14th Amendment Summary

What is the 14th Amendment and What Does It Mean?

14th amendment
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The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on July 9, 1868. It, along with the 13th and 15th Amendments, are collectively known as the Reconstruction amendments, because they were all ratified during the post-Civil War era. Although the 14th Amendment was intended to protect the rights of the recently freed slaves, it has continued to play a major role in constitutional politics to this day.

The 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866

Of the three Reconstruction amendments, the 14th is the most complicated and the one that has had the more unforeseen effects. Its broad goal was to reinforce the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which ensured that "all persons born in the United States" were citizens and were to be given "full and equal benefit of all laws."

When the Civil Rights Act landed on President Andrew Johnson's desk, he vetoed it; Congress, in turn, overrode the veto and the measure became law. Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, had clashed repeatedly with the Republican-controlled Congress. GOP leaders, fearing Johnson and Southern politicians would attempt to undo the Civil Rights Act, then began work on what would become the 14th Amendment.

Ratification and the States

After clearing Congress in June of 1866, the 14th Amendment went to the states for ratification. As a condition for readmittance to the Union, the former Confederate states were required to approve the amendment.

This became a point of contention between Congress and Southern leaders.

Connecticut was the first state to ratify the 14th Amendment on June 30, 1866. During the next two years, 28 states would ratify the amendment, though not without incident. Legislatures in Ohio and New Jersey both rescinded their states' pro-amendment votes.

In the South, both Lousiana and the Carolinas refused initially to ratify the amendment. Nevertheless, the 14th Amendment was declared formally ratified on July 28, 1868. 

Amendment Sections

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains four sections, of which the first is the most important.

Section 1 guarantees citizenship to any and all persons born or naturalized in U.S. It also guarantees all Americans their constitutional rights and denies states the right to limit those rights through legislation. It also ensures a citizen's "life, liberty, or property" will not be denied without due legal process.

Section 2 states that representation to Congress must be determined based on the whole population. In other words, both white and African American had to be counted equally. Prior to this, African American populations were undercounted when apportioning representation. This section also stipulated that all males 21 years or older were guaranteed the right to vote.

Section 3 was designed to prevent former Confederate officers and politicians from holding office. It states that no one may seek federal elected office if they engaged in rebellion against the U.S.

Section 4 addressed the federal debt accrued during the Civil War.

It acknowledged that the federal government would honor its debts. It also stipulated that the government would not honor Confederate debts or reimburse slaveholders for wartime losses.

Section 5 essentially affirms Congress' power to enforce the 14th Amendment through legislation.

Key Clauses

The four clauses of the first section of the 14th Amendment are the most important because they have repeatedly been cited in major Supreme Court cases concerning civil rights, presidential politics and the right to privacy.

The Citizenship Clause states that  "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 clause played an important role in two Supreme Court cases: Elk v. Wilkins (1884) addressed citizenship rights of Native Americans, while United States v.

Wong Kim Ark (1898) affirmed citizenship of US-born children of legal immigrants. 

The Privileges and Immunities Clause states "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." In the Slaughter-House Cases (1873), the Supreme Court recognized a difference between a person's rights as a U.S. citizen and their rights under state law. The ruling held that state laws could not impede a person's federal rights. In  McDonald v. Chicago (2010), which overturned a Chicago ban on handguns, Justice Clarence Thomas cited this clause in his opinion supporting the ruling.

The Due Process Clause says no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Although this clause was intended to apply to professional contracts and transactions, over time it has become most closely cited in right-to-privacy cases. Notable Supreme Court cases that have turned on this issue include Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which overturned a Connecticut ban on the sale of contraception; Roe v. Wade (1973), which overturned a Texas ban on abortion and lifted many restrictions on the practice nationwide; and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which held that same-sex marriages deserved federal recognition.

The Equal Protection Clause prevents states from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."  The clause has become most closely associated with civil rights cases, particularly for African Americans. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1898) the Supreme Court ruled that Southern states could enforce racial segregation as long as "separate but equal" facilities existed for blacks and whites.

It wouldn't be until Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that the Supreme Court would revisit this opinion, ultimately ruling that separate facilities were, in fact, unconstitutional. This key ruling opened the door for a number of significant civil rights and affirmative action court cases.

Bush v. Gore (2001) also touched on the equal protection clause when a majority of justices ruled that the partial recount of presidential votes in Florida was unconstitutional because it was not being conducted the same way in all contested locations. The decision essentially decided the 2000 presidential election in George W. Bush's favor.

The Lasting Legacy of the 14th Amendment

Over time, numerous lawsuits have arisen that have referenced the 14th Amendment. The fact that the amendment uses the word "state" in the Privileges and Immunities Clause -- along with interpretation of the Due Process Clause -- has meant state power and federal power is subject to the Bill of Rights. Further, the courts have interpreted the word "person" to include corporations. As a result, corporations are also protected by "due process" along with being granted "equal protection."

While there were other clauses in the amendment, none were as significant as these.