The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is one of the most important and most frequently cited amendments in American jurisprudence, and its applicability, as well as its definition, have been shaped by a number of landmark cases. Ratified in 1868, after the conclusion of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment grants citizenship to every individual born or naturalized in the United States and as well guarantees these citizens “equal protection of the laws.” The Fourteenth Amendment was one of three amendments passed during the Reconstruction era, all of which aimed to abolish slavery and establish civil rights for black Americans. Slavery in America did end in 1865, but “equal protection of the laws” were not given to non-whites until about a century later. Today, the Fourteenth Amendment is cited innumerable times in the American legal system, sometimes even by individuals who are not U.S. citizens.
History of the Fourteenth Amendment: The Johnson Administration
President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency, and with it the daunting and complex process of reconstruction, in 1865 after his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, was tragically assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. Former Confederate states had to be reincorporated into the Union, and former slaves had to be brought into the fold as well. President Johnson was a Democrat from Tennessee, a man who once held slaves himself. Though he supported emancipation, he butted heads with the Republican controlled Congress over how Reconstruction should proceed: President Johnson was inclined to be lenient to those states which once belonged to the Confederacy, whereas Republicans by and large wished to be as lenient as required and nothing more; “Malice towards none” may have been the guiding principle of late Republican President Abraham Lincoln, but animosity towards those states which seceded was still high in Republican circles throughout the country. In the North, for example, many were incensed when news came that legislatures in the South were reelecting former Confederate leaders to their state legislatures and enacting black codes in conjunction: black codes were repressive laws that strictly regulated the behavior of black Americans as a means to keep these individuals dependent on white planters.
History of the Fourteenth Amendment: The Civil Rights Act of 1866
The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, grants Congress the authority to enforce and protect the rights of black Americans throughout the country, and it is from this authority that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 came to be. Although the bill was vetoed by President Johnson, Congress overrode this veto and enacted the law in April 1866—this was the first time in U.S. history that Congress overrode a presidential veto of a major bill. In addition, Congress made ratification of both Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments a stipulation for former Confederate states seeking representation in Congress, and the continued presence of the Union Army in these states ensured their compliance.
Fourteenth Amendment Breakdown: Section I
The first sentence in Section I of the Fourteenth Amendment defines U.S. citizenship in the following way: “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.” The language and placement of this definition are widely considered to be a direct repudiation of the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney, who was a vehement racist, argued that black individuals living in the United States, even those born free, were not guaranteed the rights of citizenship enshrined in the Constitution. The next clause says: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” This part of the Fourteenth Amendment dramatically expanded civil and legal rights guaranteed to all U.S. citizens, mainly because it says the state governments, as well as the federal government, cannot infringe on the rights of citizens.
The clause which follows, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law,” borrowed from the language of the Fifth Amendment, and guarantees due process rights to all U.S. citizens. The Supreme Court has interpreted this part of the amendment, often referred to as the due process clause, as guaranteeing a wide array of rights against infringement by the states, including those listed in the Bill of Rights as well as the right to privacy and other essential rights not explicitly addressed in the Constitution. The last part of Section I, known commonly as the equal protection clause, says that the states and federal government cannot “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This clause is often regarded to be one of the most important in American jurisprudence, one which has played a key role in many landmark civil rights cases.
Fourteenth Amendment Breakdown: The Remaining Sections
In addition to the aforementioned provisions, the Fourteenth Amendment grants the federal government authority to punish states that violate or abridge their citizens’ right to vote, and punishment prescribed for such violations is a proportional reduction in the states’ congressional representation. There is a clause which says that anyone “engaged in insurrection” against the United States cannot be elected to civil, military or other elected offices unless two-thirds of the House and Senate say otherwise, and there is also a section which upholds the national debt and as well states that the federal and state governments are exempt from paying any debts incurred by the states once belonging to the Confederacy.
The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment shifted the balance of power in the United States: the federal government, which had historically been a weaker entity in American life, now possessed a lot more authority over the states than it once did, and it was this authority which allowed the federal government to enact pieces of landmark civil rights legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 being two of the most paramount.
- Rewriting the Fourteenth Amendment – Wall Street Journal
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- 14th Amendment – Cornell Law School
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