Tag Archive for 'United States Constitution'

On This Day: The Thirteenth Amendment

On December 6, 1865—147 years ago today—the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the United States.

It had been a long time coming. Nearly three years earlier, in January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebellious states. (Lincoln had also issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation several months earlier, on September 22, 1862.) Before the end of the Civil War in 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to formally abolish slavery. It would take months, though, before the Amendment was ratified—and President Lincoln, who had fought tirelessly for the Amendment, was assassinated before he could see it ratified.

On December 6, 1865, the amendment finally received the necessary number of state ratifications. Consisting of two sections, the Amendment read as follows:

Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Amendment was one of three Reconstruction Era Constitutional amendments. Nineteen months later, the Fourteenth Amendment would be ratified, extending the liberties of the Bill of Rights to former slaves. And, in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment would grant African American men the right to vote. To learn more about the three Reconstruction Amendments, check out this summary from the United States Senate’s website. The Our Documents initiative also provides summaries and the full text of all three amendments: Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and Fifteenth Amendment.

To learn more about the Thirteenth Amendment, and to view a digitized copy, check out this page from the National Archives.

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 more about the Thirteenth Amendment, check out Alexander Tsesis’ The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History (NYU Press 2004), and his edited volume, The Promises of Liberty: The History and Contemporary Relevance of the Thirteenth Amendment (Columbia University Press 2010).

To learn more about the abolition of slavery, check out Michael Vorenberg’s Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge University Press 2001).

The recently released movie, Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis as President Lincoln, was co-written by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and focuses on Lincoln’s drive to pass the Thirteenth Amendment.  To learn more about President Lincoln’s work toward emancipation, check out Harold Holzer and Sara Vaughn Gabbard’s edited volume, Lincoln and Freedom: Slavery, Emancipation, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Southern Illinois University Press 2007). For more on the Emancipation Proclamation, check out William A. Blair and Karen Fisher Younger’s edited volume, Lincoln’s Proclamation: Emancipation Reconsidered (UNC Press 2009).

On This Day: The Fourteenth Amendment

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.

The Fourteenth Amendment was cited in Supreme Court cases involving interracial marriage (Loving v. Virginia, 1967) and school desegregation (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).

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).

On This Day: Griswold v. Connecticut

On June 7, 1965—47 years ago today—the Supreme Court handed down a milestone decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, ruling that the United States Constitution protected a right to privacy and opening the door to future women’s reproductive rights cases.

A Connecticut statute—from 1879, might I add—made it illegal for any person to use a drug or article to prevent conception. Estelle Griswold (director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut) and Dr. C. Lee Buxton (professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University) were convicted in 1962 as accessories for giving married couples information and medical advice about how to prevent conception, and for prescribing contraceptives. They appealed the decision, and the case was heard in the Supreme Court three years later.

Griswold and Buxton’s legal team argued that the U.S. Constitution implicitly designated privacy as a right to which all citizens were entitled, through several sections of the Bill of Rights.

In its landmark 7-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute violated the right to marital privacy:

The association of people is not mentioned in the Constitution nor in the Bill of Rights. The right to educate a child in a school of the parents’ choice—whether public or private or parochial—is also not mentioned. Nor is the right to study any particular subject or foreign language. Yet the First Amendment has been construed to include certain of those rights. . .

. . . In other words, the First Amendment has a penumbra where privacy is protected from governmental intrusion.

. . . Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marital relationship.

We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights—older than our political parties, older than our school system. Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any involved in our prior decisions.

Griswold set an important precedent regarding the right to privacy—a precedent most notably used eight years later in Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to terminate pregnancies. The decision remains controversial nearly half a century later (see, for example, Rick Santorum’s views on Griswold); however, its significance in broadening the scope of constitutional rights and bringing women’s rights into public discussion clearly designates it as a landmark ruling—one which is applicable to many modern-day issues.

To read the full text of the decision, click here.

To read an encyclopedia article about it, click here.

To read a news story printed after the Supreme Court reached its decision, click here.

For more information, check out John Johnson’s Griswold v. Connecticut: Birth Control and the Constitutional Right of Privacy (University of Kansas Press, 2005).

