On today’s date, July 28 in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was adopted following its by the required two thirds of states. The amendment basically guaranteed the full rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship to all African Americans who had been freed from the chains of slavery by the passage of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) during the civil war.
The Need For the 14th Amendment
The American Civil War had left the southern states in a state of physical and political chaos. Although the masses of African Americans were legally free their precise legal status had been nowhere spelled out specifically. The death of Abraham Lincoln had left the pro-southern Andrew Johnson (below) as the president, and he had been battling
with the Radical Republicans for control of Reconstruction (which was the process for the former Confederate states to rejoin the Union). Such barriers as literacy tests, poll taxes and outright intimidation had been set up to prevent citizens of color from exercising their right to vote. So the Radical Republicans pushed for and passed the 14th Amendment on June 13, 1866. Johnson in announcing the amendment denigrated it by stating that his actions should “be considered as purely ministerial, and in no sense whatever committing the Executive to an approval or a recommendation of the amendment to the State legislatures or to the people.”
The Passage of the 14th Amendment and Its Legaacy
Ratification of the amendment caused bitter debate throughout the State legislatures especially in every single formerly Confederate state. Except for Tennessee, they all refused to ratify it. This brought about the passage of the Reconstruction Acts. which ignored all such existing state governments and instead imposed military governments which remained in place until the 14th Amendment was finally passed on today’s date. It took more than two years but with some troubles over rescinded and re-ratified acts in Ohio and New Jersey, Secretary of State William Seward announced the unconditional certificate of ratification, declaring that the Fourteenth Amendment had been ratified by the required three-fourths of the states.
The Amendment has since been used for both good and ill; it was used to justify the Plessy -vs- Ferguson decision of 1896 which admitted legal segregation of “separate but equal” into law. But then again, it was used to strike down that very decision with “Brown -vs- the Board of Education” of 1954 (above). The 15th (equal voting rights) and a whole host of laws and amendments had to be put in place before African Americans achieved full legal equality with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile the “Equal Protection Clause” of the 16th amendment has since been cited in a whole host off non-racial cases ranging from abortion to gay marriage.
The actual text of article 1 of the 14th amendment reads as follows:
“Section 1. 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. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”