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Context of 'July 9, 1868: Fourteenth Amendment Grants Citizenship Rights to All Americans'

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The US Supreme Court rules in Dred Scott v. Sandford that African-Americans are not citizens regardless of their status as free or slave, and therefore cannot sue for redress in federal courts. The Court also rules that Congress has no power to ban slavery in US territories, and that the rights of slaveowners are protected by the Fifth Amendment because slaves are categorized as property. The origins of the case date to 1833 when Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Dred Scott, a slave, and moved him to a military base in Wisconsin. Slavery was banned in territories made free by the Missouri Compromise, and Wisconsin was one of these territories. However, Scott did not assert his freedom at that time. Instead, he lived in Wisconsin for four years, sometimes hiring himself out for work. In 1840, Scott moved with his family to Louisiana and then to St. Louis, Missouri, with Emerson. After Emerson died, Scott attempted to buy his family’s freedom from Emerson’s wife Eliza Irene Sanford, but was refused. (Sanford’s name was misspelled ‘Sandford’ in court documents.) Scott then sued Sanford in a state court, arguing that he and his family were free because they lived in a territory where slavery was illegal, and that he was owed back wages. A state court found in Scott’s favor in 1850, but Sanford’s brother John appealed the decision. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the original decision. Scott, alleging physical abuse, then sued John Sanford for damages in a federal court, but a jury disallowed Scott’s right to file a case in federal court. Scott appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. In a majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court finds that it lacks jurisdiction to take the case because Scott is not a US citizen. Taney writes that Scott is “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves,” and, therefore, he is not a “member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution.” Taney also dismisses Scott’s assertion that his residence in a free state automatically grants him freedom and status as a US citizen, reasoning that states may choose to recognize the rights of freed slaves as citizens, but the federal government is under no obligation to do so. Lastly, the Court finds that, because slaves are property, Congress’s ban on slavery in the territories violates the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights. Justice Benjamin Curtis issues a powerful dissent to the Taney opinion. The Court’s decision will exacerbate tensions between Northern and Southern states, being widely seen as validating the South’s view of national power. It will also embolden pro-slavery Southerners and others to try to extend slavery into other areas of the nation, and will infuriate abolitionists, who will become powerful voices within the newly formed Republican Party. The three “Reconstruction Amendments”—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth (see February 26, 1869)—will render the Scott decision invalid. In modern times, all people born or naturalized in the US will be considered citizens who have the right to bring suit in federal court. [PBS, 12/2006]

Entity Tags: Republican Party, Benjamin Curtis, Dred Scott, Eliza Irene Sanford, John Emerson, US Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, Missouri Supreme Court, John Sanford

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Fourteenth Amendment, one of the so-called “Reconstruction Amendments,” is ratified. This amendment makes all persons born or naturalized in the US citizens. It also overturns the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which denied African-Americans, slave or free, the right to citizenship (see March 6, 1857). The amendment also places restrictions on state laws: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and 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.” It grants the US Congress the power to enforce, through legislation, the provisions of the amendment. Beginning in the 1920s, the Supreme Court will begin applying the Fourteenth Amendment to enforce the provisions of the Bill of Rights in states as well as in matters concerning the federal government. [PBS, 12/2006]

Entity Tags: US Congress, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Congress passes the Fifteenth Amendment, giving African-American men, and in theory men of other minorities, the right to vote. The Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Over a century later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will write, “In addition to the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolishes slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, the Fifteenth Amendment is one of the major tools which enabled African-Americans to more fully participate in democracy.” It will be ratified by the states in 1870. [American Civil Liberties Union, 2012; The Constitution: Amendments 11-27, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Congress, American Civil Liberties Union