To learn more about Estelle Griswold, check out her section of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame website.

For a broader discussion, check out Marc Stein’s Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (UNC Press, 2010).

To learn more about reproductive rights, check out The Abortion Rights Controversy in America: A Legal Reader (UNC Press, 2004).

Remembering Heman Marion Sweatt and the Fight for Integration

On June 5, 1950—62 years ago today—the Supreme Court dealt a significant blow to segregated education when it ruled that the exclusion of an African American student from the University of Texas Law School was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Four years earlier, Heman Marion Sweatt had been denied admission to the law school because of his race. After Sweatt pursued legal action, the University attempted to provide “separate but equal” facilities for African Americans wishing to pursue a legal education. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, with NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall arguing the case at the same time as another segregation case, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents.

In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court held that the University’s actions violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The separate school would have been unequal to the University of Texas Law School, the Court said:

. . . [W]e cannot find substantial equality in the educational opportunities offered white and Negro law students by the State. In terms of number of faculty, variety of courses and opportunity for specialization, size of the student body, scope of the library, availability of law review and similar activities, the University of Texas Law School is superior. What is more important, the University of Texas Law School possesses to a far greater degree those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school. Such qualities, to name but a few, include reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, traditions and prestige. It is difficult to believe that one who had a free choice between these law schools would consider the question close.

And the Court took it one step further, contending that separation in and of itself would harm the students’ abilities to compete in the legal arena:

The law school, a proving ground for legal learning and practice, cannot be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts. Few students and no one who has practiced law would choose to study in an academic vacuum, removed from the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views with which the law is concerned.

The Court stated unequivocally that the Fourteenth Amendment required the University to admit Sweatt to the law school, thereby striking an important blow to the “separate but equal” doctrine utilized in the decades following Plessy v. Ferguson.

The Sweatt v. Painter decision and the McLaurin v. Oklahoma decision the same day—milestones in the fight for integration—foreshadowed continued legal action and ultimate success. Within the next few years, the Supreme Court would further dismantle segregated education through Brown v. Board of Education and Brown II.

Click here for the article on the case in the Handbook of Texas, from the Texas State Historical Association.

To read the full text of the Court’s decision in Sweatt v. Painter, click here.

To learn more about the case and its significance, check out Gary Lavergne’s Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice (University of Texas Press, 2010).

To learn more about the fight for educational equality in Texas, check out Amilcar Shabazz’s Advancing Democracy: African Americans and the Struggle for Access and Equity in Higher Education in Texas (UNC Press, 2003).

To learn more about the fight for integration, check out Mark Tushnet’s The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (UNC Press, 2005).

On This Day: Brown v. Board of Education

On May 17, 1954—58 years ago today—the Supreme Court handed down one of its most famous decisions, declaring segregation of public schools unconstitutional and thus forever changing the face of education in the United States.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, combined five cases into a battle against the “separate but equal” doctrine laid out 58 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson.

The cases originated in four different states—Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware—but all involved African Americans seeking the courts’ help in obtaining admission to schools which at the time were attended solely by white children. The NAACP, which represented the plaintiffs, argued that this segregation deprived African American children of the equal protection guaranteed to all citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In its unanimous decision, the Court stated:

We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The battle was far from over. One year later, the Court would revisit integration when it handed down its May 31st, 1955, decision in Brown II, in which the Court detailed how school authorities were to implement the principles set out in Brown v. Board of Education and urged localities to more forward “with all deliberate speed.” Public schools would not fully integrate for several more years. However, Brown v. Board of Education marked a significant milestone in the fight for equality, galvanizing the civil rights movement.

For more information and to view pictures, documents, and audio files, check out the following sites:

The Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence and Research, established in 1988, pays tribute to Brown v. Board of Education. Click here to learn more about the Foundation’s programs, and to explore a rich array of related resources.

Numerous books discuss the history of Brown v. Board of Education, including Waldo E. Martin’s Brown v. Board of Education: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998) and Robert Cottrol, Raymond Diamond, and Leland Ware’s Brown v. Board of Education, Caste, Culture, and the Constitution (University Press of Kansas, 2003).

