Today is the anniversary of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, perhaps the most important amendment in our Constitution. This is the amendment that is used most frequently in civil rights litigation, including the most recent same sex marriage decision of the Supreme Court (Obergefell v Hodges 2015) last year. It is this very amendment, through the legal process of incorporation, which made the Bill of Rights, originally intended to apply only to the federal government and its citizens, apply to the way the states treat their citizens as well.
This amendment includes the Citizenship Clause (“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.”), the Privileges and Immunities Clause (“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”), the Due Process Clause (“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”), and the Equal Protection Clause (“nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”). It was passed to ensure the rights of the newly freed slaves, defining them as citizens with the civil rights afforded all citizens.
It is actually pretty amazing it was even ratified in 1868. There was a great deal of ambivalence at the time, even among abolitionists, about the role newly freed slaves should play in this nation. This, of course, is rather evident, especially regarding its abuse and misuse and non-enforcement over these many years since its ratification. All the Confederate States were required to pass this amendment in order to be accepted back into the Union after the Civil War. This is why, to this day, many right-wing “patriots” believe those states were coerced into passing the amendment and that therefore it is not legitimately legal.
The intention of this amendment is in many ways at the foundation of what equality and democracy mean in this nation. The idea that all laws should apply equally to all citizens, the idea that the system and process of justice should unfold equally and fairly to all its citizens is at its core. This amendment is at the heart of the true meaning of diversity and inclusion and marked us in 1868 as a truly unique system of government. This amendment holds and expresses this country’s rare promise, hope, and vision. Yet without our firm belief in its enforcement, it is but a fragile and vulnerable pretension.
Today we celebrate, arguably, the most important piece of our Constitution, the piece that truly defines us as a nation and as a people, the piece that explains us as a deep and abiding democracy, a genuine democracy, a democracy meant for every one of its citizens. But, as is more than obvious in our current political process and events in the news, it takes continual vigilance and work (in our political system and on ourselves), attention and activism, compassion and passion, participation and simply exercising our right to vote, to make sure that the intention of 14th Amendment continues to feed the root, the heart, and the character of this nation.