On July 28, 1868, Secretary of State William Seward issued a proclamation certifying without reservation that the Fourteenth Amendment was a part of the United States Constitution. The required number of states had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment a few weeks earlier on July 9, 1868. Known as one of the “Reconstruction Amendments” along with the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Fourteenth Amendment forbids any state to deny to any person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” With its broadly phrased language, the Fourteenth Amendment continues to provide a basis for civil rights claims in the United States.
Soon after ratification, the Slaughterhouse Case tested the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. Brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873, the suit argued that the monopoly the Louisiana legislature granted to a New Orleans slaughtering company abridged other businessmen’s privileges as American citizens and deprived them of property without due process of the law. The court ruled against the slaughterhouses, narrowly interpreting “the privileges and immunities” of citizens and stating that the amendment did not extend to the property rights of businessmen. In their dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen Johnson Field, Joseph P. Bradley, and Noah Haynes Swayne wrote that, in considering the Fourteenth Amendment,
the right to pursue any lawful trade or avocation, without other restraint than such as equally affects all persons, is one of the privileges of citizens of the United States which can not be abridged by state legislation.
Stephen Johnson Field, Joseph P. Bradley, and Noah Haynes Swayne, The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution Considered… Washington, D.C.: Chas. W. Gordon, Printer, 1873. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Women tried to use the new amendment to affirm their right to vote. In 1871, Sara J. Spencer and Sarah E. Webster each brought cases before the District of Columbia court arguing that they were enfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment. Their lawyers argued that while District law specified that “male residents” could vote, passage of the Fourteenth Amendment nullified that requirement.
…in the presence of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which confers the elective franchise upon “all persons,” this word “male” is as if unwritten, and, [therefore], the statute, constitutionally, reads, “That all citizens shall be entitled to vote.”
Albert Gallatin Riddle, Suffrage Conferred by the Fourteenth Amendment… Washington, D.C.: Judd & Detweiler, Printers and Publishers, 1871. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Riddle further argued on the women’s behalf that “the right to vote is a natural right,” central to the notion of citizenship. Today, the right to vote is considered a fundamental civil right of all United States citizens. But, in nineteenth-century America, political rights, including enfranchisement, were viewed as distinct from civil rights.
On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” facilities were considered sufficient to satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision established a pattern in American society, until May 17, 1954, when the Court reversed the Plessy decision. In the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (argued for Brown by Thurgood Marshall), the Court held that segregation of public schools is a denial of equal protection under the law.