After the Civil War that divided America into the United States and the Confederacy for four years, Congress worked to rebuild the South during a period known as Reconstruction (1865-77). From these efforts emerged the Civil War amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which sought equality for emancipated slaves. The 14th Amendment recognized the citizenship of freed slaves.

The Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln issued in 1863 freed the slaves who lived in the Confederate states. Though important, this proclamation was not law and thus not enough. Two years later, the ratification of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution made the abolition of slavery official and binding.

As a part of the Constitution, the 13th Amendment had to be obeyed. Still, the South tried to find ways around it and maintained the social structure in those states during the war. In 1865 and 1866, Southern states passed Black Codes that limited the freedoms of newly freed African-Americans. These codes served mainly to keep former slaves subjugated. The injustices included bans from voting and from working in certain jobs.

Because the Black Codes were state laws, the 5th Amendment did not protect those charged with violating these statutes. (The 5th Amendment applies to felony charges in a federal court, not criminal charges in a state court.) Together with the 1857 Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which denied citizenship to black people, the Black Codes freely denied basic rights to former slaves and their descendants.

If the nation was going to recover from the devastation of the Civil War, the federal government had to address this problem. The progress toward greater civil rights began with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which granted citizenship to “all persons born in the United States,” aside from Native Americans. The bill also granted the rights to fair legal proceedings and property ownership. Though President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill, it became law in April 1866 due to a congressional override.

To further secure political and social rights like voting and equal access to schools, Ohioan John Bingham drew up the 14th Amendment, which was introduced on the House floor just a couple of months after the Civil Rights Bill of 1866.

The 14th Amendment has five sections; the first was the most significant. It reads:

“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.”

For freed slaves, the 14th Amendment affirmed their citizenship and granted them legal protection from violations to their rights as citizens.

Ratification of the amendment began in 1866. To become a part of the Constitution, a proposed amendment must secure the approval of three-quarters of the states. America had 37 states at the time, so Congress needed the approval of 28 states to make the amendment official. At first, all of the Northern states and only one Southern state, Tennessee, ratified the amendment, bringing the approval total to 26. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which laid out what the Southern states had to do to rejoin the Union, pressured the opposing states to ratify the amendment, and Louisiana and South Carolina conceded in 1869, thus meeting the required number of votes for ratification. The process was completed on July 9, 1868.

Two years later, the third and last Reconstruction Amendment, the 15th Amendment, would grant all citizens the right to vote.

More on the History and Ratification of the 14th Amendment

This page was last updated with help of Marco Permunian

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