The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are collectively known as the reconstruction amendments. Of these, the 14th Amendment ratified on this date in 1868, continues to sustain the impact of the 13th which outlawed slavery and provides a robust framework for the enforcement of the 15th Amendment. Most consequential to passage of the 14th Amendment with its five sections is the revolutionary effect it sustains in protecting the rights of all citizens.
From the passage of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865 to its ratification, the 14th Amendment, the former Confederate states enacted overtly discriminatory laws meant to restrict both the rights and movement of the nation’s four million African Americans formerly held in bondage. Known as Black Codes, these laws had the effect of maintaining a huge supply of cheap labor to reestablish in effect the antebellum plantation system. Fearful of African American participation in democracy, whites used local law enforcement and terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to maintain what was in some states minority rule by whites. relying on racist traditions and the 1857 Dred Scott decision that held African Americans ineligible to be citizens, local and state governments in the South remained much as they were before the Confederate’s defeat.
By 1868, control of Reconstruction firmly in the hands of Congress, President Andrew Johnson having been repudiated for his handling of restoring the former Confederate states to a country that sacrificed roughly four hundred thousand lives. Led by Radical Republicans, the 14th Amendment was written in direct response to the Black Codes. It stipulated that those formerly held in bondage were citizens by birthright, (jus soli), and as such, are due equal protection under the law as well as due process.
While the final Reconstruction amendment, the 15th, quickly ratified in early 1870, specifically gave African Americans, (males only), the right to vote, enforcement of these revolutionary changes to our constitution effectively ceased in 1877 with the ignominious end of Reconstruction. After less than a dozen years, the federal government ceded to the states its new role in protecting the rights of individual citizens from abuses under the guise of states’ rights. It would be nearly an entire century before the federal government reasserted that role.
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
The 14th Amendment remains consequential today in that it began a process of conveying protections of the Bill of Rights to individual citizens as opposed to only states. As early as 1870, Jim Crow, which began to codify a segregated society, universally in the South, but widespread in many Northern states, flouted the very intent of the Reconstruction Amendments. Coinciding with the modern civil rights movement, legal challenges as well as landmark civil rights legislation at the federal level gained ground against Jim Crow, effectively mortally wounding him with passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Still, Southern states continued to openly subvert the 15th Amendment with voter-suppression laws and practices. However, federal courts increased its use of a precept found within the 14th Amendment.
Known as the Incorporation Doctrine, Supreme Court cases have recognized the long history of states selectively denying their respective citizens of constitutionally guaranteed rights, most often targeting non-white populations. Citing the equal protection and due processes clauses of the 14th Amendment, federal courts have increasingly applied parts of most Bill of Rights Amendments to individuals when individual states were found to engage in behaviors denying those rights.
History as Prologue
With the general election only months away, the issues of voter suppression, election interference by foreign powers, and a growing lack of trust in the judiciary, the 14th Amendment may provide the legal mechanism for restoring faith in our constitutional form of government. Moreover, as it’s done for its fellow reconstruction amendments, it may sustain the renewed effort to provide for racial justice in our legal system.