The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” One of three amendments passed during the Reconstruction era to abolish slavery and establish civil and legal rights for black Americans, it would become the basis for many landmark Supreme Court decisions over the years.
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 left his successor, President Andrew Johnson, to preside over the complex process of incorporating former Confederate states back into the Union after the Civil War and establishing former slaves as free and equal citizens.
Johnson, a Democrat (and former slaveholder) from Tennessee, supported emancipation, but he differed greatly from the Republican-controlled Congress in his view of how Reconstruction should proceed. Johnson showed relative leniency toward the former Confederate states as they were reintroduced into the Union.
But many northerners were outraged when the newly elected southern state legislatures—largely dominated by former Confederate leaders—enacted black codes, which were repressive laws that strictly regulated the behavior of black citizens and effectively kept them dependent on white planters.
CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1866
In creating the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Congress was using the authority given it to enforce the newly ratified 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and protect the rights of black Americans.
Johnson vetoed the bill, and though Congress successfully overrode his veto and made it into law in April 1866—the first time in history that Congress overrode a presidential veto of a major bill—even some Republicans thought another amendment was necessary to provide firm constitutional grounds for the new legislation.
In late April, Representative Thaddeus Stevens introduced a plan that combined several different legislative proposals (civil rights for blacks, how to apportion representatives in Congress, punitive measures against the former Confederate States of America and repudiation of Confederate war debt), into a single constitutional amendment. After the House and Senate both voted on the amendment by June 1866, it was submitted to the states for ratification.
President Johnson made clear his opposition to the 14th Amendment as it made its way through the ratification process, but Congressional elections in late 1866 gave Republicans veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate.
Southern states also resisted, but Congress required them to ratify the 13th and 14th Amendments as a condition of regaining representation in Congress, and the ongoing presence of the Union Army in the former Confederate states ensured their compliance.
14TH AMENDMENT – SECTION 1
The opening sentence of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment defined U.S. citizenship: “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 clearly repudiated the Supreme Court’s notorious 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that a black man, even if born free, could not claim rights of citizenship under the federal constitution.
Section 1’s next clause was: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” This greatly expanded the civil and legal rights of all American citizens by protecting them from infringement by the states as well as by the federal government.
The third clause, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law,” expanded the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to apply to the states as well as the federal government.
Over time, the Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to guarantee a wide array of rights against infringement by the states, including those enumerated in the Bill of Rights (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, right to bear arms, etc.) as well as the right to privacy and other fundamental rights not mentioned elsewhere in the Constitution.
Finally, the “equal protection clause” (“nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”) was clearly intended to stop state governments from discriminating against black Americans, and over the years would play a key role in many landmark civil rights cases.
14TH AMENDMENT – SECTIONS 2-5
In its later sections, the 14th Amendment authorized the federal government to punish states that violated or abridged their citizens’ right to vote by proportionally reducing the states’ representation in Congress, and mandated that anyone who “engaged in insurrection” against the United States could not hold civil, military or elected office (without the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate).
It also upheld the national debt, but exempted federal and state governments from paying any debts incurred by the former Confederate states.
The fifth and final section of the 14th Amendment (“Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article”) echoed a similar enforcement clause in the 13th Amendment.
In giving Congress power to pass laws to safeguard the sweeping provisions of Section 1, in particular, the 14th Amendment effectively altered the balance of power between the federal and state governments in the United States.
IMPACT OF THE 14TH AMENDMENT
In its early decisions involving the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court often limited the application of its protections on a state and local level.
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court ruled that racially segregated public facilities did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, a decision that would help establish infamous Jim Crow laws throughout the South for decades to come.
But beginning in the 1920s, the Supreme Court increasingly applied the protections of the 14th Amendment on the state and local level. Ruling on appeal in the 1925 case Gitlow v. New York, the Court stated that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment protected the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech from infringement by the state as well as the federal government.
And in its famous 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that segregated public schools did in fact violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
In other landmark rulings, the Supreme Court has cited the 14th Amendment in cases involving the use of contraception (1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut), interracial marriage (1967’s Loving v. Virginia), abortion (1973’s Roe v. Wade), a highly contested presidential election (2000’s Bush v. Gore), gun rights (2010’s McDonald v. Chicago) and same-sex marriage (2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges).
Amendment XIV, Constitution Center.
Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2005).
Fourteenth Amendment, HarpWeek.
10 Huge Supreme Court Cases About the 14th Amendment, Constitution Center.