Tuesday, October 30, 2018

14th Amendment: by Andrew McCreight

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” One of three amendments passed during the Reconstruction era to abolish slavery and establish civil and legal rights for black Americans, it would become the basis for many landmark Supreme Court decisions over the years.

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14th Amendment


The idea of “jus soli,” the right of the soil, goes back to English common law. Where does the American idea of birthright citizenship enter our political tradition?

In the United States, it is the African-American community that first begins to articulate the claim to birthright citizenship. They do it because they need it. Other folks do not.
They look at the Constitution, which doesn’t really define who is a citizen, but does have this clause saying that the president must be a natural-born citizen. They ask, if the president is a natural-born citizen, why aren’t we? The Naturalization Act of 1790 says that only white people can be naturalized. But there is no color line in the Constitution.

After 1868, African-Americans are citizens, if they are born in the United States. Now they have a tool that protects them from any effort to remove them from the country. With citizenship, there really is a there there, even as the struggle over civil rights continued, arguably into our own moment.

The 14th Amendment was a 19th-century remedy that did a great deal, but it was not designed to grapple with the problem of mixed-status families.

The 14th amendment, in guaranteeing citizenship, was meant to restore and bequeath family integrity to African-Americans.

I don’t think history is a blueprint. It can’t be. There’s too much that’s particular to our own time and place. But I do think the debate about birthright citizenship is here, and you can’t be well equipped for it unless you are familiar with where it begins.



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