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What Is the 14th Amendment? A Simplified Guide

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Jan 10, 2021 7:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Amendments to the U.S. Constitution help clarify everything from American citizens’ rights to limiting how many terms a person can serve as President. 

One of the most litigated amendments to the Constitution is the 14th Amendment. But what is the 14th Amendment, exactly? The 14th Amendment clarifies issues around U.S. citizenship—specifically, who can be a U.S. citizen, additional rights of citizenship, and how citizenship intersects with U.S. law. 

In this article, we’ll help you understand the ins and outs of this important Constitutional Amendment, including: 

  • Answering the question, “What Is the 14th Amendment?” 
  • Explaining the 14th Amendment in simple terms 
  • Giving you a historical overview of the ratification process for the 14th Amendment
  • Breaking down each section of the 14th Amendment, explained in detail 
  • Listing out key terms you need to know

Okay, let’s dive in! 

 

What Is the 14th Amendment? Quick Reference Guide

There’s a lot of information in this guide. That’s because “What is the 14th Amendment?” is actually a pretty in-depth question! 

We want to make it easy for you to find the information you’re looking for. You can use the links below to quickly jump to different sections of this guide

 

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What Is a Constitutional Amendment, and What Do They Do? 

The Constitution of the United States is a document that serves as the foundation of the U.S. Government. It sets up the United States’ governing system, the system of checks and balances that keeps the government in line, and the fundamental laws that run the nation. 

An amendment to a constitution adds to or changes the original constitutional document. The United States Constitution can be amended through a very specific, and fairly difficult, process that’s outlined in Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution. (Don’t worry: we’ll talk a little more about this process in a second.) 

Constitutions are founding documents, meaning they exist as the guiding principles for a country or nation. But as times change, a constitution--including the U.S. Constitution--may need to be amended to include the new rules, laws, or rights that a country believes are fundamental to its operation. 

Here’s an example: the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. During the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, the Founding Fathers couldn’t agree on what fundamental rights U.S. citizens had...or if those rights should be included in the Constitution. As a result, the Constitution was signed without providing specific “inalienable” rights and protections for Americans. 

Over the next year, many leaders would come to realize the importance of providing for these rights in the Constitution. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified. These helped specifically outline the rights of citizens, including the right to free speech (First Amendment) and the right to a timely trial (Sixth Amendment).

It’s important to note that once amendments are ratified, they are treated as another part of the constitution. In other words, amendments to the U.S. Constitution are treated with equal importance and weight as if they were included in the original document signed over 200 years ago. 

The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times since it was passed in 1789. The 27th Amendment, the most recent amendment to the Constitution, was passed in 1992. 

 

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When Was the 14th Amendment Passed?

The 14th Amendment was passed on July 9, 1868. 

During the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, Congress debated which rights provided by the U.S. Constitution applied to the country’s newly freed slaves, who previously weren’t given rights or protections under the Constitution. (Slavery was abolished under the 13th Amendment.) 

Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This law guaranteed citizenship to everyone born in the United States regardless of their race, skin color, or previous enslavement. 

But the contentiousness of the Civil Rights Act of 1866—it was vetoed by then-President Andrew Johnson, and was hotly contested by Southern states—was worrisome to abolitionists. They worried the law could be overridden or repealed, which would endanger the civil rights of Black Americans. To combat this, they pushed for these protections to become part of the U.S. Constitution through a constitutional amendment. 

In order for an amendment to be ratified, or approved, the amendment must first be approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress. From there, the amendment moves to the states for approval. In order for a U.S. Constitutional Amendment to pass, it must be approved by three-fourths of U.S. States. That means that in 2021, an Amendment would have to be approved by 38 states. 

On July 9, 1868, the 14th amendment was approved by three-fourths of U.S states and became part of the U.S. Constitution. 

(Quick note: there’s a second way to approve a Constitutional Amendment if two-thirds of U.S. states call for a Constitutional Convention to approve an amendment. The amendments would still have to be approved by three quarters of the states through their own legislatures. Since this method has never been used to ratify a U.S. Constitutional Amendment, we aren’t talking about it in depth...but you can learn more about how it works here.) 

 

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution in Simple Terms

So what is the 14th amendment, in simple terms? In essence, the 14th Amendment deals with citizenship rights. That includes: 

  • Citizenship rights for people born in the United States, regardless of race or ethnicity
  • Equal protection under the law for all U.S. citizens
  • How citizens are represented in government through the House of Representatives
  • Punishment for citizens charged with insurrection or rebellion against the United States of America
  • Exempts federal and state governments from paying the debts of former Confederate states. 