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court uses the “Slaughterhouse Cases” to narrowly interpret the Fourteenth Amendment (see July 9, 1868). The combined cases have nothing to do with the rights of freed African-Americans, but center on disputes brought to court by white businessmen. The Court rules 5-4 that distinctions exist between federal and state citizenship rights, and that states have no obligation to provide their citizens with the same “privileges and immunities” they enjoy as national citizens. [PBS, 12/2006]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The US Supreme Court strikes down the provision of an 1875 civil rights law that prohibited racial discrimination by owners of hotels, theaters, and other forms of public accommodation. The Court consolidates a number of cases from four states into the “Civil Rights Cases,” and rules that the Fourteenth Amendment (see July 9, 1868) does not give the federal government the power to ban private discrimination. Further, the court rules that the denial of public accommodation does not constitute a “badge of slavery” and is therefore not prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery in the US. [PBS, 12/2006; U.S. Supreme Court, 2012]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Henry Brown.Justice Henry Brown. [Source: Wikimedia]The US Supreme Court rules 7-1 in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law requiring “equal but separate accomodations for the white and colored races” is constitutional. Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man who sometimes “passed” as white, took part in a plan by a small number of black professionals seeking to have a court overturn the Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890. Plessy boarded a whites-only railroad car and was arrested, as per arrangement, by a private detective. The group intended to use Plessy’s light skin tone to demonstrate how arbitrary and unconstitutional the law was. Plessy’s lawyers argued that Louisiana’s segregation law violated both the Thirteenth Amendment, which bars slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law (see July 9, 1868). Louisiana courts consistently found against Plessy, and the case moved all the way to the Supreme Court. Writing for the Court’s majority, Justice Henry Brown rules that the law does not “discriminate” among legal rights by race, but merely recognizes a “distinction” between races “which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color.” He adds: “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.” The ruling establishes the “separate but equal” doctrine that informs many states’ decision to segregate public facilities—schools, railcars, even drinking fountains. Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner and a pro-slavery politician, writes a fiery dissent that refutes Brown’s assertion that the Louisiana law discriminates equally among whites and blacks. Harlan writes, “Everyone knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons.” He disagrees with the majority opinion’s finding that segregation on railcars does not violate African-Americans’ constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. But Harlan does not advocate social equality among the races. Instead, he argues that legally imposed segregation denies political equality. Harlan writes: “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” Harlan’s dissent becomes the underpinning of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (see May 17, 1954). [PBS, 12/2006; PBS, 12/2006]

Entity Tags: Homer Plessy, Henry Billings Brown, US Supreme Court, Louisiana Separate Car Act of 1890, John Marshall Harlan

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom.One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. [Library of Congress, 1994; American Civil Liberties Union, 2012]

Entity Tags: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Earl Warren, Dwight Eisenhower, Felix Frankfurter, Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Thurgood Marshall, Harold H. Burton, William O. Douglas, US Supreme Court, Sons of the American Revolution

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Liberal MSNBC commentator and talk show host Keith Olbermann devotes one of his “special comments” to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allows unlimited corporate donations in elections (see January 21, 2010). Olbermann starts by reminding his viewers of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott ruling by the Court that found no African-American could ever be considered a US citizen (see March 6, 1857). Olbermann compares Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the Citizens United decision, unfavorably to the much-maligned chief justice who wrote the Dred Scott ruling; Olbermann says that the Citizens United decision “might actually have more dire implications than” the 1857 finding. Olbermann says: “In short, the First Amendment—free speech for persons—which went into affect in 1791, applies to corporations, which were not recognized as the equivalents of persons until 1886. In short, there are now no checks on the ability of corporations or unions or other giant aggregations of power to decide our elections. None. They can spend all the money they want. And if they can spend all the money they want—sooner, rather than later—they will implant the legislators of their choice in every office from president to head of the Visiting Nurse Service. And if senators and congressmen and governors and mayors and councilmen and everyone in between are entirely beholden to the corporations for election and re-election to office, soon they will erase whatever checks there might still exist to just slow down the ability of corporations to decide the laws.” Corporations can, in essence, buy and sell politicians at will, Olbermann says, and those politicians can change laws as their corporate donors dictate. “[A]ny legal defense you can structure now, can be undone by the politicians who will be bought and sold into office this November, or two years from now. And any legal defense which honest politicians can somehow wedge up against them this November, or two years from now, can be undone by the next even larger set of politicians who will be bought and sold into office in 2014, or 2016, or 2018.… Unless this mortal blow is somehow undone, within 10 years every politician in this country will be a prostitute.” Labor unions, Olbermann says, will quickly be “strangled” by corporations “so they pose no further threat to the corporations’ total control of our political system.” Taxes on the wealthy and on corporations will be slashed, and social programs will be eliminated, “because money spent on the poor means less money left for the corporations.” Wars that benefit the military-industrial complex will become the norm. Racial and religious profiling will become commonplace, because the corporations will want to shift blame from their own machinations onto someone else, and people of different religions or ethnicities are easy targets for such blame. The “poor dumb manipulated b_stards” of the “tea parties” will “have a glorious few years as the front men as the corporations that bankroll them slowly unroll their total control of our political system,” until they are “banished, maybe outlawed, when a few of the brighter ones suddenly realize that the corporations have made them the Judas Goats of American freedom.” The Obama administration’s bank reforms will be eliminated by “his successor purchased by the banks.” Corporations will buy and control government entities from federal agencies to town councils. Billionaires will “buy and install their own city governments.” The mainstream media as we know it will disappear, because the corporate-owned government will require media outlets to reassure the populace that “everything’s great” and no one is needed to speak out against the government. The Internet, currently a venue that allows the most disparate of opinions to be voiced and shared, will be corralled and brought to heel. Olbermann concludes by saying: “The right wing won’t even tell their constituents that they are being sold into bondage alongside the rest of us. And why should they? For them, the start of this will be wonderful.” [MSNBC, 1/21/2010]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, John G. Roberts, Jr, Keith Olbermann

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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