Wednesday, October 21, 2015

David Blight on the 14th Amendment

The is running a digital symposium on the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction with particular focus on the history and legacy of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.  

Here is a taste of Yale historian David's Blight's contribution on the 14th:

Among all the enactments of Reconstruction, none embody the lasting significance, or the heart of the conflict in this revolution and counter-revolution better than section one of the Fourteenth Amendment. It ought to be embraced as a holy writ that binds our national community, that fortifies even the very idea of America born of this second founding. Based, in part, on language proposed by John Bingham of Ohio, an evangelical Christian and former abolitionist, it reads:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the states 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 without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
No more important language exists to this day in the Constitution than Bingham’s two sentences. His goal, as he said many times in the floor debates of 1866 in Congress, was to “federalize the Bill of Rights,” and make the federal government responsible for enforcing the basic human rights of Americans, now meaning blacks and whites, “within the states.” An endless array of complex, heroic, bloody, confused and scurrilous legal history has flowed from this clause.  And at this very moment, a concerted, extremely well-funded crusade is underway among elements of the modern Republican Party, who now gleefully desecrate the ideas of its founders by effectively eroding and destroying the essence of Reconstruction’s greatest achievement—birthright citizenship and equality before the law.

When the 150th anniversary of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment arrives next June, it is my modest proposal that willing organizations provide every American who will accept it with a simple small-pocket item (the size of a business card, perhaps laminated for durability), inscribed with section one. Willing Americans, with a sense of history, can whip these cards out of their pockets when necessary and debate their fellow citizens about Reconstruction’s two great lasting legacies—the enduring struggles over racism and federalism—which are likely to be with the U.S. forever. But as Americans keep the excerpts in their vest pockets or handbags, they would do well to remember a piece of Frederick Douglass’s wisdom from the Reconstruction years.

Read the entire piece here.