So if you’ve been wondering, “What is the 14th Amendment,” these are the general ideas that this Constitutional Amendment covers.

But there’s a lot more you need to know about the 14th Amendment if you’re going to understand it. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is broken up into five different sections, each of which deals with these topics. Let’s take a closer look at each section of the 14th Amendment below. 

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Now let's zoom in on each section of the 14th Amendment. 

 

The 14th Amendment Simplified: Section 1

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.

This section is often referred to as the citizenship clause because it helps clarify who qualifies as a U.S. citizen. While the original language of the U.S. Constitution talks about citizens of the United States, it doesn’t clearly define who gets to be a citizen...and who doesn’t. The 14th Amendment helps to clear that up. 

Section 1 provides for something called “birthright citizenship.” That’s a fancy way of saying that if you’re born in the United States or on U.S. soil, you’re automatically considered a U.S. citizen and receive all the rights and privileges associated with that. (Remember the Bill of Rights? Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here!) 

This amendment also provides citizenship for naturalized citizens, which are people that aren’t born in the U.S. but become citizens through legal immigration processes. These processes are determined through laws passed on the federal level. Once someone is naturalized, they are granted full citizenship rights, just like someone who was born in the United States. 

The 14th Amendment also ensures that everyone who fits this criteria is a full U.S. citizen, regardless of their race or ethnic background. This is particularly important for Black Americans. In the original text of the U.S. Constitution, Black people—most of whom were slaves—were not considered citizens, or even whole people. This clause is commonly referred to as the Three-Fifths Compromise. The 14th Amendment overrides that provision and instead grants former slaves, along with all other minorities, full U.S. citizenship. 

Beyond that, this amendment ensures that no individual state can pass a law that negatively impacts the rights of U.S. citizens that are provided for in the U.S. Constitution. Here’s what we mean. Say California tried to pass a state law that prevented people from protesting peacefully in public. This would be illegal under the 14th Amendment, since that law directly conflicts with citizens’ Constitutional right to protest peacefully (which is provided for under the First Amendment). 

And finally, the 14th Amendment Section 1 clarifies citizens’ legal rights. For instance, no state can legally take away a person’s “life, liberty, or property” without due process. Essentially, that means that the government has to grant citizens all their legal rights as provided to them by the law. This stops states from acting outside of the law, and it protects citizens by guaranteeing their right to legal hearings. So for example, if the government decided to throw someone in jail without a trial, that would violate due process because according to the Constitution, all Americans are entitled to a trial with an impartial jury.

This section also guarantees all U.S. citizens have equal protection under the law. That means the government has to apply the law equally to everyone who is in a similar situation and circumstance. For instance, if an interracial couple wanted to get married, a state couldn’t deny them a marriage license because of their race since they grant licenses to couples of the same race. 

Because Section 1 of the 14th Amendment is so dense and provides so many rights, it’s become one of the most litigated Constitutional Amendments. Brown v. Board of Education, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Loving v. Virginia are all famous Supreme Court cases that deal with the 14th Amendment. 

 

The 14th Amendment Simplified: Section 2

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

When the 14th Amendment was passed, it granted Black Americans full citizenship. Originally, the number of legislators that represented each state in the House of Representatives was calculated using the Three-Fifths Compromise. Essentially, that meant that a Black slave was only considered three-fifths of a person when figuring out the population of a state. 

Section 1 and Section 2 of the 14th Amendment eliminate the Three-Fifths Compromise by granting Black Americans full citizenship rights. But that also meant that the government needed to clarify how the seats in the House of Representatives would be divided between states. Section 2 states that a state’s number of Representatives in the House will be determined based on a state’s population. (Big note here: at this point in history, Native Americans aren’t figured into population counts because they aren't taxed by the Federal government.) 

Section 2 also punishes states that deny full citizens their voting rights. (Black men’s right to vote was protected under the 15th Amendment, and women were granted the right to vote under the 19th Amendment. The voting age gets lowered from 21 to 18 in the 26th Amendment.) The 14th Amendment also says that if a State denies citizens the vote, they will have their representation in the House reduced as a consequence. 

There’s a pretty big exemption to this rule, though: Section 2 of the 14th Amendment clearly states that a state can legally limit voting rights of a U.S citizen if they’ve been convicted of a crime or participated in a rebellion against the U.S. Government. That’s why today there are still states that can deny voting rights to people who’ve been convicted of a crime. 

 

 

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Section 3 of the 14th Amendment deals specifically with people who try to violently overthrow the U.S. Government or help enemies of the United States.

