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Published: June 25, 2011

Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

An 1868 addition to the Constitution forcing all state governments to abide by the federal constitution. Until the Federal victory in the Civil War, individual states had claimed sovereignty over all matters not specifically covered by the Constitution. Thus, while the Constitution prevented Congress from establishing an official religion, it did not prohibit individual states from doing so. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina did just that and maintained official religions well into the 19th century, with Massachusetts the last state to disestablish the church in 1833. Moreover, the original Constitution did not define American citizenship, thus allowing individual states (and Congress) to deprive African Americans of citizenship and all constitutional rights. Thus, under the Constitution, southern states were able to make it a crime, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment, to teach African Americans literacy.
The Fourteenth Amendment changed the situation by declaring, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state where they reside. 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 law.” The amendment opened the way for the establishment of a vast system of public schools and colleges for African Americans throughout the South and North alike.