Image courtesy of the National Archives Record Administration
H. J. Res. 127 declared that all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. were citizens and that any state that denied or abridged the voting rights of males over the age of 21 would be subject to proportional reductions in its representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Approved by the 39th Congress (1865–1867) in June 1868 and ratified by the states on July 9, 1868.
On this date, the House of Representatives approved the Fourteenth Amendment
to the Constitution, a landmark addition that established guarantees of citizenship and equal protection under the law. Coming seven months after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment declared that anyone “born or naturalized in the United States” was a citizen entitled to all “privileges and immunities” that such citizenship afforded. The amendment was introduced during the 39th Congress
(1865–1867) in response to the oppressive conditions experienced by millions of previously enslaved African Americans—known as freedpeople—living in the former Confederacy. Following the Civil War, Republicans in Congress worked to rebuild the American South and help freedpeople secure housing, employment, and educational opportunities. But the situation in the region was dire. The U.S. military struggled to keep the peace in the South, and as wartime enlistments ended, the federal presence grew increasingly threadbare. As Southern states passed Black Codes limiting the rights of African Americans, white Southerners threatened, terrorized, and murdered freedpeople. Republicans in Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act in April 1866, which extended to “all persons born in the United States” certain fundamental rights, including property ownership, and opened access to America’s legal system. To fortify these advancements and shield them from legal challenges, the bill’s supporters sought new constitutional safeguards. Referred to the House by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in the spring of 1866, the amendment—House Joint Resolution 127—was weaker than Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens
of Pennsylvania had hoped; the proposed amendment, for instance, did not explicitly include voting rights protections for Black men, nor did it enfranchise women. Why vote for imperfect legislation, Stevens asked? “I answer, because I live among men and not angels.” In addition to establishing birthright citizenship and guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws,” the amendment restricted the political participation by former Confederates unless cleared by Congress and punished states that “denied . . . or in any way abridged” male voting rights. “Let us no longer delay; take what we can get now, and hope for better things in further legislation,” Stevens concluded. Moments later, the amendment passed the House with the necessary two-thirds vote, 120 to 32, with 32 Members not voting. After clearing the Senate, three-fourths of the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment on July 9, 1868.