On this day in 1868, following its ratification by the necessary three-quarters of U.S. states, the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and all its privileges to African Americans and all naturalized persons, is officially adopted into the U.S. Constitution.
The Amendment specifically states:
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.
In all, the amendment comprises five sections, four of which began in 1866 as separate proposals which stalled in legislative process and were amalgamated into a single amendment. That section of the Constitution apportioning representation in the House of Representatives based on a formula that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person (Art I, Sec. 2) was replaced by a clause in the Fourteenth Amendment specifying that representatives be “apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed.”
The amendment also prohibited former civil and military office holders who had supported the Confederacy from again holding any state or federal office, with the proviso that this prohibition could be removed case by case, by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Congress. Moreover, the amendment upheld the national debt while exempting the federal government and state governments from liability for the debts incurred by the rebellious Confederacy. Lastly, the final section, mirroring the approach of the Thirteenth Amendment, provided for enforcement.
Principal framers of the 14th Amendment included Sen. Jacob Merritt Howard of Detroit, a former Michigan Attorney General, and Rep. John Bingham of Cadiz, Ohio, a member the prosecution team assembled against Lincoln’s assassination conspirators.
Despite the profound societal and legal sea change, the 14th Amendment’s intent to guarantee civil rights was circumvented for many decades by the post-Reconstruction-era black codes, Jim Crow laws, and the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In the “modern” era, the Klan, the “Solid South,” George Wallace, Lee Atwater, Shelby County v. Holder and Donald J. Trump’s horrific, race-based maligning of five sitting members of Congress in the past two weeks remind us how far there is to go before true equality and equal justice are more than mere words.