“You cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own.”
“To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow.”
The Fourteenth Amendment is possibly one of the most heavily debated parts of the Constitution. Even today, politicians dispute its application. In Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court stated Southern segregation laws did not label African Americans as unequal, just separate. Therefore segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Would the original Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment have agreed? What did the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment really indented for the Amendment to mean? What did they hope to accomplish with the Fourteenth Amendment? Was there agreement between all of the Framers on its meaning?
After the Civil War had ended a great question loomed over America. What would be done about the former Confederate States? Some wanted immediate readmission. Others worried that the South would try to regain the power of the United States Government it once held during the antebellum period. The Union had fought to destroy the South’s grip on the nation. Many, including Framer Thaddeus Stevens, did not want to “fumble away the gains of the struggle just past.”
With Andrew Johnson as president there was cause for worry. Though Johnson began with a tough stance on Southern Reconstruction, he soon caved. Johnson gave amnesty to almost any southerner who came asking. He gave out 7,000 pardons in the first year of his program. Johnson, who had long despised the planter elite, began to drop his old hostility. Lastly, Johnson still held states rights about the rights of the federal government. Johnson’s softening of Reconstruction “[sowed] the burned earth of the South with serpent’s teeth.” Northerners had no doubt that a new Slave Power would sprout from those seeds.
The Fourteenth Amendment rose to combat the rising new Slave Power. The rule of the Slave Power went directly against the principles of republicanism. The Constitution, stated John Bingham, formed the basic requirement of any republic: the legal guarantee of equality for all of its citizens. Not only did the antebellum South function on slave labor, but the censorship it placed on the federal mail system to prevent anti-slavery publications in it’s borders violated freedoms all across the United States.
John Bingham’s Bill of Rights provided the basis for the First Section of the Fourteenth Amendment. The First Section states that no state government is allowed to make any law that infringes on any citizen’s Civil Rights. Many believe that Congress proposed this Section to back up Trumbull’s Civil Rights Bill. Trumbull’s Bill outline’s what civil rights the federal government protected and courses of action that could be taken to those who violated those rights. The Fourteenth merely pushed the government’s power over states even further.
The Second Section declared that any state who denied any male citizen above the age of twenty-one the right to vote would lose congressional representation equal to that of the population not allowed to voted. The Republicans knew that if the Federal Government readmitted Southern states with the 3/5s clause still intact, the Slave Power would maintain it’s hold on Congress. No one wanted the South to claim “representation for the freed slaves while denying them the vote.” That vote, Frederick Douglass had said, would form “a wall of fire for every loyal citizen’s protection.” The Second section directly supports this.
The more radical Framers wished to give blacks the vote, but knew that public opinion would not allow that to happen. Most Northern states at the time did not even allow blacks to vote. Instead, Southern states would be forced to allow ex slaves to vote or face losing seats in the house. If they did allow blacks to vote freely, chances were good the ex slaves would not vote their former masters into power.
The Third Section banned anyone who took an oath to any Federal or State government office to uphold the Constitution and then broke that oath by participating in the Confederate “insurrection” from serving in Congress or the Electoral College. The Third Section punished those who had been part of the antebellum Slave Power in government. All Senators from seceding states left Congress except Andrew Johnson. These Senators, and other officials who had presumably been part of the Southern Slave Power, would be barred from government. Thus the Third Section further curtailed the return of the Slave Power.
The Confederate States had borrowed large sums of money during the war. Much of that money had come from the planter elites in each Southern state. Also the Emancipation Proclamation had cost Southern planters their property. Southerners believed, “the gov’ment won’t take away all our niggers for nothin’. The Cons’tution makes niggers prop’ty and gov’ment is bound to pay for them.” The Fourth Section declares the Federal government will not adsorb any of the former Confederate State’s debts nor will the losses incurred by Emancipation be repaid. When the Confederate States seceded, they forfeited any powers they had as states under the federal government. “Dead States” Thaddeus Stevens called them. The federal government thus held no responsibility for any debts incurred why the former Confederate States were in rebellion.
