The Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution

The meanings and powers it entails as well as an exploration into the Court Cases that define the Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment is made up of four individual parts; the citizenship clause, the privileges and immunities clause, the due process clause, and the equal protection clause. Ever since the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified by the states on July 9, 1868, the meanings and powers of the Amendment’s four clauses have been analyzed and redrafted to fit the ideas of the times. Using the power of judicial review, the Supreme Court has taken the Congress-created Amendment and established cases to better understand its application in American Society. But, while the Supreme Court’s purpose is to uphold the ideas of the Constitution, all Justices are still products of their times and often follow the beliefs of the people’s majority. This essay will focus on the decisions that the Supreme Court has made that affected the meaning and understanding of the four clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 1857, a case was brought forth to the Supreme Court. This case involved a young African-American slave named Dred Scott. Upon his master’s death, Scott was trying to gain his freedom as he resided in a free state and territory for much of his servitude. Ruling broadly in a 7-2 majority, the Supreme Court stated that as Dred Scott was African-American he was not a citizen of the United States and, due to that, did not have the ability to sue in a federal court, leading to the dismissal of the case. It was this ruling that led to the eventual creation of the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The overall purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment in its creation was to protect the rights of freedmen specifically; one right they did not have was the status of citizenship. So the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s first clause was to fix the ruling made in Dred Scott v. Sanford.

In 1873, a case was brought to the Supreme Court’s attention involving Louisiana’s slaughterhouses. Previously, Louisiana had created a law that made it so only one slaughterhouse corporation in New Orleans could operate. In this case, the “Supreme Court ruled that a citizen’s ‘privileges and immunities’ as protected by the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment against the states, were limited to those spelled out in the Constitution and did not include many rights given by the individual states”(Alexander Walker, Discussion Board). Due to this, the privileges and immunities clause was limited in regards to the actions of states; their actions could only be stopped if they interfered with stated ideas of their powers and rights as listed in the Constitution. They used the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment as their basis for this decision- that it was passed to stop states from taking away the rights of African-American citizens; as this did not deal with African-American rights, that meant that the Louisianan law was Constitutional. Therefore, this case led to a decrease in the meaning and power of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to just what is mentioned in the Constitution as rights to be protected by the Federal Government.

The meanings and powers of the Due Process clause was addressed in many Supreme Court cases, but two cases are the most influential. In Lochner v. New York(1905), New York had created the Bakeshop Act, limiting bakers to 60 hours a week with only 10 work hours a day. Joseph Lochner was found violating this Act. Upon receiving this case, the Court had to decide if the Bakeshop Act violated the liberty that was involved in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause? In a 5-4 decision in favor of Lochner, the Court decided that the New York law violated the ‘liberty of contract’ that is protected by the clause. In this, they defined the Due Process Clause as one to protect the freedom of contract that every employee had a claim to. This decision would go on to create the Lochner Era, a period of pro-business decisions all following the idea of a laissez-faire economy. New York would especially be affected by this Era, as it would later have over 200 state laws regulating business and working conditions struck down. New York is also the setting of the second influential case, Gitlow v. New York(1925). In this case, Gitlow was a socialist who was arrested in 1919 for creating and sending out a ‘Left Wing Manifesto’ encouraging strikes and class action. He “was convicted under New York’s Criminal Anarchy Law, which punished advocating the overthrow of the government by force”(Oyez). When receiving this the Court asked did the First Amendment prevented a state from punishing speech encouraging an overthrow of the government? In a 7-2 decision in favor of New York, the Court held that the Free Speech Clause didn’t shield Gitlow for the NY statute. In a unanimous decision, they also agreed that Freedom of speech and press applied to the States. This decision led to the creation of the ‘Incorporation Doctrine’- applying the Bill of Rights to State laws. This case, while in favor of New York, limited the power of States as they were now subject and restricted to the rights listed in the Bill of Rights, swinging power from States to the Federal Government. 

Lochner’s decision upholds the Fourteenth Amendments’ Due Process Clause, pushing for the freedom of contract that exists between an employee and their employer. On the other side of the situation, Gitlow undermines Due Process of law and a person’s liberty in favor of national security in regards to the government’s power and authority. These two cases changed the power and meaning of the Due Process Clause depending on the situation and the Court judges. Though Gitlow occurs only twenty years after Lochner, the Court Justices had completely changed, leaving only Justice Holmes involved in both decisions. Holmes’ dissent in Lochner states that the laissez-faire economy that the decision spoke of didn’t exist across the country; that the states had throughout history interfered with liberty of contract and that the Constitution couldn’t entail just one economic theory. In Gitlow, Justice Holmes was with the majority in agreeing that the Freedom of speech and press applied to the states, but dissented in the decision that the Free Speech Clause didn’t shield Gitlow from the NY Statute. Here, he held to the idea of a ‘clear and present danger’ test, stating that there was no clear danger from Gitlow’s actions. The differences in opinion show how complex situations involving the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause are in its overreaching power into the rights listed in the Bill of Rights and its effect on the everyday life of the American citizen in their jobs, speech, and decisions.

