Marking 150 years of the Fourteenth Amendment

July 08, 2018 | By JONATHAN WOOD

This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment’s adoption. That amendment fulfilled the Declaration of Independence’s promise of inalienable individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and government dedicated to the protection of those rights. It did so by guaranteeing our rights against the states, not just the federal government.

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which are together referred to as the nation’s “second founding,” completed work left undone by the drafters of the original 1789 Constitution. Although the first generation of Founders undeniably revered liberty, equality, and justice, the Constitution they drafted was a compromise with their time.

For instance, James Madison carefully kept any reference to slavery out of the document itself, but the Constitution permitted that most evil of institutions to continue despite the nation’s dedication to liberty. It took a shade more than four score and seven years for the Thirteenth Amendment to correct that bitter paradox by flatly banning slavery.

Likewise, the original Constitution had left half-fulfilled the Founders’ vision of limited government surrounded by an ocean of individual liberty. The Constitution guaranteed individual rights against the federal government, but left the states free to censor speech, establish official religions, protect monopolies, and generally do whatever they wanted to their citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment fixed that imbalance, fundamentally changing the relationship between the people and their governments, including the states.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s text is broad and unequivocal. It declares, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or 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.”

This is a complete theory of government distilled into a single sentence. It begins by declaring a broad category of rights that are completely off-limits to state regulation. It acknowledges a state may regulate in other areas, but must give people due process of law when it does—which requires more than just formal procedures but also that a law advance a legitimate government interest in a reasonable way. The Fourteenth Amendment closes by declaring the complete legal equality of everyone; no longer could the government pick and choose among its citizens to confer special benefits or impose unique burdens.

Of course, these rights would be mere parchment barriers, to borrow Madison’s phrase, without people brave enough to stand up for them and courts committed to enforcing them. PLF is lucky that it has so many liberty-loving clients willing to take on overreaching government, despite the toll that years of litigation can take. They are our heroes, without whom none of our work would be possible.

Unfortunately, courts have proven to be more timid. Some rights they valiantly defend; others they largely abandon. But the Constitution will not be ignored and we will continue to press for more judicial scrutiny of big government.

Later this year, we’ll take that fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where we are currently challenging the refusal of federal courts to protect property owners from abuse at the hands of state and local government. Rose Knick had her property unconstitutionally taken from her without compensation when her Pennsylvania township declared her land an old, forgotten burial ground open to the public. She then had her rights violated again when a federal court refused to hear her case. Federal courts cannot close the door to Americans defending their constitutional rights.

We owe a great debt to the people who gave us the Fourteenth Amendment and to the civil rights icons, like Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for decades to convert its lofty words into reality. We repay that debt by continuing their work to form a more perfect union committed to the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all.

This article is an excerpt from PLF’s quarterly publication, Sword&Scales. To receive the digital magazine, subscribe here.