This weekend, we share the guest editor’s conclusion to our roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment. Earlier contributions can be found in order here, here, here, here, and here. Thank you for following along with us as we reevaluated and commemorated the amendment’s 150th anniversary.
Last Sunday, I gave a public talk in a local Washington, D.C., bookstore about citizenship. I did what many historians are guilty of when speaking about our research—I assumed that my audience had a basic knowledge of the Reconstruction era amendments and their general meaning.
This was of course a naïve assumption, given how infrequently Reconstruction expressly enters public consciousness in today’s world. During the Q&A, a gentleman in the audience very nicely asked me if I might go back and review the basic premise of the Fourteenth Amendment, and while I was at it, if I could explain the meaning and implications of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well. Such a request made sense, given that many laypeople have not often examined the admittedly complicated Constitutional language.
This general lack of clarity about the Fourteenth Amendment and its companions is perhaps reason enough for us to have convened four scholars to participate in a roundtable discussion of the Fourteenth Amendment. For some Americans, to invoke the amendment is to provoke a question about what precisely it was. What was it intended to accomplish, but even more so, what might be its implications for us today? This roundtable is one forum for exploring the Fourteenth Amendment in its entirety, as Aaron Astor has urged us to consider all five of its clauses.
As you might guess, I could not, during that bookstore Q&A, leave my remarks as a simple recitation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s clauses. Historians know that meaning frequently lies not in the text of a given law, even one as highly situated as this amendment. Instead, the history of law is best found in the contestations around its meaning and interpretation. It is in those debates, some of which happened in legislatures and in courts, and in news commentary and on the streets, where the text of a law is given its full meaning. It is there that we look for the deeper history of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.