In 1987, Americans celebrated the bicentennial, or 200th anniversary, of the signing of the Constitution of the United States. This document, which has served as "the Supreme Law of the Land" for more than two centuries, is the world's oldest written constitution still in use.
The United States Constitution is a system of basic laws and principles that defines the rights of American citizens and sets limits on what the government can and cannot do. It provides the framework for the federal (national) government and establishes a system of federalism, by which responsibilities are divided between the national government and the states' governments.
One of the important principles on which the Constitution is based is the separation of powers, which divides power between the three separate branches of the federal government. The legislative branch (represented by Congress) has the power to create laws; the executive branch (represented by the president and his advisers) has the power to enforce laws; and the judicial branch (represented by the Supreme Court and other federal courts) has the power to dismiss or reverse laws that it determines are "unconstitutional."
Why the Constitution Was Written
When the United States won its independence from England in 1781, a majority of Americans felt a stronger allegiance to their individual states than to their new country. Most people did not wish to create a strong national government, far away from their homes, over which they felt they would have little or no control -- they had just fought a long and bitter war to free themselves from such a government. In response to these suspicions, leaders organized the new American government according to a document known as the Articles of Confederation. The Articles gave each state a great deal of independence and represented little more than a league of friendship between them.
The main purpose of the Articles was to establish a system by which the states could co-operate if they needed to defend themselves against a foreign enemy. The Articles established a Congress that could raise an army and a navy, but only when the states gave permission. Congress also had the authority to issue and borrow money and to handle foreign and Indian affairs. Congress could also pass laws, yet it did not have the power to make the states obey them. Nor was it able to control citizen uprisings, such as Shays' Rebellion, which occurred from 1786 to 1787. Farmers in western Massachusetts staged violent protests against their state government. As a result of this and other similar revolts, many people began to feel that a stronger national government might be necessary after all.
In 1786 leaders in Virginia passed a resolution calling for delegates from the 13 states to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the nation's problems. Their goal was to amend (change) the Articles to make the national government more effective. But only twelve representatives from five states attended this Annapolis Convention, so they resolved to call another meeting the following year.
The Constitutional Convention
On May 14, 1787, delegates from twelve of the states (all except Rhode Island) began to gather in Philadelphia, and the Constitutional Convention opened in Independence Hall on May 25th. In attendance were many remarkably talented scholars, philosophers, war leaders, and politicians. Alexander Hamilton, representing New York, was largely responsible for arranging the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin, representing Pennsylvania, freely offered the incomparable wisdom of his 81 years. Gouverneur Morris, also from Pennsylvania, headed up the committee that actually wrote the Constitution. George Washington, from Virginia, took the chair as president of the convention. And James Madison, also from Virginia, earned the nickname "Father of the Constitution" because time and again his brilliant ideas and tireless energy kept the convention moving toward its goal.
Almost immediately after the convention opened, a struggle developed between the delegates of the large and small states as to what form the new government should take. The more populous states supported the Virginia Plan, which proposed that representation within the government should be based on the size of a state's population. The plan was designed to give states with large populations a proportionately large share of decision-making power. Less populous states, however, supported the New Jersey Plan, by which every state, regardless of size, would have the same representation within the government.
The convention came to a standstill until the delegates from Connecticut devised an ingenious way to settle the dispute. The Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise) called for the creation of a bicameral (two-house) legislature, or Congress. One of the two houses of the new Congress (the House of Representatives) would be elected according to the states' relative populations. The other house (the Senate) would give equal voice to each state no matter what its size. Once this breakthrough had occurred, the delegates agreed more readily on most of the remaining issues.
On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed by 39 of the original 55 delegates. Several had left the convention altogether. Three others — Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia — refused to sign because they lacked confidence in the document's ability to rule the nation. But although no one realized it at the time, the document the delegates signed that day not only gave rise to the government of a new nation, but became a symbol of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world.
Ratifying the Constitution
The Constitution was signed by most of the delegates who created it. Yet the task still remained for the states' governments to approve it. The Constitution itself specified that 9 of the 13 states would have to ratify the document before it could become effective.
