By: Thaddeus Stevens
About the Author: Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868), a Whig and later a Republican who served for the state of Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives for both parties, crafted the Fourteenth Amendment and the Reconstruction Act of 1867. A lifelong opponent of slavery, Stevens was known as the leader of the Radical Republicans; he died in 1868.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution followed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War. Designed to guarantee citizenship for all former slaves and their descendants, the five provisions in the amendment shaped reconstruction efforts after the war.
Reconstruction led to the passage by the Republican-dominated Congress of an 1867 act that stripped Confederate supporters of voting rights and the right to hold office. Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the House Reconstruction Committee, had led the passage of the first Reconstruction Act of 1867; Congress had passed the Fourteenth Amendment in 1867 but the requisite twenty-eight states had not ratified it.
Under the terms of the Reconstruction Act, which President Andrew Johnson had vetoed and Congress voted to override, the South was divided into military zones and occupied by the Union army. Under duress, many states that rejected the Fourteenth Amendment initially later ratified it as a condition for readmittance into the Union. The Fourteenth Amendment's first section made all slaves full citizens of the United States, overturning the 1856 Supreme Court decision Scott v. Sandford, known as the Dred Scott decision, which had determined that slaves and former slaves were not and never had been citizens, and therefore did not possess the legal rights afforded to citizens by the Constitution. By requiring southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, the first Reconstruction Act set the stage for contentious debate in later years concerning the amendment's legitimacy.
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 the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
In the American court system, the "equal protection" clause in Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment has received extensive study and interpretation over the nearly 140 years since it was added to the Constitution. From cases such as the 1879 Ex Parte Virginia, which held that states, officers, and law enforcement personnel cannot deny equal protection to a person within its borders, to the 1973 Roe v. Wadedecision, which used the Fourteenth Amendment as part of a grouping of amendments in which the majority found a right to privacy for women seeking abortions, the Fourteenth Amendment has had a history of broad application.
The equal protection clause has shaped social conditions in the United States not only in the case of Roe v. Wade but also in fighting racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and age discrimination of older workers, as well as working for equal educational opportunity for children with special needs. Until the Fourteenth Amendment, the Constitution defended breaches of individual rights from federal government encroachment; the Fourteenth Amendment specifically cites protection from state governments, part of the Radical Republican agenda in protecting the rights of former slaves from southern states wishing to strip African Americans of rights.
One of the most famous pairs of Supreme Court decisions, the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, used the Fourteenth Amendment in distinctly different ways. In the Plessy case, the majority decision stated that the equal protection clause applied only to legal rights—not to social equality. Fifty-eight years later, in the Brown decision, the majority made the opposite statement, argued carefully by Thurgood Marshall and fellow lawyers from the NAACP: the social stigma of unequal protection under the law bred a society in which irreparable harm came to those who were treated as "separate" from the majority white society in segregated schooling situations.
In 2000, the Supreme Court used the equal protection clause in the Bush v. Gore case, which determined the outcome of the contested presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. The court decided in a 7–2 decision that the recount of voting ballots in the state of Florida violated the equal protection clause; no single recount procedure applied statewide, possibly leading to voting irregularities. This application of the Fourteenth Amendment found that irregularities existed, but the court ultimately stopped recounts for other reasons, leading to George W. Bush's presidency. The equal protection clause has shaped not only issues related to gender, housing, employment, and education, but also a contested presidential election; its far-ranging application in American law makes the Fourteenth Amendment one of the central components of law and society in the United States.
Breyer, Stephen. Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Jeffrey, Julie Roy. Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.