In the question period after my recent slavery talk, someone asked, weren’t even Northern whites, after the Civil War, very racist?
No! In fact, the so-called “Radical Republicans” then controlling Congress were the opposite of racist. Having fought a bloody war to free the slaves, they were determined to do right by them. Thus in 1868 they passed the 14th Amendment. Remember that an amendment requires two-thirds votes in each house of Congress plus ratification by three-quarters of states – hence a broad public consensus.
In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court majority had stated that being “altogether unfit to associate with the white race, and so far inferior,” blacks could not be citizens, and indeed had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The U.S. Supreme Court. Actual quote.
But in 1868, the nation decided, with the 14th Amendment, that those people – of a different race, their ancestors dragged here in chains, despised and subjected to the most brutal degradation – would now be citizens. We stipulated that everyone born on this soil is a citizen.
Wow. What generosity of spirit. (You won’t find this mentioned in Howard Zinn’s rancid book, A People’s History of the United States.)
Birthright citizenship was actually not an obvious concept at the time, nor is it even today, in many countries. This was a truly radical enactment.
But there was more:
“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and 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.”
Equal protection of the laws – a concept at the very heart of the American idea. The Fifth Amendment had already applied it to the federal government, but the concern in the 14th was to protect ex-slaves, against injustices by state authorities. (And note that it extends the protection not just to citizens, but to “any person.”)
And still further, the amendment contains this little gem, in Section 2: if, in any state, the right to vote is denied to any citizens, “or in any way abridged,” its congressional representation shall be reduced proportionately!
Here again the aim was to protect blacks (whose vote was given by the imminent 15th Amendment). But Section 2 of the 14th was never enforced. Why not? While certainly black voting was long “abridged” throughout the South, it is easy to envision the practical and political obstacles to implementing Section 2.
Nevertheless, the 14th Amendment is a thing of great beauty. It burns with a crystal flame. It embodies the essence of what this wonderful country is all about. Its enactment leaves me awestruck at the broadmindedness and high moral purpose of the Americans of the time.
So you might think this amendment would be held sacrosanct – especially by people who spout talismanic reverence for the Constitution. But no. In fact, I doubt the amendment could pass today. Some Republicans, including several presidential contenders, call for repealing part of it. What a sad contrast with the Republicans of 1868. (So Trump “says what he really thinks.” Unfortunately what he thinks is disgusting.)
It’s birthright citizenship they hate. This is how far their anti-immigrant hysteria has gone. It’s not madness enough to build a wall, nor even to try to deport 11 million productive residents. Now they want to deny citizenship to people born here. Think how crazy this is. If not every child born here is automatically a citizen, then what makes your child a citizen?
But all this, like almost all talk of amending the constitution for various pet causes, is empty posturing, given the high ratification bar which, again, requires a broad national consensus.