July 28, 1868 is only one of many important dates wrapped up in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. On that day this amendment which continues to be at the heart of many issues facing our nation was certified by Secretary of State William Seward. While there is still vigorous debate as to the exact intent of this law in legal and historical circles, many believe one of the main purposes of the law was to extend to all citizens, especially the newly freed slaves, the same protections against State governments which the Bill of Rights granted them against the Federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment also granted freed slaves citizenship, limited the rights of former Confederates to serve as United States Government officials, repealed the “three-fifths” clause in Article I Section 2 of the United States Constitution, and famously guaranteed equal protection under the law for all citizens.
Written during Reconstruction by Radical Republican Representative John Bingham from Ohio, the amendment arose during a time of great tumult and change in United States history and has continued to be at the heart of many of the United States biggest controversies. You can read more about how the Fourteenth Amendment was a factor in Supreme Court decisions regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, Roe v. Wade, interracial marriage, Chinese immigration, and more here at Pieces of History. The amendment consists of five sections which address respectively: citizenship, Congressional representation and voting-rights of males, ineligibility for government service as any sort of elected or appointed official by those who have participated in rebellion unless the individual in question is approved for service by a two-thirds majority of each House of Congress, the public debt of the United States and establishing that the United States would not pay the debts of the Confederate government or any other rebellion, and the right of Congress to legislate further to support the amendment.
At the time the amendment was written and passed through Congress, the United States was without a Vice President. When Abraham Lincoln was shot Andrew Johnson became President, but before the 25th Amendment was adopted in 1967 there was no clear procedure for replacing a Vice President who became President due to the death of the sitting President. Andrew Johnson was a War Democrat and Southern Unionist who Lincoln, a Republican, had chosen as his running mate in 1864 to signal his commitment to reconciliation with the South as the Civil War was winding down. Johnson’s Presidency was embattled as he faced hostility from Radical Republicans and the challenge of guiding the nation through some of its darkest hours. Johnson opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment. Contentiousness and acrimony reigned in the political climate of 1866 and would go on to haunt Johnson’s only term, culminating in his impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1868. He escaped conviction in the Senate by only one vote.
In these circumstances of spirited debate, in the wake of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward, as the nation recovered from the War Between the States, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution became law. Debate raged in the years following the war around a number of key issues. What would happen with the newly freed slaves and what would happen with those who had taken up arms against the United States were the two big questions before Congress and the President. The Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished slavery but did nothing to secure freed slaves’ status as citizens, guarantee them voting rights, protect their individual rights from abuse by state governments, or establish limits on the rights of former Confederate officials to hold positions of power in the United States government. To a large extent these issues were addressed in the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment. Many lawmakers felt that the Fourteenth did not go far enough to guarantee the voting rights of the former slaves, which led to the Fifteenth Amendment.
Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868.
Note: Article I, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 2 of the 14th amendment.
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.
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,* and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
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. 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.
*Changed by section 1 of the 26th amendment.
Read the amendments at the National Archives: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html