During the Reconstruction era, Radical Republicans passed amendments that abolished slavery and provided civil rights to black Americans.
Civil Rights Act of 1866

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, and building on this amendment, Congress went further to protect the civil liberties of black Americans with the Civil Rights Act of 1866. President Johnson vetoed this bill when it arrived on his desk. However, Congress overrode the presidential veto, and the act became law in April of 1866.

Thaddeus Stevens

U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens introduced a forward-thinking plan in late April of 1866. His planned 14th Amendment combined proposals for black civil rights as well as a means of apportioning congressional representatives, introducing punitive measures for the Confederate states, and repudiating the Confederate war debt. The House of Representatives and the Senate voted to pass the amendment in June of 1866, and it was submitted to the states to be ratified. President Johnson was opposed to the 14th Amendment, even while it proceeded through the ratification process. The congressional elections held in late 1866 gave Republications the majority, which made the amendment veto-proof in both the House and the Senate.

Southern states were also opposed to the 14th Amendment. However, Congress forced them to ratify both the 13th and the 14th amendments if these states wanted to regain representation in Congress. Continued presence of the Union Army in the former Confederate states also helped ensure these states’ compliance. Both Louisiana and South Carolina voted to ratify the 14th Amendment on July 9, 1868, which provided the required two-thirds majority.

14th Amendment: Section 1

The first section of the 14th Amendment begins with a definition of United States citizenship. The amendment defines citizenship thus: “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.” This definition repudiated the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling of 1857, which stated that a black man (even one born free) could not have citizenship rights under the laws of the Constitution.

The next clause states, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” This statement was an expansion of both civil and legal rights of Americans, thus protecting everyone from the threat of both state and federal infringement of rights. Next, the amendment states: “Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” This clause expanded the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, applying it to both state and federal government. Historically, the Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to include a variety of infringements of rights by states, including rights covered by the Bill of Rights such as freedom of speech or religion and the right to bear arms. Other constitutional rights, such as privacy, are also covered by this clause. The equal protection clause was included to prevent state governments from discriminating against black citizens. This clause has been the subject of a wealth of civil rights cases since this time.

14th Amendment: Section 2-5

The 14th Amendment also authorizes the federal government to take punitive measures against states if violations of citizens’ right to vote occur. Punishment includes a proportional reduction of the states’ representation in Congress. Furthermore, anyone engaging in insurrection against the United States would be prevented from holding a civil, military, or elected office unless two-thirds approval of the House and Senate is achieved. This amendment also upheld the national debt, but federal and state governments received exemption from paying on the debt that was incurred by the former Confederate states.

In the final section of the 14th Amendment, an enforcement clause was added that gave Congress the power to enforce the provisions of the article. Congressional power to pass laws designed to safeguard the provisions of the amendment was important because it effectively shifted the balance of power existing between the federal and state governments. Congress used this power to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Impact of the 14th Amendment

Initially, the Supreme Court limited protections on both a state and local level. For example, Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 involved a Supreme Court ruling that stated that racially segregated public facilities were not a violation of the 14th Amendment‘s equal protection clause. This decision was the precedent for establishing Jim Crow laws that were upheld throughout the Southern states for many years.

By the 1920s, however, the Supreme Court began applying protections of the 14th Amendment¬†differently. A Supreme Court appeal of Gitlow v. New York in 1925 stated that the due process clause protected freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education successfully overturned the separate but equal clause that was established in Plessy v. Ferguson. This ruling created a new precedent for segregation in public schools being a violation of the 14th Amendment‘s equal protection clause. The Supreme Court has also cited the equal protection clause in landmark rulings regarding the use of contraception, interracial marriage, abortion, the 2000 presidential election, gun rights, and same-sex marriage.

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