14th Amendment: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:01 What Is the 14th Amendment?
  • 0:30 Lincoln's Assassination
  • 1:30 The Radicals & the…
  • 2:40 The 14th Amendment is Born
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
Although the Civil War officially ended slavery, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution cemented its demise. Develop an understanding of the 14th Amendment and test your knowledge with a short quiz.

What is the 14th Amendment?

The 14th Amendment was put forward as the country was healing itself from the Civil War and was ratified in 1868. It stated that all persons born or naturalized in the United States - including African Americans - are citizens of the country. Its Due Process Clause also stated that local and state governments cannot deprive any citizen of 'life, liberty or property' without due cause.

Lincoln's Assassination

On the morning of April 11, 1865, then-president Abraham Lincoln spoke about his vision of how to best reconstruct the South after the Civil War. He spoke of reconciliation and a hope to unite the country quickly and get Southern state governments functioning again as part of the Union. That would be his last public statement on the matter. That night, Lincoln went to a play at the Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. and had his rendezvous with death.

Lincoln was shot and killed by Confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth. Also targeted that night were Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Seward survived a brutal stabbing, and Johnson escaped unharmed after his would-be attacker got cold feet and ended up drunk in the hotel bar. The assassination catapulted Johnson into the presidency and into direct conflict with the Radical Republican members of Congress, who disliked him and Lincoln's mild approach to Reconstruction.

The Radicals and the Constitution

Two main players in the radical camp were Representatives Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens. Central to their plan for reconstructing the South was the eradication of old Southern plantation culture and its oppression of newly freed black slaves.

A year after Johnson took office, the radicals gained a majority in Congress and began to push forward legislation in keeping with their vision to transform the South. In March of 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. The act was passed in direct response to the 'Black Codes' put in place in many Southern states that were aimed at undermining the newly found freedom of former slaves.

Johnson, who found himself on the side of Union, more because of his strict interpretation of the Constitution than any desire for black civil rights, fumed. He immediately vetoed the bill. Johnson had been able to veto some acts of Congress before, but this time Congress overrode the presidential veto.

To remove all doubt about the constitutionality of the new Civil Rights Act, a joint committee of Congress recommended a new amendment to the Constitution. The 14th Amendment went far beyond the Civil Rights Act.

The Fourteenth Amendment is Born

The first section of the amendment asserted four basic principles. It reaffirmed state and federal citizenship for persons born or naturalized in the U.S., and it forbade any state from depriving a person of 'life, liberty, or prosperity' or denying any person the equal protection of the laws.

The last three principles have been the subject of long and involved lawsuits resulting in applications not widely, if at all, foreseen at the time. The Due Process Clause has come to mean that state, as well as federal power, is subject to the Bill of Rights, and it has been used to protect corporations, as legal 'persons', from 'unreasonable' regulation by the states. Other provisions of the amendment have had less far-reaching effects. One section specified the power of Congress to pass laws enforcing the amendment.

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