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The 14th Amendment

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The 14th Amendment

Were slaves actually free and did they receive rights after the Civil War? In an attempt to reconstruct the South after the war Congress passed the 14th Amendment in hopes of giving African Americans citizenship. Some argue that the 14th Amendment is the most historically significant amendment ever passed, as it guarantees equality and due process. Read on to understand how the 14th Amendment impacted African Americans' rights!

The 14th Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment Political Cartoon Kemble 1902, Study SmarterCongress-14th Amendment 2nd Section Source: Wikimedia Commons

14th Amendment to the Constitution

After the Civil War, Reconstruction became necessary to mend the war-torn country. The South, hit the hardest both economically and physically, grasped for power after the 13th Amendment freed the African American labor force. Unfortunately, the South immediately introduced and passed laws that kept African Americans disenfranchised and without a political voice. Known as one of the Reconstruction Amendments, the 14th Amendment passed by Congress in 1866 attempted to give African Americans rights.

Reconstruction- the period after the Civil War from 1855-1877 where the United States struggled with the reintegration of southern states back into the Union

The 14th Amendment, Radical Members of the South Carolina Legislature, Study SmarterRadical Republicans of the South Carolina Legislature. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ratification of the 14th Amendment

Ratification of the 14th Amendment caused much controversy at first, especially in the southern states where Congress coerced its ratification in exchange for re-entry back into the Union. Therefore, many in the South claimed the amendment to be invalid. Though many disapproved of the amendment's validity, Ohio and New Jersey ratified the amendment, along with Alabama and Georgia. After Alabama and Georgia's ratification, Secretary of State William Seward verified the amendment on July 28. While the amendment became an official part of the Constitution, many Southerners continued to argue its' viability. As time continued, all prior confederate states ratified the amendment ending the argument.

Ratification- the act of giving formal consent to a treaty

The 14th Amendment, John Bingham, Study SmarterJohn Bingham, author of the first section of the 14th Amendment Source: Wikimedia Commons

The 14th Amendment in Simplest Terms

Though the Civil War fought to constitutionalize equal rights, many Southerners immediately passed legislation restricting African Americans' rights to regain control and power. In response, Congress passed the 14th Amendment to curtail the South's attempts to disenfranchise black southerners. In addition, the amendment states that every born or naturalized person is guaranteed citizenship. However, this did not include Native Americans based on the idea that they fell under tribal laws. Eventually, in 1924 Congress moved to have Native Americans within the amendments' rights.

At the amendments' core lay three distinct clauses that explain the purpose and intent of the fourteenth amendment.

  • Privileges and immunities clause
  • Due Process Clause
  • Equal Protection Clause

Disenfranchise: depriving someone of a right or privilege

Purpose of the 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment, Extract from the Reconstructed Constitution of the State of Louisiana, Study SmarterExtract from the Reconstructed Constitution of the State of Louisiana. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Section one of the amendment outlines the main provisions of the amendment, declaring that all states must give all citizens equal protection under the law and access to due process.

Section one of the amendment states:

“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.”

Constitution of the United States

Amendment XIV

Section two of the amendment focuses on correcting the 3/5th’s compromise that had stated African Americans only counted for 3/5ths of a person for representation purposes. However, section two states that all Americans, except for Native Americans, are counted towards full representation.

3/5ths compromise- three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for representation in the House of Representatives

Section three includes action against former confederate leaders, prohibiting them from serving in critical political roles.

The 14th Amendment, Constitutional Convention, Study SmarterConstitutional Convention. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sections two through four illuminate the country's state at the amendment's adoption. Each of the three middle clauses notes something of rebellion or insurrection. For example, section two states "except for participation in rebellion or other crime," Section three "shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies," and section four "including debts incurred for payment and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion." While the amendment's language does not directly name the Civil War, it alludes to the overall goal of the amendment, to repair and reconstruct the damage caused by the war.

Section 5 of the 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment, US Senate and House of Representatives Votes on the 14th Amendment, Study SmarterUS Senate and House of Representatives Votes on the 14th Amendment. Source: Edward McPherson, LLD, 1866, Wikimedia Commons

Whatever legislation is appropriate, that is, adapted to carry out the objects the amendments have in view, whatever tends to enforce submission to the prohibitions they contain, and to secure to all persons the enjoyment of perfect equality of civil rights and the equal protection of the laws against State denial or invasion, if not prohibited, is brought within the domain of congressional power. -Section Five, 14th Amendment, 1868

Section five of the 14th Amendment outlines the power of enforcement Congress needed to implement the amendment's provisions. However, in 1879 the Supreme Court acknowledged the power of Congress and allowed it to have greater authority. Many debated giving Congress so much power, and it became strongly criticized. However, today, Congress' rule is not permitted to regulate the conduct of citizens, that power is reserved for state governments.

