14th Amendment Summary

14th amendment
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The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with several aspects of U.S. citizenship and the rights of citizens. Ratified on July 9, 1868, during the post-Civil War era, the 14th, along with the 13th and 15th Amendments, are collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments. 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. 

Fast Facts: The 14th Amendment

  • The 14th Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws.
  • The 14th Amendment was intended to protect the rights of former slaves after the American Civil War.
  • The 14th Amendment was approved by Congress in June of 1866 and ratified by the states on July 9, 1868.
  • The 14th Amendment establishes that all persons born in the United States are citizens and are guaranteed all the rights of citizenship.
  • The 14th Amendment establishes that the law protects all citizens equally.

In response to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, many Southern states enacted laws known as Black Codes designed to continue to deny African Americans certain rights and privileges enjoyed by white citizens. Under the states' Black Codes, recently freed slaves were not allowed to travel widely, own certain types of property, or sue in court. In addition, African Americans could be jailed for not be able to repay their debts, leading to racially-discriminator labor practices like the leasing of convicts to private businesses.

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."

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 protected the “civil” rights of all citizens, such as the right to sue, make contracts, and buy and sell property. However, it failed to protect “political” rights, like the right to vote and hold office, or “social” rights guaranteeing equal access to schools and other public accommodations. Congress had intentionally omitted those protections in hopes of averting the bill’s veto by President Andrew Johnson.

When the Civil Rights Act landed on President Johnson's desk, he fulfilled his promise to veto it. Congress, in turn, overrode the veto and the measure became law. Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat and staunch supporter of states’ rights, had clashed repeatedly with the Republican-controlled Congress.

Fearing President Johnson and Southern politicians would attempt to undo the protections of the Civil Rights Act, Republican congressional leaders 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.

The 14th Amendment
The 14th Amendment.  U.S. National Archives

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

The 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Cases of 1883

With its passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, Congress attempted to bolster the 14th Amendment. Also known as the “Enforcement Act,” the 1875 Act guaranteed all citizens, regardless of race or color, equal access to public accommodations and transportation, and made it illegal to exempt them from serving on juries.

In 1883, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Civil Rights Cases decisions, overturned the public accommodation sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and declared that the 14th Amendment did not give Congress the power to dictate the affairs of private businesses. 

As a result of the Civil Rights Cases, while African Americans had been declared legally “free” U.S. citizens by the 14th Amendment, they would continue to face discrimination in society, economics, and politics well into the 20th Century.

Amendment Sections

The 14th Amendment contains five sections, of which the first contains the most impactful provisions. 

Section One guarantees all rights and privileges of citizenship to any and all persons born or naturalized in the United States. It also guarantees all Americans their constitutional rights and prohibits the states from passing laws limiting those rights. Lastly, it ensures that no citizen's right to "life, liberty, or property" will not be denied without due process of law.  

Section Two specifies that the process of apportionment used to fairly distribute seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the states must be based on the whole population, including freed African American slaves. Prior to this, African Americans had been undercounted when apportioning representation. The section also guaranteed the right to vote to all male citizens age 21 years or older.

Section Three forbids anyone who participates or has participated in “insurrection or rebellion” against the United States from holding any elected or appointed federal office. The section was intended to prevent former Confederate military officers and politicians from holding federal offices.

Section Four addresses the federal debt by confirming that the neither the United States nor any state could be forced to pay for lost slaves or debts that had been incurred by the Confederacy as a result of their participation in the Civil War. 

Section Five, also known as the Enforcement Clause, grants Congress the power to pass “appropriate legislation” as necessary to enforce all of the amendment's other clauses and provisions.

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

The Citizenship Clause overrules the 1875 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision that freed African American slaves were not citizens, could not become citizens, and thus could never enjoy the benefits and protections of citizenship.

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 the citizenship of US-born children of legal immigrants.

The Privileges and Immunities Clause

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

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

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.

Updated by Robert Longley