Fourteenth Amendment
by Kapp L. Johnson

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. (Section 1)

The 14th Amendment was adopted on July 9, 1868, after the Civil War, one of the other Reconstruction Amendments, along with the 13th and 15th.

It addresses many aspects of citizenship and the rights of citizens. The most commonly used — and frequently litigated – phrase in the amendment is “equal protection of the laws,” which figures prominently in a variety of landmark cases. Brown v. Board of Education (racial discrimination), Roe v. Wade (reproductive rights), Bush v. Gore (election recounts), Reed v. Reed (gender discrimination) and University of California v. Bakke (racial quotas in education) were argued from Section One.

Under the 14th Amendment, all individuals born in the United States who are not subject to foreign powers are citizens of the U.S. and the state where they were born. Under the state action clause, a state cannot make any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of any citizen. The privileges and immunities clause suggests that all state laws should be applied equally to citizens or have at least certain substantive content. 

The due process clause is found in the Fifth as well as the 14th Amendment. Here, the due process clause is applied to states. Procedural due process is the most widely accepted form of due process so as not to deprive an individual of life, liberty and property. The Equal Protection Clause is one of the most litigated sections of the Constitution. The government has to show that the state action serves a compelling state interest and that the legislation is necessary to serve that interest.

The amendment consists of five sections. Section Two concerns the apportionment of representatives to Congress. Section Three forbids anyone who participates in “insurrection or rebellion” against the U.S. to hold federal office, disqualifying former rebels from serving as state or federal officials. Section Four addresses federal debt, making the national debt sacrosanct while repudiating debts accrued by the Confederacy. And Section Five expressly authorizes Congress to enforce the 14th Amendment “by appropriate legislation.” In other words, it grants Congress the power to pass laws that make Sections One through Four of the 14th Amendment effective.

Kapp L. Johnson is a senior lecturer in ethics and law in the School of Management at California Lutheran University. He holds a doctorate from the University of La Verne College of Law and is a member of the California Bar Association.

15th Amendment

by Victoria Freeman

Section 1. The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. 

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” 

The 15th Amendment was ratified on Feb. 3, 1870. Following the 13th and 14th, which abolished slavery and provided citizenship and equal protection under the laws, the 15th Amendment is the third and final Reconstruction Amendment. 

A simple, yet deceptive, description of the 15th Amendment is that it gave African-Americans the right to vote. Despite this constitutional guarantee, many African-Americans faced various forms of voter suppression well into the 20th century. The problem stemmed, in part, from the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of the amendment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which allowed state laws aimed at suppressing the African-American vote to stand. These included poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, which were written to exempt voters from poll taxes and literacy tests if their forefathers had the right to vote before the Civil War. As African-Americans did not have the right to vote before the Civil War, they were subject to these voting restrictions while their poor and illiterate white counterparts relied on the grandfather-clause exemption. The Supreme Court struck down the use of grandfather clauses in 1915 and state poll taxes in 1966. Ninety-five years after the 15th Amendment was ratified, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests and other discriminatory voting barriers, and provided federal enforcement of this important constitutional protection. 

Victoria Foreman is a lecturer in the Political Science Department at California Lutheran University.

14th & 15th Amendment
by Julia Ornelas-Higdon, PhD

The Fourteenth Amendment

All persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside….[n]or 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.”

Congress proposed the 14th Amendment on June 13, 1866, and the states ratified it on July 9, 1868. Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment established birthright citizenship and gave the federal government the power to protect the rights of American citizens above state and local governments. Significantly, it prohibited the states from using their own power to discriminate against the rights of citizens or deny them equal protection under the law.

This amendment came about during Reconstruction as the United States faced the task of rebuilding the nation and determining how to incorporate the approximately 4 million black men and women freed from slavery into the body politic. In 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill over President Andrew Johnson’s veto, making it the first major law to pass over presidential veto. This law represented an attempt to prevent the former rebel states from passing Black Codes, which were discriminatory laws aimed at limiting the freedoms of black Americans. The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 ultimately laid the foundation for the 14th Amendment and launched Radical Reconstruction.

As a compromise between radical and moderate Republicans, the 14th Amendment did not provide for black men’s suffrage, but it did stipulate that any state that denied voting rights to any group of men would face a reduction in its representation in Congress. States could, however, continue to bar women from the vote.

The 14th Amendment represented the constitutional triumph of federal power over states’ rights in determining the rights of individual citizens and the meaning of American freedom. While the 14th Amendment would prove incredibly significant in protecting the rights of American citizens, the courts largely limited these rights at the state and local levels until the 20th century. For example, Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954, held school segregation to be unconstitutional), Griswold v. Connecticut (1965, established a person’s right to privacy, striking down laws preventing individuals from using birth control), Loving v. Virginia (1967, struck down anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage) and more recently, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015, protected the individual’s fundamental right to marry someone of the same sex) all drew from the 14th Amendment.

The Fifteenth Amendment

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The United States Congress passed the proposed 15th Amendment on Feb. 26, 1869, and it was ratified by the states on Feb. 3, 1870. The 15th Amendment prohibited federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of race. Following the 13th and 14th Amendments, it was the final Constitutional Amendment to come out of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, and it represented the culmination of the radical abolitionist movement, which had fought to incorporate Black Americans as full citizens.

The 15th Amendment did have several limitations.

First, it opened the door for other forms of voting restrictions, such as literacy tests, property qualifications and poll tax requirements that targeted black Americans and aimed at restricting them from voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would make such voting restrictions illegal by attempting to close any loopholes and by enforcing the provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Second, the 15th Amendment failed to grant women the vote. Following the Civil War, feminists had hoped that the expansion of federal power and rights of citizenship would advance women’s equality and citizenship. Ultimately, they found little support from male politicians. While some states passed laws to give women access to the vote, American women were not permitted to vote across the nation until 1920 when the states ratified the 19th Amendment.

Julia Ornelas-Higdon, PhD, is an assistant professor of history at California State University, Channel Islands.