Supreme Court Cases of the 14th Amendment:

Plessy v Ferguson 1896

The 14th Amendment, Plessy V Ferguson marker, Study SmarterBack Side of Plessy v Ferguson marker. Source: SkywriterCC-BY-SA-3.0 Wikimedia Commons

It took almost thirty years until the provisions of the 14th Amendment came into question in the court case of Plessy v Ferguson. In 1892, African American passenger, Homer Plessy, refused to sit in a designated train car for blacks only. The train car incident had violated Plessy's constitutional rights. The Supreme Court upheld "separate but equal" facilities arguing that the 14th Amendment did not guarantee social protections. Thus, the ruling in Plessy v Ferguson indirectly constitutionalized Jim Crow in the South, leading to decades of legal, racial segregation.

Jim Crow- A set of laws allowing a state to enforce legal segregation

Brown v Board of Education 1954

The 14th Amendment, Quote on Segregation form Supreme Court Decision, Study SmarterQuote on Segregation from Supreme Court Decision. Source: Adam JonesCC-BY-SA-2.0 Wikimedia Commons

In following the "separate but equal" doctrine, many school systems used this to segregate schools legally. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to desegregate schools throughout different states. In Topeka, Kansas, African American parents, encouraged by the NAACP, enrolled students in all-white schools. With the enrollments refused, the NAACP used Oliver Brown's daughter as an example and filed a lawsuit. Due to refusal of enrollment, Brown's daughter enrolled in a school far from her home. As a result, the NAACP argued that racial segregation directly assaulted provisions made in the 14th Amendment.

At first, the Supreme Court ruled against Brown in 1951, stating that both white and black schools were indeed equal. However, after the NAACP appealed the ruling, the Supreme Court took four years to rule racial segregation in schools illegal. Finally, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated several intangible inequalities could be seen between the white and black schools, especially among older students. In response, an order came down to take action to integrate the schools.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)- Civil Rights organization founded in 1909 to advance the expansion of African American rights

The 14th Amendment - Key takeaways

  • Congress passed the 14th Amendment in 1866, and its' purpose was to give citizenship to African Americans.
  • Though the 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship rights for African Americans, it did not extend the same rights to Native Americans.
  • Section 5 of the 14th Amendment gave Congress power to implement the Amendment.
    • Providing this kind of power to Congress was highly criticized
    • Today, Congress is not allowed to regulate citizens' conduct of citizens only state governments can do that
  • In Plessy v Ferguson Congress ruled that separate but equal was constitutional essentially legalizing Jim Crow laws in the South leading to decades of legal, racial segregation.

Frequently Asked Questions about The 14th Amendment

The fourteenth amendment is a congressional amendment that focused on providing equal rights and due process.

The fourteenth amendment was passed on June 13, 1866.

The fourteenth amendment contains basic guarantees of equal rights and access to due process.  The amendment’s core principles were the  Privileges and immunities clause, Due process clause, and Equal protection clause.

The fourteenth amendment is important because it established equal rights and due process for African Americans. However, Congress upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine in court case Plessy v Ferguson. 

The fourteenth amendment was ratified on July 9, 1868.

Final The 14th Amendment Quiz


What was the period immediately after the Civil War that focused on rebuilding the nation?

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How did Congress make the South ratify the fourteenth amendment? 

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Congress coerced the South to ratify the amendment in exchange for re-entry into the Union.

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What are the three core clauses of the fourteenth amendment?

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Privileges and immunities, due process, and equal  protection

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Explain the 3/5ths compromise.

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The compromise stated that only 3/5ths of the slave population would count towards taxation and representation in the House of Representatives.

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Why is section five of the fourteenth amendment so important?

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Section five is important because it gave Congress the power to enforce the amendment through legislation.

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What was the first court case that tested the provisions of the fourteenth amendment?

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Plessy v. Ferguson

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In what court case was the separate but equal doctrine overturned?

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Brown v Board of Ed.

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Which group was founded to advance the rights and freedoms of African Americans?

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National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

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What set of laws allowed legal segregation?

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Jim Crow

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What does Section three of the fourteenth amendment state?

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No former Confederate leaders could serve in critical political roles 

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