Guest Essayist: Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University
1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. 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; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
2: Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
3: No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
4: The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
5: The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Some Key Aims of the 14th Amendment
With the defeat and collapse of the Confederacy, President Lincoln and other Republican leaders began designing and putting into place policies to heal the bitter divisions of civil war and to make good on the promises of freedom and justice on which the nation—“conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—was founded. These policies centrally included amendments to the Constitution to abolish slavery and deal with the all-too-predictable reality of intimidation and discrimination against the newly freed slaves and their descendants. The assassination of the President did not shut down these efforts. In 1866, slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished by adding a thirteenth amendment. Then, in 1868, a fourteenth and fifteenth were added. This brief essay will focus on some (though not all) of the principal aims of the fourteenth.
The first sentence of the Amendment overturns a key provision of the notorious 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford—a Supreme Court decision that not only purported to invalidate congressional authority to restrict slavery in U.S. territories, but also held that blacks (even free blacks) could not be citizens of the United States. The sentence says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” So a former slave who was born, let us suppose, in Virginia and resides there, or in any other state, is a citizen of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Virginia (or whatever state he happens to reside in).
The second sentence of the Amendment does the work of protecting the former slaves and their descendants from various forms of legally sanctioned discrimination and mistreatment. It says: “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; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
In exercising power (especially that of a legislative nature), a worry was that state officials would attempt to deny the former slaves and their progeny the privileges and immunities they possessed by virtue of their American citizenship. Their right to travel between states, for example, might be unfairly restricted. The privileges and immunities provision would stand as a bulwark against such abuses.
In exercising power of a judicial nature, the framers and ratifiers of the 14th Amendment worried that state officials, such as judges, would mistreat the former slaves. And so the due process provision was included to make clear that no person could be executed (deprived of life), jailed or imprisoned (deprived of liberty), or subjected to a forfeiture of goods or a monetary fine (deprived of property) without a fair and impartial hearing before a duly constituted tribunal in which proper procedures (including such things as a presumption of innocence, a right to examine or cross-examine witnesses, and a right to introduce exculpatory evidence) were observed.
In exercising yet other forms of power (especially executive power), the concern was that state officials would abuse their authority by failing to afford to blacks the protections of law given to whites. Even perfectly fair laws, if applied differently based on race, will result in substantive unfairness. Having a law against murder that on its face protects everyone is not worth much to a victim or potential victim if officials charged with the execution of the laws can with impunity apply them discriminatorily. Therefore, the Republicans included a specific provision prohibiting states from denying to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Notice that nowhere in these two sentences (that together constitute Section One of the 14th Amendment) does the word “blacks” (or “negroes,” or the words “persons of African descent”) appear. Nor is the word “race” or any synonym for the word used. Rather, the terms of these provisions are general. The privileges and immunities provision refers to “citizens,” without specifying race, color, ethnicity, or anything of the type. The due process and equal protection guarantees refer to “persons,” again without specifying race, etc. And so these provisions protect everyone against certain abuses by states—not just blacks, though it was, to be sure, a concern to protect the former slaves and their descendants that provided the motivation for the 14th Amendment.
How would the guarantees of Section One of the 14th Amendment be enforced against states that attempted to strip persons of their privileges and immunities as citizens, or deprive them of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or deny them the equal protection of the laws? For the answer, we must skip down to Section Five of the Amendment, which specifically addresses the enforcement question. The first thing to note, is that neither in this Section nor anywhere else in the Amendment is it contemplated that the courts will be the enforcers of its guarantees. The second thing to notice is that enforcement power is expressly granted to the Congress, to wit, “Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” And so the 14th Amendment adds a new delegated power to those already possessed by the people’s representatives in the national legislature: the power to enact laws protecting the privileges and immunities of citizens and the rights of all persons within the jurisdiction of states to due process of law and the equal protection of the laws.
Does this mean that the 14th Amendment radically alters the constitutional system under which the national government is a government of delegated and enumerated (and, therefore, limited) powers and the states are governments of general jurisdiction possessing plenary authority (“police powers”) to protect public health, safety, and morals, and advance the common good? No, that system of federalism and “dual sovereignty” remains in place. But in certain key respects the Amendment adds to the authority of the national government and restricts the power of states. So it is an error to suppose that the 14th Amendment changes everything; and it is no less an error to suppose that it changes nothing.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University