Preparing for an upcoming teacher seminar, I came across a speech by Rep. Thaddeus Stevens introducing the 14th amendment to the Constitution to the U.S. House of Representatives. A graduate school professor of mine once noted that while Americans like to reenact military battles, no one ever seems to want to reenact Freedmen’s Bureau schools. In that spirit, I thought I’d honor the July 4th holiday* by sharing the part of the Stevens speech where he lays out the radicalism of section 1 of the fourteenth amendment.
The first section prohibits the States from abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, or unlawfully depriving them of life, liberty, or property, or of denying to any person within their jurisdiction the “equal” protection of the laws.
I can hardly believe that any person can be found who will not admit that every one of these provisions is just. They are all asserted, in some form or other, in our DECLARATION or organic law. But the Constitution limits only the action of Congress, and is not a limitation on the States. This amendment supplies that defect, and allows Congress to correct the unjust legislation of the States, so far that the law which operates upon one man shall operate equally upon all. Whatever law punishes a white man for a crime shall punish the black man precisely in the same way and to the same degree. Whatever law protects the white man shall afford “equal” protection to the black man.
—Thaddeus Stevens, introducing 14th amendment on the floor of the House [Cong. Globe, 39th Cong., 1st Sess. 2459 (May 8, 1866)]
*I’m aware that it’s customary to honor this holiday by reciting or reposting sections of the Declaration of Independence. I admire the Declaration for its radical notion of governments deriving their authority from the just consent of the governed (and, truly, for its unmatched tone of aggrieved audacity). I even, in a gesture toward commemorating the holiday, read sections of it aloud to my kids tonight at the dinner table. While my six year old expressed zero interest, my nine year old was not only interested but asked me to also read her the Bill of Rights. We got through five before she lost interest as well, but I’m happy to be batting .500