To read about how Brown played out in one county in Virginia, check out Jill Titus’s Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia (UNC Press, 2011)

To learn more about the fight against segregation, check out Mark Tushnet’s The NAACP’s Legal Strategy against Segregated Education, 1925-1950 (UNC Press, 1987).

For discussions about racial integration and educational policy, check out Integrating Schools in a Changing Society: New Politics and Legal Options for a Multiracial Generation (UNC Press 2011, edited by Erica Frankenberg and Elizabeth DeBray).

Remembering Hernandez v. Texas

On May 3, 1954—58 years ago today—the Supreme Court in its landmark decision Hernandez v. Texas ruled that Mexican Americans (and all other racial groups) were due equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

After agricultural worker Pete Hernandez was indicted for murder by an all-white grand jury in Jackson County, Texas in 1951, his attorneys attempted to invalidate the indictment, arguing that Mexican Americans were barred from participating as jury commissioners, grand jurors, and petit jurors. In fact, a Mexican American had not served on a jury in his county in more than 25 years.

After the trial court denied Hernandez’s motion, an all-white jury sentenced him to life in prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the decision, and eventually the case made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where Hernandez’s lawyers contended that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed protection both on the basis of race and class, and that the jury selection process was discriminatory because of class-based exclusion.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court asserted that the Fourteenth Amendment extends to all racial groups—not just white or African American—and that the exclusion of a distinct class from jury service (given that there was a substantial number of persons of Mexican descent in the county) violated the Amendment’s equal protection clause. The ruling read, in part:

Circumstances or chance may well dictate that no persons in a certain class will serve on a particular jury or during some particular period. But it taxes our credulity to say that mere chance resulted in there being no members of this class among the six thousand jurors called in the past 25 years. The result bespeaks discrimination, whether or not it was a conscious decision on the part of any individual jury commissioner. The judgment of conviction must be reversed.

A major triumph in the Mexican American civil rights movement, the case provided valuable precedent for later cases such as Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD (1971)—an education equality case which recognized Hispanics as an identifiable minority group. Hernandez v. Texas affected minorities of all backgrounds in its implication that all racial and class groups are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Texas State Historical Association has a great summary of the case: click here.

For more information, including case files, click here.

To read the abstract of the case, click here.

To read a news story published during the trial, click here.

To read a news story published one day after the ruling, click here.

To read a New York Times editorial referring to Hernandez v. Texas as “the Hispanic ‘Brown’ case,” click here.

For more information, check out Michael Olivas’ Colored Men and Hombres Aquí: Hernandez v. Texas and the Emergence of Mexican American Lawyering (Arte Público Press).

Remembering Smith v. Allwright

On April 3, 1944—68 years ago today—the Supreme Court in Smith v. Allwright chipped away at race-based voter discrimination, ruling that a state cannot “permit a private organization to practice racial discrimination in elections.”

The case was brought in response to a resolution by the Democratic Party of Texas (described as a “voluntary association” by the Texas Supreme Court)—a policy which allowed only whites to participate in Democratic primary elections. Lonnie Smith, a 39-year-old African American man, was denied the right to vote in the 1940 Texas Democratic primary, and thus began his four-year legal struggle.

Famed NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall—who four years earlier in Chambers v. Florida had won his first of 29 Supreme Court victories—argued that Texas’s Democratic Party’s policy violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and as such denied African Americans their full citizenship rights.

Overturning a nine-year-old decision from Grovey v. Townsend, the Supreme Court in Smith v. Allwright ruled:

The United States is a constitutional democracy. Its organic law grants to all citizens a right to participate in the choice of elected officials without restriction by any state because of race. This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not to be nullified by a state through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election. Constitutional rights would be of little value if they could be thus indirectly denied.

Not only did this case lead to an immediate increase in African American voter registration, it also represented a milestone in the African American struggle for equality and full citizenship and heralded civil rights victories that would come in the following decades.

For more information, check out the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s summary of the case.

For the full text of the decision, click here.

For background information, check out this essay from the University of Texas.

Charles Zelden published a book about the trial with the University of Kansas Press back in 2004: The Battle for the Black Ballot: Smith v. Allwright and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary (search for it here).