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The Fourteenth Amendment: a storied and contested history

Chloe Betts
Salt Lake Community College
September 6, 2017
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States remains one

of the most contested pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. The amendment

recognizes and defines citizenship. Additionally, it obligates the states to uphold the

privileges and immunities of the Unites States and respect the equal protection of the

laws. This amendment was put in place to resolve pre-civil war questions regarding

African American citizenship by stating that all persons born or naturalized in the

United Statesare citizens of the United States and of the state in which they reside

(Tulane University, 1999). The law was ratified by the states during the reconstruction

era in 1868 and was preceded by the emancipation proclamation (1863) and the thirteenth

amendment (1865); both of which granted rights to former slaves. However in order to

understand the significance of the fourteenth amendment it is important to recognize its

long and storied history.

In 1865, following the end of the civil war Democrat-controlled southern states

began passing legislation restricting the freedoms of newly emancipated slaves. Soon

after the war white planters faced a severe shortage of workers and saw the influx of

vagrant blacks as dangerous. This resulted in legislation aimed to keep blacks working in

intense labor jobs. This legislation became known as the black codes. The codes

restricted freedoms including marriage, property, and employability. The fourteenth

amendment aimed to reverse these laws by expanding citizenship and clearly giving

equal protection under the law to all citizens. Therefor rendering black codes as


The amendment was contested from the onset; never passing unanimously. It

passed senate 33 to 11 and the house 120 to 32. The amendment was sent to the states for
ratification in June of 1866. North Carolina, Louisiana, and South Carolina all initially

rejected the amendment before ratifying. Ohio, Oregon, and New Jersey all rescinded

ratification before re-ratifying (Kilapatrick, 1961).

Following ratification, the amendment was challenged in the Supreme Court in

the landmark 1886 case Yick Wo v. Hopkins. The case involved a San Francisco city

ordinance requiring all laundry businesses to hold a permit, however permits were not

given to workers of Chinese descent. The defense argued the fourteenth amendment was

violated in this case because the defendant was not receiving equal protection under the

laws. The court sided with the Chinese workers, forever shaping how the fourteenth

amendment is interpreted.

Yick Wo v. Hopkins was not the last time the amendment was taken to court. The

fourteenth amendment became the basis for Plessy v. Ferguson, allowing for separate but

equal facilities for blacks and whites (Cornell, 2000). It then was contested again in 1954

in one of the most well known Supreme Court cases, Brown v. Board of Education

resending Plessy v. Ferguson and legally ending segregation in the United Sates. This

amendment became an integral part of the civil rights movement providing legal standing

for equal treatment and opportunity for black Americans. Most recently the amendment

was used to legalize same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 (Supreme Court

of the United States, 2015).

The United States is known for being a country that will provide opportunity for

all of its citizens. It is known for its safety and freedom. None of these would be possible

without the fourteenth amendment and its equal protection. The fourteenth amendment is
a vital part of the constitution of the United States and will continue to be challenged and


Tulane. History of Law: The Fourteenth Amendmen.


James J. Kilpatrick, ed. (1961). The Constitution of the United States and Amendments
Thereto. Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government. p. 44.

Plessy v. Ferguson. LII / Legal Information Institute, Jan. 2000,


Supreme Court of the United States. Obergefell et al. V. Hodges, director, Ohio
department of health, et al. . No. 14556.