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On This Day: 14th Amendment Ratified

July 09, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship, due process and equal protection to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” was ratified by South Carolina and Louisiana, allowing it to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

14th Amendment Ratified by Three-Quarters of States

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Following the Civil War, a faction known as the Radical Republicans held power in Congress. They sought to institute equal rights for black slaves and impose harsh punishments on the South.

The most radical of the Radical Republicans, writes historian Eric Foner, “believed that Reconstruction was a golden opportunity to purge the nation of the legacy of slavery and create a ‘perfect republic,’ whose citizens enjoyed equal civil and political rights, secured by a powerful and beneficent national government.”

Before the war ended Congress had passed 13th Amendment, which reinforced the Emancipation Proclamation and extended the banning of slavery to all U.S. states.

The Civil Rights Act, passed on April 9, 1866, guaranteed citizenship to all people born in the United States, but the Radical Republicans wanted to ensure that citizenship for freedmen would be protected by the Constitution.

Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the Radical Republicans, proposed what would become the 14th Amendment on April 21, 1866. The five-section amendment also called for the disenfranchisement of Confederates, which would be the most contentious issue during congressional debates. A revised amendment, which included a citizen clause and did not include the disenfranchisement clause, was passed by Congress on June 13, 1866.

The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” except Indians, and barred any state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or denying to any person “the equal protection of its laws.”

It also addressed apportionment, stipulating that blacks would be counted as whole persons. It overruled the clause in the Constitution that counted a black as three-fifths of a person.

The 14th Amendment had its limitations, however, as it did not explicitly give blacks the right to vote. This right would not be conferred until the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870.

The amendment was sent to the states for ratification. The former Confederate states, except for Tennessee, rejected the amendment. But through the passing of the Reconstruction Acts, “Southern states went through the process of Congressional Reconstruction: electing delegates to state constitutional conventions, drafting new state constitutions, holding new state elections, and seating new Republican-dominated, biracial legislatures,” writes Harper’s Weekly. “That paved the way for the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

On July 9, 1868, Louisiana and South Carolina became the 27th and 28th states to ratify the 14th Amendment; with the necessary three-quarters majority of states having ratified the amendment, Secretary of State William H. Seward certified on July 28 that the 14th Amendment was part of the Constitution.

Historical Context: Reconstruction

Reconstruction refers to the post-Civil War era, when the federal government was faced with the question of how to rebuild and re-admit Confederate states, and how to treat the black slaves who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, tried to impose his own Reconstruction policies that would allow white Southerners to rebuild their governments with little interference from the federal government.

His policies angered Northerners and increased support for the Radical Republicans, who were able to shape Reconstruction policy over Johnson’s objections. They overrode Johnson’s veto on 15 occasions, including on the Civil Rights Act, Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, the four Reconstruction Acts and the Tenure of Office Act. When Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act, the House impeached him, though the Senate allowed him to stay in office by a single vote.

Though blacks were given equal rights through federal law, it was difficult for the federal government to enforce its policies. In many parts of the South, blacks were kept disenfranchised through means such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan violently resisted Reconstruction, killing blacks and Republican leaders.

Though President Ulysses S. Grant sent in federal troops to subdue the Klan, the Republican commitment to enforcing Reconstruction waned. Following the disputed election of 1876, Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops in a deal that made him president. It is considered the end of Reconstruction.

“In the generation after the end of Reconstruction, the Southern states deprived blacks of their right to vote, and ordered that public and private facilities of all kinds be segregated by race. … Most blacks remained locked in a system of political powerlessness and economic inequality,” explains the University of Houston’s Digital History.

The Effect of the 14th Amendment on Constitutional Law

The 14th Amendment has had widespread effects on constitutional law. Its passage negated the 1857 decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which found that blacks are not citizens, and would be at the center of civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia.

It has also applied to a wide range of other cases. Its due process clauses were cited in notable cases Miranda v. Arizona, Furman v. Georgia, and Roe v. Wade. Cornell University Law School examines the case law for the 14th Amendment.

The 14th Amendment also placed limits on the power of state governments. “Beginning in the 1920s, the Court will interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that many of the protections enumerated in the Bill of Rights apply not only to the federal government but also to the states,” writes PBS.

Reference: 14th Amendment Resources

HarpWeek provides insight on creation of the 14th Amendment, as well as a look at the Reconstruction era and biographies of important figures. It includes articles and cartoons from Harper’s Weekly editions of the period. There are similar Web sites for the creation of the 13th Amendment and 15th Amendment.

The Library of Congress links to a number of its resources and exhibitions on the 14th Amendment.
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