The Equal Protection’s Clause has stayed the closest to the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment: protecting African-American rights. The citizenship clause has come into many complicated situations involving illegal and legal immigrants over the years; the privileges and immunities clause has grown to encompass the rights stated in the Constitution; and the due process clause has entered into the economic situation in regards to liberty. While the Equal Protection’s clause does involve the protection of women, homosexuals, and disabled men and women, all cases involving this clause since the Fourteenth Amendment’s creation have dealt with protecting the status of African-Americans. Each case has sought to better understand the meaning and power of the Fourteenth Amendment, with many political and personal beliefs pulled into the decisions made. The ‘Civil Rights Cases’ ruled the first and second section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional and also limited the federal government’s power to interfere in private business affairs. Due to this decision, rules like Jim Crow laws and uninhibited discrimination towards African-Americans in private began. In 1892, a man named Homer Plessy got on the ‘whites only’ car of a Louisiana train. Previously Louisiana had created the Separate Car Act, creating railway cars for blacks and whites. Plessy was ⅞ Caucasian, but seen as black by the State. Due to this, he was arrested for violating the law. Upon receiving this case, the Court asked if the Separate Car Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 7-1 decision in favor of Ferguson it created the idea of ‘separate but equal’. In writing the Majority Opinion, Justice Brown stated that while the Fourteenth Amendment was created to establish equality between races in the law, that the separate treatment didn’t imply that African-Americans were inferior to whites. In his dissent, Justice Harlan pushed against color segregation as the constitution recognized no such thing and stated that the US had no class system- due to this, all citizens regardless of race should have equal civil rights. Despite his dissent, this decision went through and was spread throughout the country. This ruling would continue to be enforced from 1896 until it began to be challenged in the 1950s. 

In 1946, an African-American named Herman Marion Sweatt was denied access to the University of Texas Law School as a state law restricted access to whites. When receiving this case in 1950, the Court asked if the Texas admissions situation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In a unanimous decision in favor of Sweatt, they ruled that the Equal Protection’s clause required his admission to the ‘whites only’ school. This was due to the fact that the University ‘for whites’ and the ‘law school for blacks’ were inherently unequal. This decision was expanded on four years later by Brown v. Board of Education. This case was a grouping decision on many situations in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington D.C. dealing with educational race segregation. When deciding this case, the Court asked if the educational racial segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. In a unanimous decision in favor of Brown, this case overturned the ‘separate but equal’ idea established in Plessy v. Ferguson as it was completely unequal. They pushed that the separation created an inherently inferior feeling in African-Americans during their education, affecting their intellectual performance and personal growth. All of these cases are important to the meaning and power of the Equal Protection’s Clause and each one has to deal with the rights and equality of African-Americans, some like the Civil Rights cases and Plessy v. Ferguson restricting their rights while others like Sweatt v. Painter and Brown v. Board of Education seeking to protect their rights and equality. Much history, cultural ideas, and personal beliefs played into the nineteenth century Supreme Court decisions as, despite their position as justices, the Supreme Court judges are still products of their times. It was during the middle of the twentieth century that cultural ideas began to change and the Supreme Court Justice’s beliefs began to follow that.

That change would evolve until what it has become in today’s politics. Turning away from merely deciding based on previously held beliefs, when making decisions based on race and the Equal Protection’s Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court has created different levels of scrutiny so that they can ensure protection of rights. The highest level is Strict Scrutiny- this involves fundamental rights such as speech, race, national origin, and religion. At this level, for it to be Constitutional the law must have a compelling government interest such as national security; the decision must also be narrowly tailored to achieve the previous interest. A case example of this would be Loving v. Virginia(1967) which allowed interracial marriage. The next level is Intermediate Scrutiny- this involves gender and rulings on that basis. A case example of this would be Craig v. Boren(1976)- a case which overturned a gender based alcohol law in favor of women as it wasn’t narrowly tailored and had insufficient evidence to back the decision up. The next level is the Minimum Scrutiny or Rational Basis Standard. This focuses on age, wealth, and political preference. In this situation, they generally try to uphold the legislative branches use of police power. There is one last possible level of Scrutiny which involves those with mental disabilities; in such cases dealing with this, the Court typically leaves the decision up to the States. Each of these levels of Scrutiny are there to better follow through in upholding the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection’s Clause.

The meaning and power of the Fourteenth Amendment’s four clauses have been expanded and restricted due to the beliefs and situations that have occurred since its creation. The Citizenship clause was created due to the decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford(1857) which took away African-American’s citizenship status; recently it has come into the discussion of illegal and legal immigrants as well as the Census. The privileges and immunities clause was restricted by the Slaughterhouse Cases(1873) to only involve the protections listed in the Constitution. The Due Process Clause’s meaning and power has changed over time due to its broad interpretations in the economy and lives of the American people in regards to their jobs, speech, and decisions, such a thing being shown in Justice Holmes agreeing and dissenting opinions in Lochner v. New York(1905) and Gitlow v. New York(1925). Lastly, the Equal Protection’s Clause has had a lot of historical implications and cultural and personal beliefs pulled into the decisions that the Courts have made since the Amendment’s creation. This is shown in the differences between decisions like the Civil Rights Cases(1883) and Plessy v. Ferguson(1896) with decisions like Sweatt v. Painter(1950) and Brown v. Board of Education(1954/55). The Court then created different levels of Scrutiny to decide Equal Protection Cases.  All these cases and the Levels of Scrutiny have been a Supreme Court effort to better understand the Fourteenth Amendment’s four clauses- the meanings and power that they hold as well as their place in the American Governmental System and Society.

Works Cited

“Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1).” Oyez. https://www. 

“Craig v. Boren.” Oyez. 

“Discussion Board.” byui.instructure. groups/177356/discussion_topics/987174. 

“Gitlow v. New York.” Britannica. Gitlow-v-New-York.

“Gitlow v. New York.” Oyez. 268us652. 

“Lochner v. New York.” Britannica. Lochner-v-New-York.

“Lochner v. New York.” Oyez. 198us45.

“Plessy v. Ferguson.” Oyez. 163us537. 

“Slaughter-House Cases.” Oyez. 83us36.

“Sweatt v. Painter.” Oyez. 339us629.