Understanding the 14th Amendment


In the past few weeks, you might have noticed the 14th Amendment mentioned a lot in the news. People are trying to figure out what it says and how it should be applied to current events. In this article, we're going to break down each part of this amendment, explain what it means, and explore the history behind it. Our purpose is to understand why it was added as an amendment to the Constitution and how it applies to us today. You will notice that each provision is quoted and discussed separately. This is done to identify the significance and relevance of each provision independently of the others. Let’s begin.


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.

This provision gives every human being born in the United States the right to citizenship in both the United States and the state where they live, as long as they are born to parents who are “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” In other words, if your parents are foreigners or aliens (ie. moved to the United States but have not become citizens through the naturalization process), or if you were born to foreign diplomats (people sent by other countries to work with the U.S. government), you might not automatically have U.S. citizenship.

This provision also allows persons who move to the United States to become citizens through a process of naturalization.

It is interesting that despite this amendment, American Indians living on reservations could not be citizens or have their children considered citizens until 1924.

This amendment was introduced despite the Thirteenth Amendment's clear directive to abolish slavery. Nonetheless, there continued to be many instances of abuse and denial of rights to former slaves. In some states, they were forbidden to “appear in the towns in any other character than menial servants…" and they were required to “reside on and cultivate the soil, without the right to purchase or own it." They were excluded from many occupations because of their race and were not permitted the “privilege of giving testimony in the courts where a white man was a party.” There were also heavy fines imposed on vagrants and loiterers, who, if unable to pay the fines, were sold under a work contract to the highest bidder. This was done on the assumption that while the federal government could abolish slavery per se, only the state had the authority to regulate the affairs of individuals. The first part of the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to guarantee former slaves all the rights of full citizenship, not only of the United States but of the state where they resided. (Civil Rights Cases, Page 109 U. S. 37 (1883))

It's crucial to understand that if the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment had been part of the original Constitution, the states would not have agreed to ratify it. Back then, the states viewed the Constitution and the National Government as their creation, and they were wary of it dictating their actions. This sentiment was reinforced when the Bill of Rights was introduced. The Bill of Rights highlights areas where the National Government shouldn’t interfere, and initially, these amendments didn't apply to the states.

However, with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the states found themselves bound by similar rules as the National Government in many respects. The primary goal of the Fourteenth Amendment was to compel the states to adhere to these same rules, promoting principles like "equality for all," including formerly enslaved individuals, and safeguarding religious liberty. It marked a significant shift in how the states were expected to align with the principles they set for the National Government.


"No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States"

In simpler terms, this provision ensures that every American has the right to enjoy all the privileges and benefits that come with being a citizen of the United States. It's like saying, "Hey, if you're a citizen, you get to enjoy all the cool stuff that comes with it, no matter which state you're in."

Interestingly, this idea wasn’t new. Article IV, section 2 of the U.S. Constitution already declared that “the citizens of each state [would] be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states.” The states just weren’t adopting this part of the national Constitution for all their citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment simply required the states to abide by this provision in the National Constitution.

So, in essence, this part of the Fourteenth Amendment is like a VIP pass, ensuring that all U.S. citizens can enjoy their rights and privileges both at the state and national levels. It's all about making sure everyone is treated equally, no matter where they live in the country.


“nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”

In straightforward terms, this provision ensures that everyone in the United States and its territories, not just citizens, have the right to be protected in their life, liberty, and property. Importantly, these fundamental aspects cannot be taken away without a fair legal process.

This guarantee might sound familiar because it echoes what the Fifth Amendment already stated: "No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Fourteenth Amendment essentially reinforces this principle and extends its application to the states.

Now, what exactly is "due process"? It means that before someone's life, liberty, or property is taken away, there must be a fair legal proceeding. However, due process doesn't always require a jury or a formal trial. It does, however, require a full and fair hearing according to the established legal procedures for the specific situation.

The federal courts have also introduced something called "substantive due process," rooted in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. This has expanded federal authority by applying most of the federal Bill of Rights to state governments.

Substantive due process is a legal concept that ensures our most vital rights are protected by the Constitution. It's not just about ensuring fair rules in court; it means that some rights are super important, and the government must be extra careful when creating laws that might impact them.

When we talk about substantive due process, we mean that if the government messes with your really important rights, they need a really good reason. Even if they follow all the right legal steps, a law can still be thrown out if it steps on those crucial rights without a good reason. It's all about making sure the government doesn't overstep its bounds and respects our most important rights.

This part of the Fourteenth Amendment acts like a shield, protecting everyone—no matter their citizenship status—from unfair and arbitrary actions by the state. It ensures that before any significant rights or possessions are taken away, there must be a fair process in place to determine the merits of the case.


“No state shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This provision declares that every person, regardless of citizenship, living within a state's borders has the right to equal protection under the laws.

Let's unpack this a bit more. Just because everyone is to be treated fairly doesn't mean that everyone gets a free pass if they break the law. What it does mean is that once a law is in play due to a crime or a wrongful act, it should be administered equally to all, without discrimination of race, sex, religion, citizenship, or national origin.

This provision also acts as a guard against laws that target specific groups or classes, making such prohibitions or mandatory laws unconstitutional. For instance, excluding certain individuals from participating in the Homestead Act was declared unconstitutional.

However, not all laws are treated the same. Requiring voters to be able to read was deemed acceptable. But there are gray areas. Take the example of the graduated income tax. Some argue that it infringes on property rights because it taxes individuals differently based on their income.

In essence, this part of the Fourteenth Amendment is like a beacon of fairness, striving for the ideal that the laws should be applied equally to everyone within a state's borders, regardless of who they are or where they come from. It's a key ingredient in the recipe for a just and equitable society.


“Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state”

This provision grants each state the right to conduct a full count of all individuals living within its borders during a census to determine its population.

Historically speaking, this provision addresses an important change. In the past, there was a peculiar arrangement where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a vote. It's crucial to understand that this wasn't meant as a demeaning gesture against slaves, but rather as a compromise over the complex issue of taxes and representation.

The South wanted to include all slaves when calculating the population for determining the number of representatives in the House. However, when it came to apportioning taxes "according to population," they wanted to exclude slaves from the count. The compromise reached was that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a vote for both representation and taxation.

The Fourteenth Amendment stepped in to eliminate this practice. Now, representation in Congress is determined by the actual number of persons in each state. It reflects a commitment to a fair and accurate representation of the population, moving away from historical compromises that had implications for both representation and taxation.


“Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers...excluding Indians not taxed”

This provision granted native American Indians the right to maintain their membership in various tribes and nations without being automatically counted as voting citizens in the general population census. They would only be included if they were paying taxes and chose to participate in the voting process.

Historically, the United States government treated Native Americans as independent nationalities, entering into treaties with them as though they were foreign nations. The idea was rooted in the acknowledgment of the distinctiveness of Native American cultures. Over time, however, it became evident that Native American cultures were an integral part of the American tapestry. The notion that Native Americans should no longer be treated as outsiders gained traction. In 1924, Congress passed an act granting full-fledged citizenship to Indians living on reservations. This granted them all the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship, marking a significant shift towards recognizing their rightful place as equal members of the American nation.


“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.”

This provision can be a bit confusing at first glance, so let’s break it down. It ensures to each state that all qualified voters from other states have the privilege to cast their votes at the polls. If any state violates this provision by denying the right to vote to qualified male inhabitants, it faces a penalty. The penalty involves reducing the basis for that state's representation in Congress by a percentage corresponding to the citizens in that state who were deprived of the voting privilege compared to the total number of qualified voters.

Historically, this penalty clause was designed to discourage states from preventing former slaves from voting. However, critics have noted that the Fourteenth Amendment, being the longest of all amendments, was poorly written, and reflected a spirit of anger and revenge rather than the careful, calculated calmness of mature legislatures.

As it turned out, this provision was never put into practice due to its impracticality and, therefore, remained unused. Nonetheless, it signifies a strong statement within the amendment regarding the importance of protecting the right to vote for all qualified citizens, particularly in the context of post-Civil War efforts to secure the rights of former slaves.


“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.”

This provision grants states and the federal government the authority to disqualify individuals from being elected or appointed to public office if they had previously held office, taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, and later participated in a rebellion against the United States or aided its enemies. Additionally, it gives Congress the power to lift this disqualification through a two-thirds majority vote.

After close examination of this provision, it becomes apparent that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, particularly the leadership in Congress at the time, did not share the spirit of healing and reconciliation displayed by figures like Lincoln or General Grant at the end of the Civil War. The provision attempted to exclude from office those who had been leaders in the Confederate cause, effectively depriving the South of its experienced and traditional leadership. Despite the issue of slavery, some of this leadership had contributed valuable elements of political wisdom to the nation before the war.

The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868, and by Christmas Day of the same year, President Andrew Johnson sought reconciliation. He used his pardoning powers to proclaim full amnesty, extending "unconditionally and without reservation" a full pardon to all those involved in the Southern cause, effectively nullifying the effects of this provision as it related to Confederate leaders.


“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.”

This provision ensures that any person holding claims against the United States arising from the Civil War, such as debts incurred while suppressing insurrections and rebellions, is entitled to payment without facing questioning. Additionally, it safeguards pensions and bounties for services rendered during the Civil War.

In essence, this part of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the fulfillment of financial commitments made by the United States in the context of suppressing insurrections and maintaining stability during the challenging period of the Civil War. It provides a legal foundation for individuals to receive the compensation they were promised without encountering disputes or challenges to their claims.


“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”

This provision empowers any person holding an obligation incurred by the Confederacy during the rebellion to reject payment, asserting that the claim is unlawful and void.

Essentially, this section renders all obligations, including the redemption of Confederate currency, null and void. Individuals who had extended loans to the Confederacy were prohibited from collecting them, as these debts were now deemed illegal and void due to their association with the rebellion against the Union. This measure had significant consequences, wiping out a debt of $1.4 billion owed by the Confederacy to its citizens, as well as to foreign countries like England and France. Additionally, the Southern states lost the value of their emancipated slaves, while still being required to bear their proportionate share of the war expenses incurred by the Union. This provision underscored the financial and legal repercussions of participating in the 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.”

This provision grants the United States and individual states the authority to reject any claims made by slave owners asserting they suffered losses due to the emancipation of slaves or from attempting to prevent such emancipation. The courts are instructed to consider all such claims as illegal and void.

This provision prevents slave owners from making claims that the emancipation of their slaves lacked "due process" or that they were not compensated for the loss. It effectively closes the door to any legal challenges seeking compensation for the consequences of emancipation.

Before the Civil War, there were discussions about plans for emancipating slaves with compensation to their owners, but these proposals were rejected. The Fourteenth Amendment solidified the emancipation of slaves, making it clear that no slave owner could assert that they lost their slaves without due process or proper compensation, given that emancipation was both a result of legal measures and the force of arms during the war.


“The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

This provision recognizes the authority and duty of Congress to pass laws essential for the enforcement of the provisions laid out in the Fourteenth Amendment.

In conclusion, the Fourteenth Amendment serves as a vital safeguard for constitutional rights, notwithstanding its human-induced flaws. Shaped by the tumultuous events of its time, it remains a significant influence on contemporary legislation and dialogue. The promises reinforced in this amendment and extending to all individuals within the borders of the United States and its territories stand as a testament to the enduring vision of America's Founders for "equality for all."

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