 

The 14th Amendment Simplified: Section 3

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Amendment 14 Section 3 is a very specific clause about how your rights as a citizen are impacted if you participate in a rebellion against the United States government or any of the government’s interests. 

To understand Section 3, we first have to define the terms “insurrection” and “rebellion.” Rebellion and insurrection are open, violent, and usually unsuccessful defiance of or resistance to an established government.

If a person has participated in an insurrection or rebellion against the U.S. government, they no longer have the ability to hold public office. That includes being a Senator, Representative, governor, or judge at the federal or state level. This also applies to positions of military leadership. 

Section 3 also applies to anyone who assists declared enemies of the United States. So for example, if a U.S. citizen had given intelligence to Nazi Germany during World War II—and if they were found guilty of doing so in the court of law—they could lose the same privileges as an insurrectionist under Amendment 14 Section 3. 

Amendment 14 Section 3 was originally meant to punish leaders of the Confederacy by preventing them from holding office again. (The Confederacy originally broke off from the United States because they wanted to continue the practice of chattel slavery, prompting the Civil War.) More recently, members of the U.S. Government have discussed invoking Amendment 14 Section 3 against the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. 

 

The 14th Amendment Simplified: Section 4

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 4 deals with U.S. national debt. It validates the debt of the United States, which means that the government is on the hook for paying the debts it owes. That includes paying government pensions and compensating people for other services, specifically when it comes to suppressing an insurrection. 

But that only applies to debt incurred while fighting a rebellion against the U.S. Government. Any state that participates in an insurrection will have to pay its own debts without help from the federal government. 

This is another section of the 14th Amendment that specifically deals with the repercussions of the American Civil War. After the Civil War, the Confederate states had accrued lots of debt, both by financing their war efforts and from losing their slaves. Section 4 ensured that the former Confederate states were responsible for their own Civil War-related debt—and couldn’t pawn it off on the federal government. 

 

The 14th Amendment Simplified: Section 5

The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

This section of the amendment is simple and straightforward: it gives Congress the power to enforce the laws outlined by Amendment 14. 

 

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What Is the 14th Amendment to the Constitution: Key Terms

There’s a lot of terminology you need to know in order to understand the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. We’ve compiled all the important vocabulary into one helpful list: 

Term
Definition
American Civil War
War between the Union (allied Northern states) and Confederacy (allied Southern states). The Confederate states seceded--or left--the United States because they didn’t want to abolish chattel slavery. The war lasted from April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865, when the Confederacy surrendered. 
Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments of the Constitution that outline the fundamental rights of every U.S. citizen. 
Checks and Balances: 
The principle of government wherein each branch helps to check the power of the other branches. In the U.S., the system of checks and balances applies to the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of government. 
Civil Rights Act of 1866 
Declared that all people born in the U.S. were U.S. citizens and were protected under the Bill of Rights. The passage of this act was the precursor to the drafting and passing of the 14th Amendment.  
Constitutional Amendment 
Constitutional amendments are provisions that are added to the U.S. Constitution in order to add, clarify, or change the original document. Constitutional amendments are difficult to pass because they require approval by 
Constitutional Convention 
Constitutional Conventions can be called if two-thirds of states agree to hold one in order to discuss and propose a constitutional amendment. This amendment process is outlined in Article V of the Constitution. No U.S. Amendment has ever been passed using this process.
Due Process 
The legal requirement that the U.S Government must follow the law, and in doing so, respect all the legal rights that are accorded to U.S. citizens. Under the 14th Amendment, all U.S. citizens have the right to due process. 
Founding Fathers
The group of American political leaders who led the American Revolution and created the U.S. Constitution. 
Insurrection 
An act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government. (Merriam-Webster
Philadelphia Convention 
Held from May 14, 1787 to September 17, 1787. It was during this convention that the U.S. The Constitution was signed and ratified. This is also referred to as the U.S. Constitutional Convention. 
Rebellion 
Open, armed, and usually unsuccessful defiance of or resistance to an established government. (Merriam-Webster)
Three-Fifths Compromise 
This compromise was reached between delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It states that only three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for taxation and governmental representation purposes. In essence, that meant that each slave was only counted as three-fifths of a person and had no citizenship rights under the Constitution. 
U.S. Constitution
The document, ratified in 1787, that sets up the foundational laws and governing mechanisms for the United States of America. The U.S. Constitution can only be altered through the approval of U.S. Constitutional Amendments.
U.S. Bill of Rights 
The first ten amendments to the Constitution. These amendments outline the rights, privileges, and protections granted to U.S. citizens. 

 

 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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