The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was the second of the three so-called Reconstruction amendments to settle constitutional questions that the Civil War created. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery forever in all of the United States; and the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted all adult men the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, is the longest and most complex of the amendments and has had the most wide-ranging and controversial influence on American politics and society.
The Fourteenth Amendment consists of five sections that conferred citizenship on former slaves and protected the rights of citizens from state abridgement thereof. Section 1 defined as citizens of the United States and of the states where they resided all "persons born or naturalized in the United States." It also prohibited states from abridging the privileges and immunities of citizenship, depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or denying any person "the equal protection of the laws" as forbidden by the Fifth Amendment, and required the states to treat all citizens equally.
The effect of Section 2 was to repeal the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution that took slave property into account in the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and required Congress to apportion seats "among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed." It also specified that if any state denied "any of the male inhabitants" who were citizens and twenty-one years of age or older the right to vote in federal elections, "except for participation in rebellion, or other crime," that state's representation in the House of Representatives was to be reduced in proportion to the number of men denied the vote.
Section 3 disqualified from military service or federal elective office any person who had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States but had taken part in the "insurrection or rebellion, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof." It also allowed Congress by a two-thirds' vote of both Houses to remove any man's disability to hold federal or state office.
Section 4 gave constitutional protection to the public debt that the United States government had incurred during the Civil War, and it forbade the United States or any state government from honoring any of the public debts that any of the states created to finance the rebellion.
Section 5 specifically empowered Congress to pass legislativion to enforce the provisions of the amendment.
Together, the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment enabled the federal government to protect the rights of freedpeople, but during the twentieth century the wording of Sections 1 and 5 have also permitted Congress to pass civil rights and voting rights laws and allowed federal courts to invalidate state laws that required segregation or discriminated against people because of race or color. Federal courts have also ruled that the privileges and immunities of citizenship that states may not abridge include most of the individual liberties that the Bill of Rights originally stated that Congress could not abridge, including freedoms of speech, of the press, and of religion. As a result, the Fourteenth Amendment not only conferred citizenship on former slaves and protected their civil rights, but it also has enlarged the power of the federal government to protect those and other rights from possible infringement by the states.
1. What is the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment?
2. In what year was in ratified?
1. What are some of the controversies surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment? Why does it provoke such strong debate?
Bond, James E. No Easy Walk to Freedom: Reconstruction and the Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.
Epps, Garrett. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post–Civil War America. New York: H. Holt, 2006.
Berger, Raoul. The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.