The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

The Fourteenth Amendment is one of the three Reconstruction Amendments, introduced after the end of the Civil War. It was adopted on July 9, 1868.

The Fourteenth Amendment sought to address the question of newly-freed slaves’ status by providing that everyone born in the United States would automatically be granted citizenship, no matter their race.

Additionally, it echoed the language of the Fifth Amendment by mandating that none of the states could deprive citizens of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It also provides “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens of the country.

All of the above is covered by Section 1 of the Amendment

Sections 2, 3, and 4 are mostly relevant only in the context of the Civil War (specifically the reintegration of southern states), while Section 5 gives Congress the power to enforce the provisions of the Amendment through legislation.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the main points of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Birthright Citizenship

Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that everyone born in the United States or its territories is a citizen. This concept is known as “birthright citizenship.”

During and after the Civil War, some 4 million slaves were freed. Suddenly, there were 4 million people in the country whose legal position was unclear.

The 14th Amendment changed this by making it so that everyone born in the United States or its territories would automatically be citizens, with no regard to race or their former status as slaves.

Today, the concept of birthright citizenship is brought up most often as it relates to children of illegal immigrants.

Due Process and Equal Protection

The Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment are one of the most influential sections of the entire Constitution.

First, due process extends the federal protections present in the Bill of Rights (the First Amendment to the Tenth Amendment) to the states.

The Equal Protection clause, which mandates the individual states must protect every group equally, has been relevant in many Supreme Court cases. Some of these include Loving v. Virginia (1967), permitting people of different races to be married anywhere in the country; Roe v. Wade (1973), permitting a woman to have an abortion; and, more recently, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), permitting people of the same sex to marry one another.

As mentioned earlier, the Due Process clause states that the States may not curtail “life, liberty, or property without Due Process of law.” What does this mean exactly?

Well, as one may guess through the many Supreme Court cases related to it, it’s open to interpretation. In general, it means that a defendant in a criminal case can expect fair treatment.

Today, however, it’s understood to mean a lot more than that. Life, liberty, and property are understood as intangible things, such as the right to marry.

Overturning the Three-Fifths Clause

The amount of representatives a state has in the House of Representatives is determined based on population. Every state, even if it has a very small population, has at least one representative. For example, today California has 53 representatives, while Alaska has just one (along with six other states).

In the early days of the United States, slavery was prevalent in the south. How were slaves – if at all – to be counted towards a states’ population and, therefore, toward how many representatives they got in Congress?

Of course, the states which had slaves wanted all their slaves to count so that they had more representatives and more voting power. The northern states, on the other hand, weren’t so keen to grant them so much power.

The Three-Fifths Clause was reached as a compromise. It established that 3/5 of slaves would count towards a state’s population for purposes of representation in Congress.

The Fourteenth Amendment laid out, in no uncertain terms, that this would no longer be the case. Freed slaves really were citizens now and, as a result, would be 100 % counted as part of a state’s population.

It stipulated, however, that if black men over the age of 21 were denied the right to vote, the state’s amount of representatives would be reduced as punishment.

Unfortunately, this was not really enforced, and Jim Crow laws denying African-Americans the right to vote lasted up until the 1960s.

Ex-Confederates in Office

After the end of the Civil War, the United States began to reintegrate the 11 states that had declared their intent to separate from the country.

Naturally, after the war, the question arose whether or not those who had betrayed their oaths to the United States (such as former members of Congress or military officers) should be allowed to run for office in the US government. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment establishes that they can’t, unless Congress votes by a two-thirds majority to allow the person in question to run.

Confederate Debt

Section 4 of the 14th Amendment prohibits the payment of any debt owed to the Confederacy. It also negates the idea that the US government should have to pay former slave owners for their loss.


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One Response

  1. “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.”

    “Additionally, it echoed the language of the Fifth Amendment by mandating that none of the states could deprive citizens of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It also provides “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens of the country.”

    The “explanation” in the second quotation above incorrectly calls persons citizens, a serious error. The 14th amendment statement in the first quotation above applies to persons, not citizens.

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