While all five sections of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution are important, particularly when considered within the historical context in which the amendment was adopted, there is no question that Section 1 of that amendment remains the most relevant and important to citizens of the United States. That section 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.”
When the 14th Amendment was adopted on July 9, 1868, the Civil War had only recently ended and the era of Reconstruction had begun. The bitterness and resentment that continued to permeate the American South, and would endure for many years to come, manifested in part in efforts by the southern states to continue to treat blacks as inferior and subject to punitive conditions. The abolition of slavery was effectuated at the point of a gun, with the physical and psychological destruction of the Southern way of life breeding hatred – hatred reflected in the attempt by southern states to adopt what was known as the “Black Codes,” laws passed by individual southern states that would have the effect, if left unaddressed, of re-instituting the basic pillars of the old system of slavery. As a condition of enjoying representation in the federal legislature (Congress), those states were forced to support ratification of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal rights to all citizens of the United States and defines as citizens all individuals born within the country’s borders.
Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, alone among the aforementioned five sections, remains enormously important to the legal processes of the United States, particularly with respect to the landmark legal cases that helped permanently end desegregation – in effect, Brown v. Board of Education. While the entire U.S. Constitution remains a model for much of the world, with its built-in balance of power among branches of government and between the federal and state governments and, of course, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, being particularly relevant, Section 1 of the 14th Amendment defined who is an American and who is protected by constitutional guarantees. One example of the current relevance of this section of the Constitution involves the U.S. Government’s “war on terror,” during which American citizens have been targeted for death by the government, most prominently Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born citizen killed by an American drone while al-Awlaki lived in hiding in Yemen. A passionate debate continues regarding the legal and moral implications of the U.S. Government assassinating, without any due process as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, one of its own citizens.