The Fourteenth Amendment was the second to be passed during the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction. Consisting of five sections, it is a kind of catch-all for a number of different principles that needed to be established in the wake of that conflict.
I’m only going to focus on Section I here. It reads as follows:
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.
In the wake of Emancipation, legal provisions for the citizenship of freedmen were vital, and this amendment attempted to accomplish just that. Though on the one hand it played the dangerous game of assuming that legal remedies were all that was needed (more on this next week), it did helpfully provide the principled basis upon which all citizens ought to be guaranteed “equal protection” under the law.
These ideas would become especially important during the civil rights era, as they allowed the Supreme Court to issue its landmark decision about segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Though it took nearly one hundred years to get to this point, the legal implications have resonated strongly. But: this was not the end of the story, as many point to persistent issues of segregation and inequality in contemporary society.
Historian Eric Foner’s history of the Reconstruction is subtitled America’s Unfinished Revolution. As you might guess, the Fourteenth Amendment and its legacy has its place in this story. Unfinished in the 1870s, not yet complete by the 1960s, it remains an open question for us today.
Explicitly or implicitly, our legal system and larger society have the potential to perpetuate powerful systemic inequalities. Though we may never reach a point at which we’ve got it all figured out, the Fourteenth Amendment means that we ought not stop trying.