All other issues to one side, when a leading presidential candidate, an alum of the Ivy League, insists that an amendment to the United States constitution doesn’t say what it clearly does say, it’s well past time the country sat down and had a little chat about its founding charter. While Donald Trump’s attack on the 14th Amendment is stupid and deranged, and his allegedly moderate Republican opponents’ tongue-tied responses abominable, the mop-topped Muppet is actually on to an important fact about the role of the Constitution in 21st-century American life. Democrats and other gauchistes ignore it at their peril. It is this: We have come to rely too much on the 14th Amendment for ensuring a free and just society.
The importance of the 14th Amendment has always been as misunderstood as it has been profound. In July 1868, when the amendment was finally ratified by the states, The Nation commented that it had “been so long before the people that the average reader has very likely forgotten just what it is.” As the recent idiocies have shown, that is only more true now.
The past is always a foreign country, but the United States before the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 was truly a different land. They did things differently there. The Constitution’s endorsement of slavery had just been rescinded by the 13th Amendment, ratified by the states 150 years ago this December, but the Supreme Court’s decision in the fugitive-slave case Dred Scott still stood, stating that the millions Americans of African descent were not and could never be citizens of the country of their birth. No other firm definition of citizenship previously existed. With millions of former slaves loosed upon the country, some provision for their legal status had to be made.
There were other motivating factors behind the amendment. Because slaves had been freed but not given the vote and the Constitution’s notorious three-fifths formula for congressional representation remained intact, the Southern states were poised to return to Congress after the Civil War even stronger than they had been before Abraham Lincoln was elected president and they left the Union. Former slaves would now count as full persons for the purposes of apportionment, even though they still couldn’t vote. As I wrote last winter in a piece about the long-forgotten voting-rights clause in the 14th Amendment, “The successful campaign to abolish slavery would have the effect of significantly increasing the slave states’ power in Congress, perhaps to the point of allowing them to restore their ‘peculiar institution,’ in effect if not in name.”
The whole purpose of the amendment, Thaddeus Stevens said as Congress began the process of drafting it, was “to render our republican government firm and stable.”
Stevens returned again and again to this metaphor of solid physical construction. When Congress finally passed the Amendment in the spring of 1866 and sent it to the states for ratification, the aged Stevens, the most effective radical politician this country has ever seen, delivered an emotional speech to the House.