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History of Law: The Fourteenth Amendment

July 09, 2017

The Civil War ended on May 9, 1865. Just more than three years later, on July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. This amendment and the 13th and 15th amendments were a part of the Reconstruction Era of the United States, which focused on civil rights and rebuilding the war-torn nation. The 14th Amendment states that every person born or naturalized in America is a citizen of the country as well as their state of residence.

Some southern states began actively passing laws that restricted the rights of former slaves after the Civil War, and Congress responded with the 14th Amendment, designed to place limits on states' power as well as protect civil rights. To be readmitted to the Union after the Civil War, southern states had to ratify the 14th Amendment. Initially, Native Americans were not granted citizenship by this amendment because they were under the jurisdiction of tribal laws. It was not until 1924 that Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted Native Americans citizenship rights as well.

The 14th Amendment has five sections. The first section introduces the citizenship law for all people born in the country or naturalized. This section also covers the limitations of state laws, which cannot supersede federal laws that govern citizens. States cannot deprive citizens of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Due process of law means that legal proceedings have to be fair and that citizens need to be given notice and a chance to be heard before any rulings are made. When originally passed, the 14th Amendment was designed to grant citizenship rights to African-Americans, and it states that citizenship cannot be taken from anyone unless someone gives it up or commits perjury during the naturalization process.

In 1787, delegates of the Constitutional Convention had reached a compromise for determining the number of representatives each state would have in the U.S. House of Representatives. Called the three-fifths compromise, this agreement stated that every five slaves would be counted as three people when determining population for the number of representatives and taxes owed. Section 2 of the 14th Amendment removed this law from the Constitution, giving freed slaves full weight as citizens. The only adult male citizens who were denied the right to vote were those convicted of crimes.

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment focuses on rebellion, prohibiting anyone from being elected or appointed to a state or federal office after engaging in rebellion or treason. The houses of Congress can vote to override this if two-thirds of the votes are in favor. Section 4 serves to legitimize the public debt that Congress appropriates. This section was put in place to prevent the Confederacy's war and emancipation debts from impacting the reunited country.

The power of enforcement is outlined in Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. This clause gives Congress the power to pass appropriate laws to enforce all of the provisions of this amendment. Debate and controversy have been high regarding the scope of power given to Congress by this section. In 1879, the Supreme Court gave Congress significant authority. Since this time, however, decisions have been more conservative, giving Congress less authority in regulation. Congress does not have the power to regulate the private conduct of citizens, but it can regulate actions by state and local governments. Congress has the authority to stop or resolve rights violations that have a legal precedent, but the remedies have to be proportionate to the violations.

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