Delaware had the honor of being the first state to approve the Constitution on December 7, 1787. But the remaining drive for ratification was far from easy. In three of the largest states — Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia — the contest was close. And the founders knew that the new government would have no chance of succeeding without the support of these large states. So they mounted a campaign in defense of the Constitution by publishing a series of essays in New York newspapers. These essays, which came to be known as The Federalist, were written under the name Publius, a pen name adopted by the authors James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
People who opposed the Constitution, known as anti-federalists, launched a campaign to defeat ratification, believing the Constitution would make the national government too powerful. But mostly they objected that the document did not contain a bill of rights, which would guarantee citizens certain privileges that the government could never take away from them. Anti-federalists published their own series of essays, under such pen names as Brutus, to discourage ratification.
In response to the opposition, John Hancock at the Massachusetts ratifying convention proposed that a bill of rights be added as the first group of amendments to the Constitution. Ratification in Massachusetts and almost all the rest of the uncommitted states depended on the understanding that adopting a bill of rights would be the new government's first order of business.
On June 21, 1788, the Constitution went into effect when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document. New York and Virginia followed suit soon thereafter, thus ensuring the new government would have the support it needed to succeed.
Amending the Constitution
The first Congress to conduct business under the authority of the new Constitution met in New York City on March 4, 1789. The issue of a bill of rights was proposed at once, and the new government began following constitutional procedures to change, or amend, the document. According to the Constitution itself, amendments must be approved by at least two thirds of the members of each house of Congress and by three quarters of the states. (There is also an alternate amendment process that has never been used.)
In 1791, the first ten amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution. These ten amendments define and protect the rights of the American people. Each of the 16 amendments that followed over the course of the next two centuries reflects, in its own way, the needs and desires of the ever-changing American society. The power to amend the Constitution is the primary reason the document has been able to survive the turbulent changes throughout the past two hundred years.
L. Sandy Maisel
Professor of Government
Copyright © 2003 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.
14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on July 9, 1868, and granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed. In addition, it forbids states from denying any person "life, liberty or property, without due process of law" or to "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” By directly mentioning the role of the states, the 14th Amendment greatly expanded the protection of civil rights to all Americans and is cited in more litigation than any other amendment.
Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation
This collection contains congressional publications from 1774 to 1875, including debates, bills, laws, and journals.
- June 8, 1866 - The Senate passed the 14th Amendment by a vote of 33 to 11.
- June 13, 1866 - The House of Representatives passed the 14th Amendment by a vote of 120 to 32.
- June 16, 1866 - The text of the 14th Amendment can be found in the United States Statutes at Large, volume 14, page 358 (14 Stat. 358).
- June 22, 1866 - President Andrew Johnson submitted a message to Congress announcing that the Fourteenth Amendment had been sent to the states for ratification. Johnson voiced his displeasure with the amendment by stating that his actions should "be considered as purely ministerial, and in no sense whatever committing the Executive to an approval or a recommendation of the amendment to the State legislatures or to the people."
- July 28, 1868 - Secretary of State William Seward issued a proclamation certifying the ratification of the 14th Amendment by the states.
Search in the 39th Congress to find additional legislative information on the 14th Amendment.
African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P.Murray Collection, 1818-1907
The Daniel A. P. Murray Pamphlet Collection presents a panoramic and eclectic review of African-American history and culture, spanning almost one hundred years from the early nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, with the bulk of the material published between 1875 and 1900
- The fourteenth amendment to the Constitution considered : the right to pursue any lawful trade or avocation, without other restraint than such as equally affects all persons, is one of the privileges of citizens of the United States which can not be abridged by state legislation / dissenting opinions of Mr. Justice Field, Mr. Justice Bradley, and Mr. Justice Swayne, of U.S. Supreme Court, in the New Orleans slaughter-house cases.
- Negro suffrage : should the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments be repealed? / Speech of Hon. Edward De V. Morrell, of Pennsylvania, in the House of Representatives, Monday, April 4, 1904.
