Equality and The Fourteenth Amendment: A New Constitution

In the wake of the Civil War, three amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery (1865), the Fourteenth Amendment made freed slaves citizens of the United States and the state wherein they lived (1868), and the Fifteenth Amendment gave the vote to men of any race (1870). During this time, the nation struggled with what role four million newly freed slaves would assume in American life. With the triumph of the Radical Republicans in Congress, the Constitution was amended to grant full citizenship to former slaves and promise them equal treatment under the law, a promise that took more than a century to fulfill.

Of the Civil War Amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment had the most far-reaching effect on the meaning of the Constitution. It conferred both national and state citizenship upon birth, thereby protecting the legal status of the newly freed slaves. Eventually, the amendment would be interpreted to apply most provisions in the Bill of Rights to the states as well as the national government. And finally, the Fourteenth Amendment introduced the ideal of equality to the Constitution for the first time, promising “equal protection of the laws.”

A key feature of the Fourteenth Amendment was that it directly prohibited certain actions by the states. It also gave Congress the power to enforce the amendment through legislation. The Fourteenth Amendment represented a great expansion of the power of the national government over the states. It has been cited in more Supreme Court cases than any other part of the Constitution. In fact, it made possible a new Constitution—one that protected rights throughout the nation and upheld equality as a constitutional value.

Equality content written by Linda R. Monk, Constitutional scholar

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