The 14th Amendment Explained

What is the 14th amendment, why is it so important and what does it tell us about the future of our country?

The 14th amendment is one of the most important constitutional amendments that you probably don’t know anything about. So what is the 14th amendment, why is it so important and what does it tell us about the future of our country?

The 14th amendment is one of the three constitutional amendments that came out of the period of American history known as reconstruction. Reconstruction was a time following the civil war in an era trying to repair a broken nation as well as to grant rights to African Americans.

The first amendment of the era was the 13th amendment which outlawed slavery in the country. The 15th amendment granted African American men the right to vote. So what is the 14th amendment? The 14th amendment covers many things, from the definition of citizenship clarifying a question that existed following the landmark Supreme Court case Dread Scott. V Sanford, to privacy protections which was cited in Roe. V Wade.

Though the most important parts of the 14th amendment are the due process clause and the equal protection clause. Together those two clauses in the 14th amendment have shaped America we know today.

To understand the 14th amendment it is important to look back to the time of reconstruction as well as back to the founding fathers. When the founding fathers created the US constitution they were scared of a phenomenon known as “big government” in which the federal government has too much power and thus becomes tyrannus to the citizens.

So the founding fathers limited the power of the federal government and gave that power to the state governments as they saw the states as the good guys who could overthrow a potentially tyrannical federal government. Because of the fear of government the founding fathers limited the power of the federal government while at the same time limiting people’s rights as the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government not the states, and the states were able to systemically limit people’s rights.
Though the mindset changed after the civil war when all of a sudden the states were the bad actors and the federal government was the good guys. To protect the rights of freed slaves as well as to protect the rights of all people they believed that they should take power away from the states and give that power to the federal government.

Kermit Roosevelt III Law Professor at the University of Pennsylvania believes that the United States that we know today started during the time of reconstruction.

“The story that we tell ourselves about America we like to identify with the founders… the story with a continuous American identity starts with the declaration and the founder’s constitution and then sort of works itself out over the years with the gradual realization of the founding ideals, and we don’t want to admit that it was actually a failure. It failed in the Civil War and we ended up with something very different.”

The founding constitution was a failure and after the civil war, a major change was enacted during reconstruction. Expanding the power of the federal government making slavery illegal, expanding the right to vote, and then extending people’s rights to the states. Though the idea of equality was never really on the founding fathers’ minds as well as the people of the early American republic Roosevelt believes, “The interesting thing about the Declaration of Independence is if you look at how it was received and understood in the early American republic. Up until 1812 or so people didn’t pay much attention to the preamble they didn’t think that it was some bold statement or philosophy of people’s rights. They thought that it was important because it declared independence.”

Though abolitionists at this time we’re looking for any way to get rid of slavery so they turned to now some of the most important words in the Declaration saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and they are endowed with certain inalienable rights that among them are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Those words because of the abolishments became a sort of new founding ideals during the age of reconstruction making possible the 14th amendment. Because of this time, the idea of equality was central and that idea is central in the 14th amendment.

The most important phrase in the amendment is the idea of “equal protection of the laws.” This phrase has been used in some of the most important Supreme Court Cases such as Bush V. Gore which was about election recounts, Brown V. Board of Education outlawing segregation, Obergfell V. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage. These landmark Supreme Court cases were made possible by the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Without the equal protection clause, our nation would look substantially different.

In conclusion, the 14th amendment ushered in a new era in American history. Granting protection to every citizen and creating the country we know today. The future of our nation is tied to this amendment: what we believe is right, what is wrong, and how our values will shape our country into the 21st century.