Select Page

Two weeks ago in these pages, I looked at the second and third sections of the 14th Amendment. Today I continue with its two final sections, the fourth and the fifth.

Section 4 clarifies which debts the U.S. Federal government will honor as valid.

The first sentence reads: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

In other words, the federal government will continue to pay interest and principal on those debts that it “incurred” through four years of Civil War to crush the rebel states, including Union veterans’ benefits, namely “pensions and bounties.” Those debts, “shall not be questioned.”

The second sentence reads: “But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave;

“But all such debts, obligations, and claims shall be held illegal and void.”

In other words, the U.S. Federal government or any state government shall not “assume or pay” any of the Confederacy’s debts incurred during the Civil War. Section 4 declares that the rebel states’ debts are forever “illegal and void.”

Also, this section states that the U.S. Federal government will no longer toy with the idea of reimbursing former slaveholders for the loss of their property because of emancipation.

Prior to the war, two ideas were often bandied about as a means to extricate the country from the grip of slavery: the first was to deport all slaves to a colony in west Africa, and the second was for the Federal government to pay slaveholders for their property and set the slaves free.

Lincoln talked often of colonization, but few black people wanted to migrate to Africa. As the bloody war progressed, Lincoln’s thoughts moved from colonization to emancipation.

Also, few people wanted the Federal government to borrow funds to pay slaveholders market value for their slaves. At an average fair market value of $750 per slave, total funds required to recompense all slaveholders would have approached $3 billion.

The U.S. census of 1860 counted a total population of 31,443,321, and of those 3,953,760 were slaves and an additional 488,070 free blacks. So, one in eight residents were slaves.

By Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, all slaveholders’ claims for reimbursement for loss of their property because of emancipation were pitched aside, and declared “illegal and void.”

Section 5 is a single sentence, the same that concludes the 13th and 15th Amendments: “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

Section 5 leaves the 14th Amendment open to further laws that Congress would deem necessary to ensure all its sections were enforced.

The House passed the 14th Amendment on May 10, 1866, by a vote of 128 to 37, the Senate passed it on June 8 by a vote of 33 to 11, and the House concurred on June 13.

On June 16, 1866, Secretary of State William Seward submitted the 14th Amendment to the governors of the states for ratification. At first, all former Confederate states rejected it.

A year passed. On June 15, 1867, Nebraska ratified it, becoming the 22nd state to do so, but 28 states were needed for it to become law, the required three-fourth’s.

Nine months passed. Then, on March 16, 1868, Iowa ratified it. That same month, on March 2, 1867, Congress passed a law that required each former Confederate state to ratify the 14th Amendment before “said State shall be declared entitled to representation in Congress.”

Seven Southern states changed their vote from rejection to ratification in April, June, and July of 1868: Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia.

On July 28, 1868, Secretary Seward certified the adoption of the 14th Amendment, twenty-five months after the House and Senate passed it, and it became law then and ever since.

Bill Benson, of Sterling, is a dedicated historian.