The amendment originated after the Civil War when Congress attempted to pass legislation securing civil rights for the recently freed slaves. President Andrew Johnson repeatedly vetoed these bills because he believed individual states had the right to determine the status of freedmen without interference from the Federal government.
In order to take the issue out of Johnson’s reach, Congress chose to address civil rights with a constitutional amendment, and June 13, 1866, Congress approved a joint resolution proposing a five-part amendment to the Constitution.
Section one includes its most vital components.
First, the Citizenship Clause ensures that anyone born in the United States—regardless of race, color, or familial status—was automatically a U.S. citizen. The clause made citizenship a fixed condition, taking the issue out of the realm of politics where laws could be overturned and rights revoked.
The Citizenship Clause safeguarded the citizenship status of African Americans after the Civil War and after the landmark Wong Kim Ark decision (1898), which affirmed the birthright citizenship of an American-born Chinese man and set the precedent for the clause to be applied to all races, became a means for other immigrant groups to stake their claims for U.S. citizenship.
Second, the Due Process Clause forbids states from taking away “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The clause extends the protection of the Bill of Rights to states’ actions—previously it only applied only to the Federal government.
This meant that state governments could not deprive people access to basic legal rights, and it provided a means to challenge state laws that deprived individuals of their constitutional rights.
The Due Process Clause was at the heart of many defining 20th-century Supreme Court decisions, such as Loving v. Virginia (1967), which deemed laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional in part because they denied liberty without due process, and Roe v. Wade (1973), which upheld a women’s right to an abortion under the right to privacy encompassed by the Due Process Clause.
Third, the Equal Protection Clause requires states to apply the law equally and prohibits them from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or other arbitrary factors. Although it was initially a response to the Southern Black Codes, which severely restricted former slaves’ basic rights and subjected them to harsh punishments, the Equal Protection Clause was ultimately ineffective in securing rights for African Americans in the years following the Civil War.
In the 20th century the Equal Protection Clause became an instrument for challenging discriminatory laws and expanding rights for all citizens. It provided the rationale for a myriad of civil rights decisions, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which ended state-sponsored school segregation, and the Supreme Court’s argument for striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.
While less essential than section one, the rest of 14th Amendment is not trivial.
Section two eliminated the three-fifth rule, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of congressional apportionment. It also guaranteed that all male citizens over the age of 21, regardless of their race, had a right to vote.
The third and fourth sections provided terms for repayment of Civil War debts and rules for federal service by ex-Confederates, addressing issues that may have hindered southern states’ re-entry to the Union. The final section gave Congress the authority to enforce the amendment.
The 14th Amendment redefined American citizenship and fundamentally altered the relationship between the states and the Federal government. It continues to be at the center of national discussions about the role of government and rights of individuals.
You can learn more about the 14th—and all the amendments—in the National Archives exhibit, “Amending America,” which is open in Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition runs through September 4, 2017.