A constitution is defined as a document that outlines the basic structure of a government, defining the boundaries the government must operate within and what duties it must perform. The U.S. Constitution, ratified on September 17, 1787, is the oldest written constitution for a country that is still in use today. The Constitution is a study in compromise, as the founding fathers had to balance the needs of small states and big, slave states and free, and state power versus the need for a federal government. However, one of the sticking points for many was the lack of a guarantee of rights for the citizens of America. After all, they had just finished fighting a war against a government that ran rough shod over them. Thus, the first ten amendments of the Constitution were passed, ensuring the civil rights of all Americans.
Or did they? In spite of the passing of the Bill of Rights and of the high ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, all Americans were not considered equal. Women had few rights, and black people had even fewer. Millions of black slaves were literally owned by other human beings, and treated as if they were cattle. As America grew and developed, slavery continued to be a tremendous issue of contention as the movement to do away with slavery swelled. The southern slave states, determined to hang on to their way of life, defended their right to keep their slaves, citing state sovereignty. The result was a bitter and bloody Civil War.
After the South was defeated in 1865, the Congress moved to address the issue of the slaves with three amendments, now referred to as the “Reconstruction Amendments.” In the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln had declared the end of slavery in the rebel states, but until the end of the war, it could not be enforced. Once Lee surrendered, the task of rebuilding a new South began. The 13th Amendment, which was passed in December of 1865, officially put an end to the institution of slavery in the United States, even for states that had not left the Union. However, this didn’t address the status of the people who were no longer slaves. If they weren’t slaves, what were they? How were they to be treated?
Thus the 14th Amendment was drawn up to address what rights African Americans would have. In essence, the 14th Amendment guarantees all people, no matter their race, the same treatment by the government. This has since been called the Equal Protection clause. The 14th Amendment guarantees that due process applies to everyone of all races and colors, making it illegal to deny anyone their rights without going through proper procedures. For example, this means that African Americans could not be arrested or searched without a warrant.
While most of these provisions had been part of a Civil Rights Law passed in 1866, laws of Congress can easily be repealed. An amendment to the Constitution is much harder to overturn. Thus the 14th Amendment was meant to seal these rights for good. In addition to being passed by Congress, an amendment must also be ratified three-fourths of the state legislatures. Of course, most of the southern states did not pass this amendment, but there were enough states without them to ratify it anyway. It become law in 1868. The final Reconstruction Amendment, the 15th, was passed in 1870, guaranteeing the right to vote for people of any color or race.
On paper, the status of African Americans should have been equal in all ways to white Americans; the reality was that they weren’t treated that way, especially in the South. Once the southern states had control of their governments back after reconstruction, they began instituting a series of laws that eroded these rights. Poll taxes and requirements to own land were used to keep black voters away from the polls. Public places were segregated, so that blacks had their own stores, churches, restrooms, schools, and had to use the backs of restaurants. These became known as the Jim Crow laws.
The cause of equality for African Americans was not an issue on the national stage anymore. People in the North for the most part left the South alone to deal with the issue, since that’s where the vast majority of African Americans lived. Even the military was a segregated organization. In fact, the Supreme Court made a series of rulings which established a “separate but equal” policy that the South operated under for years. States were considered to be fulfilling the 14th Amendment even when the races were separated as long as the facilities for both were “equal.” Of course, in reality they never were equal.
It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s when another movement, as powerful as the abolition movement of a hundred years earlier, brought national attention and pressure to change the second-rate status too many Americans had been living in. The groundwork was actually laid in 1925 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution, applied to the states as well as the federal governemnt. This allowed civil rights leaders to argue that the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection and treatment under the law, applied to the states as well.
Finally, in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed the “separate but equal” policy in its ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. This ruling, which declared that separate schools for black children violated the 14th Amendment, was the legal catalyst for change throughout America. The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment was cited again and again as the Jim Crow laws were struck down all over the country. Eventually federal laws were also enacted to help insure the rights and freedoms that were originally intended by the authors of the 14th Amendment.
One of the strengths of the U.S. Constitution is its flexibility. While only 27 amendments have been passed in the history of the U.S., the fact that the founding fathers recognized the need for the Constitution to have the ability to adapt is a testimony to their wisdom. The Reconstruction Amendments, specifically the 14th, were instrumental in fulfilling the promise of equality that the Constitution claimed was due to all citizens. While true equality was not achieved overnight, the guarantees of the 14th Amendment were the foundation for a truly free America.
The freedoms that are associated with the United States Constitution, while made applicable to the states vis a vis the 14th Amendment, also include the right against self incrimination, the right against unreasonable bail and the constitutional right to a criminal defense attorney in a case involving liberty. These freedoms, also known as the Bill of Rights, ensure that the case brought against an accused contains evidence obtained legally, as defined by the US Constitution and subsequent case law defining the scope of the same.
For more information on the 14th Amendment and its affect on the civil rights enjoyed by Americans today, please visit the following websites.
- Text of the 14th Amendment
- Simplified Version of 14th Amendment Text
- Amendments to the U.S. Constitution
- The 14th Amendments: A Civil Right
- The Constitution for Kids
- The 14th Amendment
- Equal Protection Under the 14th Amendment
- Equal Protection and Civil Rights: The Civil War Amendments
- What is Freedom?
- Historical Background of the 14th Amendment