The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments

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How has the Fourteenth Amendment affected civil liberties from the time of its passage at the end of the Civil War?

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The Fourteenth Amendment had a relatively narrow impact as a measure to help former slaves after the Civil War (1861–1865). Later, it was interpreted much more broadly and used to decide seemingly unrelated cases.

The Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to former male slaves. It was...

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The Fourteenth Amendment had a relatively narrow impact as a measure to help former slaves after the Civil War (1861–1865). Later, it was interpreted much more broadly and used to decide seemingly unrelated cases.

The Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to former male slaves. It was a key part of Reconstruction (1865–1877). Congress passed the Civil Rights Act (1866) over President Andrew Johnson's veto because it was determined to give important rights to freedmen. The Radical Republicans were not certain if it was constitutional, so they passed the Fourteenth Amendment. Former Confederate states had to ratify it before they could be readmitted to the US. Although Tennessee did so relatively quickly, other Southern states were more reluctant. Radical Republicans were furious about Southern intransigence and the race riots in Memphis and New Orleans, so they sent troops into newly created military districts. Most Southerners detested the Fourteenth Amendment, and the troops went South to enforce it.

After 1877, blacks lost their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment in the South, and this discrimination continued for many decades. Finally, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that the South's "separate but equal" facilities violated the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment has been applied to other legal cases which were seemingly unrelated to Reconstruction. For example, in Lochner v. New York (1905) the Supreme Court cited the Fourteenth Amendment when it overturned a maximum workweek of sixty hours for bakers. The Roe v. Wade case of 1973 annulled state laws that restricted abortion because they violated women's right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment.

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The Fourteenth Amendment was added to ensure that all citizens of the United States were entitled to "equal protection" under the law. It said that all naturalized or born citizens were given this right regardless of any other factors. Before the Civil War, the Supreme Court had held (in the infamous Dred Scott decision) that African Americans could not be citizens, and that they had no rights a white man had to recognize. This Amendment essentially nullified that decision. It also was intended to guarantee that the rights protected in the Bill of Rights were not just shielded from infringement from Congress, but the state legislatures as well.

This had, however, been a relatively recent development. In the nineteenth century, courts regularly held that the Fourteenth Amendment did not do this, most famously in a series of Supreme Court cases that allowed Southern states to roll back laws intended to guarantee the rights of freedmen. In the twentieth century, the Supreme Court developed a legal doctrine known as "incorporation." Under this doctrine, the rights protected by the Bill of Rights were extended to the state level under the "Due Process" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments have all been applied to state laws under this doctrine in a series of cases dating back to the turn of the century. So in this way, the Fourteenth Amendment has been instrumental—essential, even—to extending civil liberties to all American citizens. Having very little effect on civil liberties immediately after its passage, it has become the linchpin of the rights and liberties associated with American citizenship.

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The civil liberties that are enjoyed by the people of the United States are outlined in the Amendments to the Constitution, the first ten of which are also known as the Bill of Rights. For example, the First Amendment gives the people the liberties of free speech, the freedom to exercise their religion, and the freedom of the press, while the Fourth Amendment provides civil liberties through the prohibition of government searches or seizures that are deemed unreasonable.

However, up until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, these civil liberties were only enforceable against the federal government, not the governments of the individual states. After all, the first three words of the Bill of Rights are "Congress shall not," and Congress is the legislative body of the federal government.

Before 1868, then, this meant that, while individuals had a right to free speech that could not be infringed upon by the United States government, the government of a state—say, the state of Virginia—could do whatever it wanted to infringe on this civil liberty.

The Fourteenth Amendment changed that. By declaring that "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" (this is known as the due process clause), the Fourteenth Amendment applied the protections that were guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to actions done by state governments, not just the federal government. No longer were individual states able to violate the civil liberties of U.S. citizens.

The timing of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, of course, reveals the underlying goal of the new Amendment. It was 1868, and the southern states were just recovering from losing the Civil War. They had newly-freed slaves now living in the area, and racial animosity was running high. Local and state governments were passing long lists of laws ("Jim Crow" laws) that stripped these newly-freed slaves of many of their civil liberties—liberties that were protected by the Bill of Rights, but only against federal incursion, not state incursion.

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