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Historical Context in Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution

American Slavery: In American history, the institution of slavery predates the founding of the nation. Starting in the 17th century, slaves were brought to the American colonies and the labor they provided came to form a pillar of the economy. This was particularly true in the Southern states, where cotton became the largest industry and export of the 19th century. Because the Northern states had begun to eliminate slavery in the 1770s, tensions between the North and South increased over the course of the nation’s first century. In the 1850s, debates erupted over the place of slavery in the newly annexed western states. The Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in the case of Dred Scott, a slave who moved with his master to the slave-free state of Illinois. The decision was that slaves remained enslaved, even after relocating to a free state. As the 1850s elapsed, it became clear that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free.”

The Civil War and Reconstruction: The tension between the American North and South, between abolitionists and slave-owners, erupted in 1861. Shortly after the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Southern states, one by one, began to secede from the Union. In March 1861, the Union and the newly organized Confederacy clashed at Fort Sumter, initiating the Civil War. The war would continue for four years, cycling through periods of both intense conflict and anxious waiting, and would absorb all of Lincoln’s attention during his four years as president. With twice as many troops and a more robust economy, the North won a decisive, though costly, victory in the war. As victor, the North had the opportunity to rebuild the nation according to its own vision. As the era of Reconstruction began, Northern lawmakers sought to bring about the progressive changes they desired. Despite the retrogressive actions of President Andrew Johnson and the attempts of the Southern states to keep African Americans subordinated, the North succeeded in laying the groundwork for change. The legislative legacy of Reconstruction includes three powerful Constitutional Amendments: the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Altogether, these laws greatly expanded the liberties of African Americans, freeing them from slavery, offering them full citizenship, and granting them the right to vote.

Historical Context Examples in Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution:

Text of the Amendment

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"the public debt of the United States..."   (Text of the Amendment)

Section 4 makes two primary claims. First, the “public debt of the United States,” often referred to as the “national debt,” is real, legitimate, and “shall not be questioned.” That is to say, the federal government is responsible for any debt it accrues and must recognize and pay the debt, including the wartime debt the government accrued during the Civil War. Second, the federal government will not help pay the debt of any party engaged in “insurrection or rebellion.” This is also a measure motivated by the Civil War. The South accrued a great deal of debt, having borrowed from both France and Great Britain. Section 4 relieved the federal government of any obligation to pay off the debts of the Confederacy because it was a rebellious cause.

"Section 3...."   (Text of the Amendment)

Section 3 of the amendment was motivated by the continued tensions between Union and former Confederate politicians after the end of the Civil War. Republican lawmakers sought to bar ex-Confederates—all of whom had “engaged in insurrection”—from participating in the federal government in any capacity. However, recognizing the possibility that a former rebel might usefully serve the government, the lawmakers included a clause by which “two-thirds of each House” can vote to make an exception.

"excluding Indians not taxed..."   (Text of the Amendment)

The phrase “excluding Indians not taxed” appears in both Article I of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment, always in regards to census data. However, the phrase is not defined in these documents. The phrase was also used in federal census-taking instructions throughout much of the 19th century, but was only first explicitly defined in 1880. As the 1880 instructions state, “by the phrase ‘Indians not taxed’ is meant Indians living on reservations under the care of Government agents, or roaming individually, or in bands, over unsettled tracts of country.” The purpose of the clause is to exclude Native Americans—specifically those living under their own laws and regulations—from the count of American voters.

"Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers..."   (Text of the Amendment)

In the wake of the Civil War, federal lawmakers had to decide how to establish the system of voting in the South. The primary point of concern was that, according to the Constitution, each slave was considered three-fifths of a citizen; therefore slaves contributed fewer numbers to the population data that determined the degree of federal representation each state would receive. Population count determined the number of electors and representatives in each state. The North worried that, with former slaves now counting as full citizens, the South would expand in their federal influence without actually allowing African Americans to vote. This section is designed to prevent such an outcome. It stipulates that all non-criminal adult men must be given the right to vote. As an enforcement measure, the amendment rules that the number of eligible men disenfranchised—or blocked from voting—in a given state will be removed from that state’s voting body, thereby causing the state to lose electoral votes, congressional seats, and, thus, federal representation.

"life, liberty, or property..."   (Text of the Amendment)

By protecting the “life liberty, or property” of American citizens, the Fourteenth Amendment builds on a long intellectual tradition. The phrase was devised in 1689 by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government. American politicians, continually influenced by Locke’s liberal political philosophy, have borrowed the phrase in such key documents as The Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights. This known as the “due process of law” clause, for only after “due process of law” may a citizen’s rights be removed. This phrase refers to the proper processing of lawbreakers, whose rights may be removed if they have committed crimes and received a legal trial and sentencing.

"No State shall make or enforce any law..."   (Text of the Amendment)

This phrase has become critical to the legal application of the amendments in the Bill of Rights. Before the Fourteenth Amendment, the rights offered by the amendments could only be ensured in federally enforced settings. The states could effectively overwrite the amendments with their own laws. This particular clause in the Fourteenth Amendment put an end to any ambiguity regarding the status of the amendments: all amendments apply to all Americans and cannot be revoked by state laws.

"The Congress shall have power to enforce..."   (Text of the Amendment)

Section five of the Fourteenth Amendment provides Congress the power of enforcement. This section first appeared in the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended the institution of slavery and involuntary servitude. Congress included it in both cases to provide itself with the necessary capacity to enforce the Constitutional Amendments. Congress’s steps towards ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment are an example of the Congressional power of enforcement in action: since the former Confederate states continued to restrict the freedoms of African Americans, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868 in order to leverage more support for the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

"the male inhabitants of such State..."   (Text of the Amendment)

In the debate over African American suffrage, many advocates for women’s suffrage saw an opportunity to give the vote to all Americans, regardless of gender. For example, at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women's rights, leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave his support to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resolution calling for voting rights for women. However, the inclusion of the adjective “male” dashed any hopes of women acquiring the right to vote at that time. The suffragist movement continued until the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18th, 1920.

"except for participation in rebellion, or other crime..."   (Text of the Amendment)

This exception provides an exception to a citizen’s voting rights: committing crimes or participating in rebellion revokes an individual’s voting rights. To this day, those convicted of felonies cannot vote while in prison, on parole, or on probation. This practice is known as disenfranchisement and is generally regulated at the state level.

"being twenty-one years of age..."   (Text of the Amendment)

Twenty-one remained the legal voting age until the ratification of the Twenty-sixth Amendments to the US Constitution on July 1st, 1971. The original rationale for Twenty-one as the legal voting age likely stems from the recognized age of majority—when someone becomes a legal adult—in the 18th century, which for many European nations was twenty-one.

"Ratified by the required three-fourths of states on 9 July 1868 ..."   (Text of the Amendment)

Article V of the US Constitution prescribes how the government may add amendments to the Constitution. Two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senate must approve the amendment before it can be sent to state legislatures for ratification. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment was highly contested: President Andrew Johnson advised the Southern states to reject the amendment since Congress had a veto-proof majority; the former Confederate states, except for Tennessee, outright refused to ratify the amendment. During the two years it took to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress took additional legislative action, such as passing the Reconstruction Acts, to curtail the effects of the Southern “black codes.”

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