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The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868 as an integral part of the Reconstruction Amendments. It is comprised of four main sections, with a fifth section that authorizes Congress to enforce the provisions therein. This amendment addresses the issues concerning citizenship of minorities, as well as persons born within the boundaries of the United States whose citizenship ties may come into question.
This amendment also addresses issues involving the nation’s debt ceiling and the validity of its debt.
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.
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.
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.
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 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
After the Civil War, and the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Texas instituted its Black Code, which was quickly adopted by other states which formerly comprised the Confederacy. Fearing that the newly-freed slaves would assert their freedom as recently provided by the Thirteenth Amendment, and that they would see themselves as equal to other citizens who were white, Texas instituted the Black Code to allow basic rights to blacks, such as to marry and own property, but restrict other rights that were enjoyed by white citizens, such as owning firearm, taking legal action against others, and testifying in court. In essence, Texas and the states that subscribed to the Black Code were attempting to restore the former slaves to a condition similar to that from which they were recently freed.
The Fourteenth Amendment clarifies the qualifications for citizenship in the United States by delineating the qualifications for the same, as well as setting forth stipulations as to those who are eligible to vote. This served to reaffirm the rights of African Americans, who are citizens of the United States, to vote. It also set forth the terms under which a person born to parents of non-citizen status could be considered citizens, as well as when they could not.
Lastly, the issue of the validity of the national debt was addressed in this amendment. Specifically, this amendment absolved the United States of any legal obligation to compensate the former Confederacy for its financial losses as a result of the war, and the emancipation of slaves.
This amendment also states that the validity of the national debt shall not be called into question, a point that was brought up during the Debt Ceiling Crisis of 2011. Since the Treasury and the Office of the President constitute the Executive Branch, some assert that this can be interpreted to authorize the President to raise the debt ceiling without Congressional approval. Others argue that no such unilateral powers are within the President’s scope of office.
Some argue that the validity clause of the 14th Amendment is compromised by federal statutes that impose a debt ceiling, since the Treasury is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the nation’s debt. Some legal experts and congressmen argue that these conflicting statutes must be resolved by removing the debt ceiling which may be unconstitutional in and of itself. The Debt Ceiling Crisis of 2011 exemplified this dilemma in that the Treasury was prohibited from issuing bonds, which raised the nation’s debt, in order to generate the necessary funds to pay the interest due on the debt. At the time of this writing, this debate is still active, with some calling another Constitutional amendment to specifically address the matter of a debt ceiling. Otherwise, some argue that the current debt ceiling is unconstitutional.
The nation’s road to equality for its citizens has not been an easy one. As the Restoration Amendments began the process of freeing persons who were formerly slaves, and considered to be the personal property of someone else, obstacles to the process reared their heads as former slave owners rallied to keep what (who) they felt belonged to them. The Fourteenth Amendment was not the final amendment that mandated emancipation reform, but it was an important one. By conferring the rights of citizenship to former slaves, the amendment effectively empowered these newly-freed individuals to enjoy freedoms that were formerly prohibited.
The additional language of the Amendment, addressing the qualifications for citizenship as well as the voting rights for citizens, excluded Native Americans who were self-ruled and lived in the United States by virtue of treaty agreements. Specific electoral criteria for representatives and senators were set forth in this Amendment as well.
The validity of the national debt, as set forth in this Amendment, shall never be questioned. Nations such as Great Britain and France that helped to finance the cause of the Confederacy against the United States had no valid claim for collection of their debts. The 14th Amendment prohibited the United States from being responsible for debts arising as a part of a movement toward insurrection. The applicability of the national debt’s validity as it pertains to the debt ceiling issue of the 21st century is yet to be determined.