On July 9, 1868—144 years ago today—the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, extending the liberties of the Bill of Rights to former slaves.
One of three Reconstruction Era amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment granted to all Americans the right to equal protection and due process of law, greatly expanding the protection of civil rights.
The Amendment stated, in part:
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.
Although the passage of the Amendment certainly was monumental, a narrow interpretation was often taken in the ensuing decades, resulting in the continuation of restricted rights for African Americans. For years, citizens and politicians battled within the courts, in legislative arenas, and in American society at large to make these liberties truly a reality.
More recently, the Fourteenth Amendment has been used to fight for women’s reproductive rights (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992) and to overturn legalized discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals (Romer v. Evans, 1996).
To learn more—and to read the full text of the document—check out this page from the Our Documents initiative, a collaborative effort of National History Day, the National Archives and Records Administration, and USA Freedom Corps.
This site from the Library of Congress provides links to documents related to the passage and scope of the Fourteenth Amendment, including several newspaper articles available through Chronicling America.
To learn more, check out William Nelson’s The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine (Harvard University Press, 1998) and Michael Perry’s We the People: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court (Oxford University Press, 2001).
To learn more about the three Reconstruction Amendments, check out this summary from the United States Senate’s website. The Our Documents initiative (cited above) also provides summaries and the full text of all three amendments: Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and Fifteenth Amendment.
For a chronological list and summary of Reconstruction Era policies, check out this page from the Digital History collection. For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, check out this page from Black Americans in Congress, hosted by the United States House of Representatives’ website.
To learn about one of the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment, check out Hans Trefousse’s Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (UNC Press, 1997).