“We are American citizens”: Remembering the Anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment

The Colored Conventions was a series of national, regional, and state meetings held irregularly during the decades preceding and following the American Civil War.  At the 1853 convention held in Rochester, New York, delegates insisted citizenship was their birthright:

“By birth, we are American citizens; by the meaning of the United States Constitution, we are American citizens; by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are American citizens; by the meaning of the United States Constitution, we are citizens.”

These lines were often echoed and reprinted in the black press.  Of course, the idea of the abolition of slavery and black citizenship was nothing new in 1853 and it would take another fifteen years and the American Civil War before African Americans were granted citizenship.

On July 28, 1868, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, and today we celebrate its 152nd anniversary. The amendment repealed the Taney Court’s infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision and ensured that state laws could not deny due process or discriminate against particular groups of people.

Those interested in exploring AAS collection materials for related items might best begin with the Subject Search “United States Constitution 14th Amendment. But I might suggest we first take pause today before diving into catalog records or examining individual items.

Let us take a moment and read the words that were ratified today one hundred and fifty-two years ago. Let us reflect upon what they mean to us as individuals and as a nation and consider the struggles endured by black Americans then and now and recognize the achievements of those who came before us.

Amendment XIV

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.

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