July 9, 1868 the United States formally adopted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (www.ourdocuments.gov). This particular piece of legislation is considered to be the first Civil Rights legislation ever instituted by the United States and was in direct response to the social climate of Reconstruction after the Civil War ended in 1865. Considering all conditions of the naturalization of immigrants according to the Naturalization Act of 1802, the specific changes rendered by the Fourteenth Amendment are:
- Section 1 declares that all persons born in the United States are citizens. This inclusive statement finally makes citizenship attainable for women and non-whites who are born on U.S. soil after the amendment is adopted. Such citizens enjoy equal liberty and protection. However, naturalization of immigrants is not amended so citizenship through naturalization is still exclusively for free, male, white immigrants.
- Section 2 establishes the ratio of State Representatives with respect to population, making a point to exclude Native Americans from the population count. Phraseology also indicates that adult males who are considered criminal or involved in rebellion are not considered a part of the voting population.
- Section 3 denies government office to people who have engaged in insurrection or rebellion or given aid or comfort to the enemies of the United States.
- Section 4 establishes that lawful debt incurred by the United States shall not be questioned. United States assumes no financial responsibility for any act of insurrection or rebellion against the United States. The United States accepts no financial responsibility for the financial loss created by the emancipation of a slave.
- Section 5 empowers the United States Congress to enforce through legislation the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.
What was the social, political and economic climate of the United States leading up to the adoption of this legislation? The United States was in the midst of reconstruction, the Civil War having ended three years prior to the date of the Fourteenth Amendment’s approval. The Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment resulted in thousands of people freed from slave status yet left to wonder what exactly that meant.
In the 1857 case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court ruled that American descendants of African slaves could not attain U.S. citizenship. Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment definitively overruled that Supreme Court decision. The Southern states vehemently opposed the Fourteenth Amendment and only ratified the amendment in order for their states to continue being represented in Congress. In the December 1, 1866 issue of Harper Weekly, editor George William Curtis responded to the resistance of the Southern States acceptance of the Fourteenth Amendment by posing this question, “After a tremendous struggle to overthrow a Government in which you fail, how can you be humiliated by accepting, as the condition of resuming a share in that Government, that it shall be upon equal terms with others?” The common social perception of the Fourteenth Amendment is that it established equality amongst all United States citizens regardless of race or gender (www.14thamendment.harpweek.com).
For the first time in the history of the United States, Congress had enacted citizenship legislation that was not motivated by deceptive exploitation, power or greed. The Fourteenth Amendment was the first step taken by America to create an equal society. By granting citizenship status to thousands of freed slaves who continued to live in the Southern states, a dramatic shift in power would be created in the House of Representatives where power was population-based. The Southern states would have the advantage. Knowing this, Congress still acted to grant citizenship to these Southern freed slaves and accept the political fall out. Considering the political implications it is then truly indicative that the U.S. Congress approached this legislation from a humanitarian perspective.
In the years immediately following the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, there were several civil rights cases that were brought before the Supremem Court. The Supreme Court held that the amendment did not outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals or organizations, but, rather, was a “state action”. It would then seem that, although the United States can pass laws to create a nation that grants equal status to all citizens regardless of race, there is no law that can compel personal opinion. That would take the work of generations to bring about such social change. And, as the gringa can see for herself within her own barrio, the work ain’t finished yet.