This week marks the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment in the United States, which was born out of struggles to rebuild the country following the Civil War. While approximately 4 million formerly enslaved black people were freed, the battle to define that freedom had just begun. It would last from 1865-1877 and is known as the Reconstruction Era. This period was described as a “splendid failure” by scholar and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, yet important progress was made toward equal rights.
This progress is seen in legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which began to define citizenship and equal rights, and in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, also known as the “Reconstruction Amendments.”
Although this period created modern U.S. as we know it today, the Reconstruction Era usually gains little attention. So, here are three reasons to tip our hats to celebrate the 14th Amendment:
It established the definition of rights and citizenship in the U.S.
"It is easy to forget that the definition of liberty and freedom were contested from the very start of the U.S. as a nation; equal civil rights for all its citizens was not a given. Leading up to the Civil War, President Lincoln and the nation had to imagine what freedom would look like when slavery ended. Ideas included everything from gradual emancipation to mandatory colonization but rarely included any notions of equality under the law. Following President Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson's policies and laws, such as the "Black Codes," restored white supremacy. The 14th Amendment established citizenship rights for the first time and equal protection to former slaves, laying the foundation for how we understand these ideals today.
It is the most relevant amendment to Americans’ lives today.
More legal cases are raised by it, more arguments were created by it, and more controversy is connected with it than any other part of the U.S.Constitution.
It is viewed by many as a rebirth of democracy and a key component of the “second founding” of the U.S. as a nation.
Progress towards equality in the U.S. during this time period reveals how history is made by the choices of everyday people and real communities. Democracy requires the active, thoughtful, and responsible participation of all of its citizens to not only survive but to thrive. The stories of individual upstanders, of African Americans who struggled for self-determination and agency even in the face of violent opposition, provide powerful entry points into this history and its lessons.
In Facing History classrooms, students learn that democracy is among the most fragile of human enterprises. Developing students’ ability to see and understand real historical dilemmas and the choices made by people responding to them is key to developing an understanding of the past and their current world. The Reconstruction Era teaches us the need to be vigilant against forces that erode democracy and how an active, engaged citizenry can strengthen it.
How will you celebrate the 14th Amendment? Use our resource, The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy, to find lessons, videos, and more to engage your students.