National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection
The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) is a library of nearly 800 books and pamphlets documenting the suffrage campaign. They were collected between 1890 and 1938 by members of NAWSA and donated to the Rare Books Division of the Library of Congress on November 1, 1938. The bulk of the collection is derived from the library of Carrie Chapman Catt, president of NAWSA from 1900-1904, and again from 1915-1920.
- Suffrage conferred by the Fourteenth amendment : woman's suffrage in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, in general term, October, 1871 : Sara J. Spencer vs. The Board of Registration, and Sarah E. Webster vs. The Judges of Election : argument of the counsel for the plaintiffs : with the opinions of the court
Jump Back in Time: 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
The Chronicling America site allows you to search and view millions of historic American newspaper pages from 1836-1922. Search this collection to find newspaper articles about the 14th Amendment.
A selection of articles on the 14th Amendment includes:
- "Passage of the Constitutional Amendment by the Senate," The Evening Telegraph. (Philadelphia [Pa.]), June 9, 1866.
- "The Constitutional Amendment Passed by the House," The Sun. (New York [N.Y.]), June 14, 1866.
- "The President on the Amendment," The Daily Phoenix. (Columbia, S.C.), June 24, 1866.
- "Reconstruction: Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment," New-York Tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), July 20, 1868.
Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation (popularly known as the Constitution Annotated) contains legal analysis and interpretation of the United States Constitution, based primarily on Supreme Court case law. This regularly updated resource is especially useful when researching the constitutional implications of a specific issue or topic. It includes a chapter on the 14th Amendment.
African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship
This exhibition showcases the African American collections of the Library of Congress. Displays more than 240 items, including books, government documents, manuscripts, maps, musical scores, plays, films, and recordings.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom
This exhibition, which commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, explores the events that shaped the civil rights movement, as well as the far-reaching impact the act had on a changing society.
Fourteenth Amendment and Citizenship
Law Library of Congress page on the Fourteenth Amendment and the history of the citizenship clause.
July 28, 1868
On July 28, 1868, Secretary of State William Seward issued a proclamation certifying without reservation that the Fourteenth Amendment was a part of the Constitution.
May 18, 1898
The Supreme Court ruled separate-but-equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads. For fifty years, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the principle of racial segregation.
June 2, 1924
On June 2, 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. The right to vote, however, was governed by state law; until 1957, some states barred Native Americans from voting.
Citizenship, Due Process, and Equal Protection: The Creation of the Fourteenth Amendment, HarpWeek
The Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, National Constitution Center
Documents from Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, University of Maryland
Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School
Landmark Legislation: Thirteenth, Fourteenth, & Fifteenth Amendments, U.S. Senate
Our Documents, 14th Amendment, National Archives and Records Administration
Toward Racial Equality: Harper’s Weekly Reports on Black America, 1857-1874, HarpWeek
Avins, Alfred, comp. The Reconstruction Amendments' Debates: The Legislative History and Contemporary Debates in Congress on the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Richmond: Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government, 1967. [Catalog Record]
Berger, Raoul. The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. [Catalog Record]
-----. Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997. [Catalog Record]
Bond, James E. No Easy Walk to Freedom: Reconstruction and the Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. [Catalog Record]
Curtis, Michael Kent. No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. [Catalog Record]
Epps, Garrett. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America. New York: H. Holt, 2006. [Catalog Record]
Flack, Horace Edgar. The Adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. Buffalo, N.Y.: W.S. Hein, 2003. [Catalog Record]
Hay, Jeff, ed. Amendment XIV: Citizenship For All. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Greenhaven Press, 2009. [Catalog Record]
James, Joseph B. The Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984. [Catalog Record]
Meyer, Howard N. The Amendment that Refused to Die: Equality and Justice Deferred: The History of the Fourteenth Amendment. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 2000. [Catalog Record]
Nelson, William E. The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. [Catalog Record]
Perry, Michael J. We the People: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. [Catalog Record]
Burgan, Michael. The Reconstruction Amendments. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2006. [Catalog Record]
Hudson, David L. Jr. The Fourteenth Amendment: Equal Protection Under the Law. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 2002 [Catalog Record]