Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The 14th Amendment, the “Second Constitution”

To state the obvious, race relations in the U.S. are not good at the present time. The shootings of two black men by police officers and the “revenge shootings” this month of on-duty police officers in Dallas and Baton Rogue are indicative of the racial tensions within the country.
As bad as things are, however, they are not nearly as bad as they were 150 years ago, in 1866. And largely because of what Congress did in June of that year, things are much better now than they were then—in spite of lingering problems.
My July 5, 2013, blog article was titled “Celebrating the Ninth of July” (see here), and it was largely about the ratification of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution on that date in 1868. But I know a lot more about that amendment now than I did then.
I know more now largely because of reading the detailed book by Garrett Epps, Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2006).
Epps’s highly regarded book describes the torturous path toward drafting the 14th amendment and getting it passed in June 1866. The Senate passed the new amendment by a vote of 33 to 11 on June 8 and five days later the House of Representatives passed it with a vote of 120 to 32.
Regarding the latter vote, Epps points out that no Democratic voted for it and no Republican voted against it (p. 239). (As I keep pointing out, today the positions of the two parties are completely reversed.)
The new amendment granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed by the 13th amendment. In addition, it forbids states from denying any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Connecticut promptly ratified the proposed amendment on June 30, followed by New Hampshire on July 6. Somewhat surprisingly, Tennessee, one of the states that seceded, was the third state to ratify the new amendment—and it was the only southern state to ratify it until forced to do so.
Since the other former Confederate states refused to ratify the amendment, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act, which imposed military government on those states until new civil governments were established and which also declared that each former Confederate state must ratify the 14th amendment before “said State shall be declared entitled to representation in Congress.”
So, finally, the 14th amendment to the Constitution was ratified on July 9, 1868, and that was of great significance—although much of it was not implemented fully for nearly 100 years.  

Even though a part of the deliberations about the 14th amendment, voting rights for black men were not granted until the ratification of the 15th amendment in 1870. And although discussed in connection with both the 14th and 15th amendments, voting rights for women of any color were not granted until 1920!
Still, in the words of Wake Forest University law professor James E. Bond, “The fourteenth amendment is a second American Constitution, the ‘new birth of freedom’ for which Lincoln had prayed at Gettysburg” (see here).
It was not, however, until the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the SCOTUS in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that provisions of the 14th amendment were implemented for many African-American citizens.

And, sadly, now more than 50 years later racial discrepancies still persist. 


  1. Thanks for reading and for your affirming words, Anton. It was good to hear from you--all the way from Epworth, Iowa!

  2. Helpful to have a short powerful reminder of the torturous path to equal rights. Appreciate the recap

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Larry. It was good to hear from you again.

  3. The "torturous path" is all around us, whether we look at the church, where Jesus is telling us "Pick up your cross and follow me," at our national parks, whose torturous path to creation and continuation was eloquently described by Ken Burns, or the voting rights act, which has been hobbled by the Supreme Court and shamelessly undermined by countless politicians.

    In America we assume there is always a silver bullet to provide a quick and painless solution to any problem. Then there are real bullets, which painfully create complications faster than any solutions. There are knee-jerk solutions, like the war on drugs, that look inviting at first glance, but which actually create massive pain and failure around the world. Then there are the real jerks, who know all this, but peddle knee-jerk solutions anyway because they know how to profit from the chaos they create. Read "The Shock Doctrine" or "This Changes Everything" by Naomi Klein to see how this works.

    I have spent the last three nights watching the RNC. They make it clear that in their universe "blue lives matter" is much more important than
    "black lives matter," with only Newt Gingrich (of all people) hinting that there might be the tiniest bit of fault on the police side. They raise banners proclaiming "Trump Digs Coal" even as they totally ignore the question of Global Warming, which they will not even honor with a rebuttal. If only we could get rid of pesky regulations on things like minimum wages and environmental protection, why we could have a capitalist utopia like Red China! Just don't drink the water or breathe the air, or look too long at the suicide nets surrounding factory dorms. It will be a long torturous path indeed to get to the point where I could respect Republicans again the way I did when I was young, and Eisenhower was President and people like Jacob Javits and Everett Dirksen were in the Senate. We live in a world gone mad, and this week the chief madhouse is in Cleveland. Not just the 14th Amendment, but all of civilization is at risk. Will the Democrats be much better next week? Probably. Enough better? Probably not. May God have mercy on our souls.

  4. Thinking Friend John Tim Carr, my old boyhood friend who lived for decades in California and now resides in Oklahoma, sent the following comment by email.

    "The media is so obviously biased in this negative political year. Isn't the media suppose to be fair in its reporting and not so obviously taking sides OR does the media have the obligation to report the truth and allow us to come to our own personal conclusions?"

    1. John Tim, thanks for the email, and I regret that you are still having trouble posting your comments directly on this blogsite.

      I am not sure how your question is directly related to the blog article, but you do raise an important issue in this highly political year.

      Yes, as I said to you recently in response to another email received from you, I think the media does have an obligation to present factually true and politically unbiased information in their news articles or news programs. Their credibility depends on being accurate and trustworthy, so especially the newspapers seek to do this--although TV "news" programs can skew their programs to appeal to the base of their listeners. (There is far more choice when it comes to TV than there is with newspapers.)

      But from the beginning, and especially from the time of the Civil War, newspapers have taken editorial stances that were clearly in support of one party or the other. On their editorial pages newspapers have no obligation to be politically neutral--although they should be fair and accurate in what they say there, too.