The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
was the centerpiece of the Reconstruction Amendments, which together abolished slavery, gave African-American men the right to vote, and guaranteed full citizenship, due process, and equal protection of the laws to all. Its words, which became the law of the land in the bloody aftermath of the Civil War, remain a cornerstone of our constitutional system, serving as a crucial check against government abuse.
The values embedded in the amendment represented a new beginning for our country, taking the nation one step closer to the “more perfect Union” that the Founders envisioned in the Declaration of Independence
— aspirational words that were not part of the original Constitution and failed to provide true dignity, liberty, and equality to every person. Passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified by the states in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1866
, a historic post-Civil War law staunchly opposed by President Andrew Johnson but broadly supported by Congress, which took seriously its obligation to create legal protections for once-enslaved African Americans.
To address concerns about the constitutionality of the act and to prevent easy repeal by a future Congress, legislators drafted a constitutional amendment with similar language and pushed for its ratification. Because of its breadth, today the Fourteenth Amendment remains one of the most judicially scrutinized texts in all of the Constitution and continues to play a vital role in guiding courts and the political branches in safeguarding rights and ensuring equality.
But as Justice Thurgood Marshall observed in 1968, when the amendment turned 100, its text is “not self-fulfilling,” but instead imposes a duty on civic society, lawyers, and the courts to realize its full promise. From Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to important precedents upholding affirmative action and protections, the Fourteenth Amendment will remain at the center of historic progress on the road to racial justice.