There’s Nothing More American Than the 14th Amendment…and It’s Under Attack
In my experience, every American holds the constitution in reverence, but few know what’s really in it. Naming off what individual amendments connotate would undoubtedly prove problematic for countless US citizens. Unfortunately, I’m sure that the most well known of all of the 27 amendments is the hotly contested 2nd - even if many ignore that “well-regulated militia” part. I’m guessing, perhaps optimistically, that the majority of my countrymen know the 1st Amendment guarantees essential freedoms, such as: religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly. Aside from those two, however, I think it’s safe to say that few others could be readily identified.
I myself - I must admit - would be hard pressed to properly match the lodging of troops in private homes to the 3rd, or powers reserved to the States to the 10th. But I think knowing where quintessential American ideals like the due process of law, no illegal search and seizures, no cruel and unusual punishment, and the establishment of voting rights all come from is integral to being an educated citizen. While I view all of these rights to be inseparable foundations of this country, I truly believe that there is nothing that reflects the greatness of America more than Article 1 of the 14th Amendment. This why I have found it absolutely deplorable that it has come under attack in recent weeks.
To contextualize and understand everything about the 14th Amendment, it bears first mentioning that the 13th Amendment, which was ratified 3 years earlier, in 1865, abolished slavery across the entire country. Those of us who paid attention in our high school history classes know that the years following the end of the Civil War, and the subsequent end of slavery, were not the easiest this country faced. Reconstruction of the South proved to be a complete disaster. Furthermore, eight years before the landmark 13th Amendment was passed, the Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Dredd Scott v. Sanford case that no individual of African descent, whether enslaved or free, could be a US citizen nor benefit from any of the freedoms or rights outlined in the Constitution. This was still the law of the land three years later. So even though all of the slaves had been “freed”, they were still legally non-citizens. This issue is what led to the ratification of the 14th Amendment.
So here is what Article 1 of 14th actually says:
“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.”
It seems quite clear, this amendment was designed to overturn the folly of defining citizenship based on race - as the Dredd Scott decision previously had. In establishing that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States…are citizens,” this country took the stance that birthright citizenship would be a foundational principle moving forward. But the amendment goes much further than just that. While some prior amendments had been focused on the American ideal of equality - namely the 1st - the 14th truly designates that equality in this country applies to anyone and everyone. This is plainly spelled out in the final words: “equal protection of the laws.” This wording opened the door for later court decisions that are now universally celebrated by progressive Americans: Brown v. Board of Education (outlawing racial discrimination), Roe v. Wade (protecting reproductive rights), Reed v. Reed (outlawing gender discrimination), among others. And, of course, this past June, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which deemed states’ bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, was based on this clause in the 14th Amendment.
So this brings us to our current attack on the Amendment. To be clear, the attack is from the Right and it’s two-fold. The same political perspective that treats much of the Constitution as if it is gospel - particularly when it comes to the 2nd Amendment - is now treating the idea of birthright citizenship in the 14th like it was a horrible mistake that must be undone. The leader of this charge is none other than current GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump. Trump has stated that, “no sane country would give automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.” Trump, who himself is only a second generation American, believes that our fake “immigration problem” is a direct result of the 14th amendment.
He is unfortunately not alone in his stance. Dr. Ben Carson, currently running second, has said, “I know the 14th Amendment has been brought up recently, about anchor babies — and it doesn’t make any sense to me that people could come in here, have a baby, and that baby becomes an American citizen.” Apparently one of the underpinnings of American culture and history doesn’t make much sense to the brain surgeon.
New Jersey bully, Chris Christie, has claimed, “I think all this stuff needs to be reexamined in light of the current circumstances…[birthright citizenship] may have made sense at some point in our history, but right now we need to re-look at all that.” Of course the irony here is that this is the same critique opponents of the 2nd Amendment bring up. When Scott Walker was asked if we should end birthright citizenship, his quizzical response was that, “Yeah, to me it’s about enforcing the laws in this country” - of course, not realizing that it is the law of the country.
Lindsay Graham says, “Birthright citizenship I think is a mistake.” Rick Santorum wants to place limits on this unconditional ideal, by proposing that, “only children born on American soil where at least one parent is a citizen or resident aliens is automatically a U.S. citizen.” Rand Paul states, “Citizenship is a privilege, and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits” deciding that citizenship is a privilege rather than a right. But of course, the most ridiculous of them all, is first generation American Bobby Jindal, who says, “We need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants.”
Now, I wish I could stop here. Sadly, the 14th Amendment is facing another adversary. The second piece of the attack on this cherished legislation is coming from the religious right and its self-appointed leader Mike Huckabee. To demonstrate his complete ignorance on the topic of “equal protection of the laws,” Huckabee while attempting to defend bigoted county clerk Kim Davis, unabashedly claimed that Dredd Scott was still the law of the land. So one of our would be presidents has not received the memo over the last 147 years that African Americans are actually citizens of this country. He attempts to use this complete ignorance to basically say that the Supreme Court does not have the ability to say that all people in this country must have equality in the eyes of the law.
The issues here should, in my opinion, be clear to any educated member of this society. The greatness of the 14th - and why it’s intrinsically American - is not that it established basic freedoms. Its greatness is that it not even that it led to our modern notions of equality, but it simultaneously undid the wrongs of the past. America is not infallible. We have a history littered with genocide, enslavement, systemic prejudice, and injustice (and this is just our domestic past). But we have always moved forward. We have heard the voice of the minority, of the oppressed, even if at times it has taken too long. The 14th Amendment shows this country’s ability to learn from past missteps and aim to ensure that they are not repeated. It specifically aimed at eliminating the conditions that this current crop of opponents are no attempting to put back into place. There is a reason why it starts with “All persons,” and not “Some persons.” There is a reason why it doesn’t outline what kinds of citizens get equal protection under the laws - it just says we all do.
I’m not always idealistic about the U.S.A. But the 14th Amendment, above all others, makes me truly proud to be an American.
Cole Gelrod is an educator and writer. He lives in Denver with his wife, Joni, and their daughter, Juniper.