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The Fourteenth Amendment

After Congress and enough states ratified the thirteenth amendment that terminated slavery, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law declared that “all people born in the United States are entitled to be citizens, without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude.” The Act equated birth to citizenship.

President Andrew Johnson vetoed that Civil Rights Act, but then on April 5, 1866, the Senate, overrode his veto by a two-thirds majority. The law’s intent was “to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected by law, and to protect the civil rights of persons of African descent.”

Some in and some outside of Congress were unsure if Congress had the constitutional power to define citizenship or to legislate protection of citizens’ civil rights. Those were only two of several issues that the Congressmen faced in 1866, in the post-Civil War era. Other issues included:

  1. How to limit the states’ power to infringe on the rights of its citizens?
  2. How to overthrow the Black Codes that deny the former slaves their civil rights?
  3. What to do with the rule in the Constitution that counts a black slave as 3/5’s of a person for purposes of determining representation in the House?
  4. Should former Confederate leaders serve in leadership positions within the federal government?
  5. Should the federal government assume the former Confederacy’s debts?
  6. Should the federal government pay the former slaveowners for the loss of their slaves?

Congress decided to lump these issues together into a single amendment, the fourteenth, an omnibus amendment, an amalgamation that addressed each of those critical issues. The Congressmen wanted to prevent future sessions of Congress or the individual states from unraveling birth and citizenship, and to ensure that all persons will receive equal protection under the law.

On July 28, 1868, Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment. Composed of five sections, this amendment has had a far-reaching impact upon American life.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights limited the federal government’s power, because James Madison and the other founding fathers in 1787 were fearful of an oppressive centralized power.

The tenth amendment states, “all powers not specifically granted to the federal government by the states in the Constitution are retained by the states and the people.” But it was the states that caused the rebellion, that incited a division and a bloody war, and that denied people their civil rights.

With the fourteenth amendment, the federal government limited the states’ powers.

Section 1 declares, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” In addition, “No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person equal protection of the laws.”

Henceforth, no state can deny any person, either citizen or foreigner, his or her civil rights without “due process of law,” and all people will have “equal protection of the laws.” The “federal government will provide protection of individual rights against the states.”

Section 2 repealed the 3/5’s rule. Henceforth, census-takers will count “whole persons, except those who participated in the rebellion.”

Section 3 denies those who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from serving in the government.

Section 4 declares that “the United States or no state may assume or pay any of the Confederacy’s debts, or pay any claim for any loss due to emancipation of the former slaves.”

Section 5 states that “Congress shall have the power to enforce the provisions of this article.”

One find the words “due process of law” in the fifth amendment and also now in the fourteenth.

That little “clause acts as a safeguard from arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property, outside the sanction of law.” That little clause stands between the people, you and I on one side, and the tyrant who would throw us to the lions or walk us into the gas chambers. Without it, we live in a dictatorship.

Even the president of the United States, if impeached in the House, is entitled to “due process of law,” a speedy and fair trial in the Senate.

Next time in these pages, the Fifteenth Amendment.