Fourteenth Amendment Overview
Fourteenth Amendment Textual Meaning
The most important and often discussed issues pertaining to the Fourteenth Amendment concern Section One. Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment includes the Naturalization Clause, the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. These four clauses work together to achieve a common objective: to extend certain fundamental rights to black people who were denied these fundamental rights under slavery and under the Black Codes that arose following the Thirteenth Amendment and emancipation.
Sections One through Four of the Fourteenth Amendment apply against the state governments, with Section Five granting Congress the power to enforce the first four sections through appropriate legislation.
This website explains Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment with a separate page for each clause. The remaining sections on this page briefly discuss the general intent of the Fourteenth Amendment, along with Sections Two through Five of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Fourteenth Amendment – Importance Today
The Fourteenth Amendment is important today because the Supreme Court uses the amendment as the basis for decisions regarding free speech, religion, gun rights, criminal procedure, gay rights, gender rights, handicapped rights, marriage rights, and countless other issues that were never intended to fall within the cognizance of federal tribunals. Today, federal courts claim virtually unlimited jurisdiction over any matter you can think of, primarily under the guise of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Far from providing the Supreme Court with unlimited jurisdiction or any legitimate basis to evaluate the wisdom or public policy merits of state law, the Fourteenth Amendment merely sought to protect black people from discriminatory Black Codes that denied certain fundamental rights. To read the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment’s power beyond its intended purpose is intellectually dishonest, purely political in nature, and is responsible for the form of arbitrary governance that Americans live under today.
As Raoul Berger described the proper role of the federal courts, “The judicial role… was limited to policing constitutional boundaries… [and to] set aside unauthorized action, to ‘check’ legislative excesses, to ‘restrain’ Congress within its prescribed ‘limits,’ to prevent the ‘usurpation‘ of power. The Court, in other words, was to act as nay-sayer, not as initiator of policy… [and] not to interfere with the exercise of legislative or executive discretion within those boundaries.” The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment does violence to these fundamental principles.
Fourteenth Amendment – Section One
Historical Note: Fourteenth Amendment not Constitutionally Ratified Pursuant to Article 5
The Fourteenth Amendment was not ratified under the constitutional rules proscribed by Article 5. For more on this history, see the following sources.
Intent of the Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to accomplish three main objectives. First, to elevate blacks to the same legal status as whites with respect to certain fundamental rights. Second, to ensure Republicans maintained control of Congress after the war. And, third, to punish and dishonor those who fought for the Confederacy. Section One is the most important part of the Fourteenth Amendment and is most deserving of discussion.
Intent of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment
Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to elevate blacks to the same legal status as whites with respect to certain fundamental rights. Section One has four separate clauses that were designed to achieve this objective. In the first clause, citizenship was extended to black former slaves born in the United States. In the second clause, certain fundamental rights were extended to these black citizens via the Privileges and Immunities Clause. These Privileges and Immunities were those rights enumerated in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and are the same rights that were understood to be included in the term “Privileges and Immunities” from Article 4, Section 2. These rights generally included owning property, accessing courts, and entering into contracts. In the third clause, blacks were granted Due Process rights and were thus empowered to use the court system to protect their fundamental rights. And lastly, the Equal Protection Clause was meant to grant blacks the right to be treated the same as white people with respect to their fundamental rights.
It’s worth noting three things:
First, the Fourteenth Amendment created no new rights for white people. It merely extended existing fundamental rights to black people that white people had long enjoyed.
Second, the Radical Republicans in Congress pushed for the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent the Civil Rights Act of 1866 from facing constitutional challenges, or from being repealed in the future by Congress.
Third, notice the punctuation of Section One. The first clause, the Naturalization Clause, ends with a period. The next three clauses, Privileges or Immunities, Due Process and Equal Protection, are all separated by a semicolon. The clear implication is that clauses two through four of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment merely express one idea – that the fundamental rights extended to blacks cannot be abridged by state legislation and can be enforced through the courts.
Fourteenth Amendment – Sections Two through Five
Fourteenth Amendment – Section Two
On its face, Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment seemed to possess the noble intention of punishing states that did not extend blacks the right to vote. Section Two penalized and proportionately reduced the representation of a state in Congress that did not extend black males the right to vote. However, this noble facade crumbles a bit when the historical context is considered. The Republican Party’s primary objective was to maintain control of the Federal government. The Federal government (controlled by the Republican Party) had just completed a war of conquest, forcing the southern states to remain in the Union. The last thing Republicans wanted was to have the southern states readmitted to the Union and to have those same southern states (via the Democratic Party) retake control of Congress.
Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to reduce southern representation in the House of Representatives to enable the Republicans to maintain northern majorities, and, thus, control of Congress. Section Two essentially nullified the three-fifths clause of the constitution and reduced southern representation in the House of Representatives. As such, Section Two was a political maneuver by Republicans to maintain control of Congress.
Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment became irrelevant with the subsequent ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Fifteenth Amendment extended blacks the right to vote.
Fourteenth Amendment – Section Three
Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment generally barred any person from holding any federal or state government or public office position if: (1) that person participated as part of the Confederate rebellion, and (2) if that person had previously sworn an oath to protect and defend the United States Constitution. This clause was also a slap in the face to southerners since it diminished and trivialized the southern struggle for independence as an insurrection or rebellion.
Dishonoring and disqualifying southerners and southern statesmen from holding office via a Constitutional amendment infuriated southerners. This section all but guaranteed southern states would reject the Fourteenth Amendment.
Fourteenth Amendment – Section Four
Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment deemed Confederate public debt, other obligations incurred in aid of the Confederacy, and any compensation claims for the loss/emancipation of any slaves to be illegal and void.
Fourteenth Amendment – Section Five
Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment delegated Congress the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment by appropriate legislation.
United States Constitution – Fourteenth 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.
The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.