Lastly Section Five gives Congress “power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
Each of the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment had different hopes for the document. Thaddeus Stephens and Charles Sumner represented the more radical views of the Framers. Stephens’s chief motivation was equality for all, a “model republic”. His idealistic view of the republic and his cynical view of man spurred his commitment to Southern Reconstruction and the Fourteenth Amendment. Stevens believed that black enfranchisement, “joined with just white men, would greatly modify, if it did not entirely prevent, the injustice of majorities.”
Charles Sumner held beliefs even more radical than Stevens did. Stevens wanted black suffrage and equality to fulfill his vision of the “model republic”. Sumner instead stood behind the principle that “black and white Americans should be equal in all things, whether education, politics, or social relations”. Steadfast in his convictions, Sumner even resolved to kill the Amendment when the section, which later became Section Two, was changed. The change stated that though representation could be limited for disfranchising blacks taxes could still be collected on those citizens. Sumner stated this change recognized “the power of states to disfranchise racial minorities, [which violated] American rule against taxation without representation.”
William Pitt Fessenden and John A Bingham held more moderate opinions that Stevens and Sumner. Fessenden politics were much more rational than the radicals. Though he shared many person beliefs with the radical Framers, Fessenden kept those separate from his politics. Fessenden felt confronting the Southern Slave Power head on was the only way to equality for all.
Men love political power…Having a little, they are ready to grasp more. If this is the case, have we not done something if this amendment is passed, to say to men, ‘Your political power shall be in exact proportion to your action in the right direction?’
John Bingham strongly stood behind the Constitution as a document promising equality. Equality was the “rock on which the Constitution [rested]” Like Fessenden, Bingham looked on the Slave Power as a direct threat to the “Founder’s Republic”. Thus Bingham wanted to give Congress the power to “force the states to live by the rules of republicanism and to write those rules into the Constitution.”
Democrats and Southerners brought up to points to attack the Fourteenth Amendment. One of these questioned who exactly civil rights would extend to. Many argued that if blacks were given civil rights they would soon be unequal to whites. The implementation of “Black Codes” in the south, which effectively made blacks slaves again, gave that argument no weight. Others were concerned about the Chinese and Gypsies in America.
Chinese, argued a Congressmen from California, were a pagan race and could not be made into good citizens. Gypsies, argued another Congressmen from Pennsylvania, contributed nothing to the United States. The Gypsies recognized no government but their own, paid no taxes, pretended to own no land, never performed military service, and did nothing “which becomes the citizen”. However, it was assured that only children of the Chinese would be counted as citizens and that Gypsies were not, nor would they ever be, a threat to the United States.
When questioning the Fourteenth Amendment some wonder how this applied to women. Some thought this would help defeat the bill. James Brooks and others truly did not care if women were able to vote, they just wanted to prevent blacks from being able to vote. Women were not granted the vote in any state, but were still counted in censuses and their numbers used to base representation. When Brooks was asked if he was in favor of extending the vote to blacks and women he replied, “I am in favor of my own color in preference to any other color, and I prefer the white women of my country to the negro.” Brooks and the Democrats were trying to rally anti-black support. This gambit failed however. The Republican majority in the House pushed the Amendment through on June 8th 1866. A few days later on June 13th the Senate voted 120 to 32 in favor of the Amendment.
In 1896, Justice Henry Billings Brown declared in the Plessy v Fergusson rulling, “We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” Even though segregation kept blacks and whites separate, the treatment of both was equal and not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Brown’s assumptions were wrong. The framers would have agreed. When people are legally separated based on race, religion, or anything it is stating that people are not equal. In the true republic that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment envisioned equality was paramount. When legally separated, the law is stating, even if conditions are truly equal, you do not belong together because of differences.
The Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment called for true equality. Their visionary document was ahead of its time. Americans of their generation were not ready to accept its true meaning. Nor could they truly grasp it. They would have been pleased to see the progress made by the Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s. The Framers would also be pleased with the progress of things today. We haven’t yet completely fulfilled their vision. We are yet to be “one people, one Constitution, and one country.”