Understanding the 14th Amendment
The U.S. Constitution was created by the founding fathers on September 17, 1787 and serves as an outline of rules that our government must follow. Different events throughout history have resulted in many changes being made within the constitution. These changes are known as amendments, and currently there are a total of 27. One of the most important amendments under the constitution defined the status of citizenship within our country. The 14th amendment, ratified on July 28, 1868 was created as part of the Reconstruction Amendments and said that all people born or living in the United States are citizens and should be treated equally under the law. The creation of this amendment changed the way Americans look at equality, and the effects it had on our history are still as important today as they were over 200 years ago.
At the time the 14th Amendment was created, The Civil War had just come to an end, defeating the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln, who was acting President, had declared the slaves freed at the end of the war; however, there were still a lot of lingering questions regarding the former Confederates and the status of slaves in the country. To answer these questions, congress created the Reconstruction Amendments which included the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution. The 13th Amendment was ratified in December of 1865 and officially put an end to slavery within the United States. This new law declared that slaves were no longer the property of the people, but it didn’t answer questions about the new rights that they were now guaranteed. As a result, the members of Congress created the 14th Amendment to detail the rights of these newly-freed former slaves.
The majority of Southern states rejected this amendment, but it was still ratified because the necessary three-fourths of the states had agreed to pass it. In addition to offering equality for all people no matter what color of their skin, the 14th Amendment forbid any state to deny someone the right to receive a fair chance with issues of life, property and due process regardless of how they looked. The 14th Amendment was also created to give anyone under the jurisdiction of the law the right to equality. This became known as the Equal Protection Clause. The final amendment in the Reconstruction era was the creation of the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870), which gave citizens the right to vote despite their race, prior servitude or color. These three amendments worked together to provide former slaves with equality and freedom thus changing the course of history forever.
During its time, the main purpose of the 14th Amendment was to ensure that the Civil Rights Act passed in 1866 was upheld. However, following the adoption of the 14th Amendment, Supreme Court decisions began placing restrictions on the Equal Protection Clause. For example, in the court case Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court said that the states were able to uphold segregation, as long as facilities were created for both blacks and whites. This eventually led to the formation of the separate but equal doctrine, which was considered by the court to be sufficient in fulfilling the 14th Amendment. On May 17, 1954 just over 50 years later, the Plessy decision was reversed with the trial of Brown v. Board of Education, bringing an end to governmental segregation declaring that it was unconstitutional. Another important aspect of this amendment said that states, as well as federal power, were required to abide by the Bill of Rights, meaning that both of these powers were expected to abide by equal protection. The significance of the 14th Amendment became a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) and the many lawsuits that referenced it during that time.
Today, the 14th Amendment still stands as one of the most historically important building blocks to our country’s democracy. Along with the other two Reconstruction Amendments, it continues to uphold our nation’s promise that everyone is created equally under the law despite race, gender, nationality or orientation. The significance of the 14th Amendment defined in the United States Constitution continues to be an influence on the history and growth of our great nation.
To learn more about the 14th Amendment and its importance, please visit these additional resources:
- America's Story: The 14th Amendment
- The Constitution for Kids
- Know Your Rights: The United States Constitution
- Understanding the 14th Amendment
- 14th Amendment: "The Great Incorporator"
- The 14th Amendment Simplified
- The Civil War and the Amendments
- The Effects of Amendments on Freedom
- Equal Protection of the Civil War Amendments
- The 14th Amendment and Civil Rights
- The Creation of the 14th Amendment