On this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. A good case can be made that the US really began on this date. Because the amendment fundamentally changed our Constitution. Before it, the government was largely hamstrung by the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment allowed the United States to become a modern democracy. But it would take some time. As Ian Millhiser documents in Injustices, even into the 20th century, the curious reading of the amendment by the Supreme Court, meant that it was used primarily to oppress the very people the amendment was intended to protect.
What’s interesting about the Fourteenth Amendment today is that, in general, conservatives hate it. In this regard, I’m very interested in Section 4, which reads in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” It’s interesting because I remember in 2005 that Bush decided to “spend” his alleged political capital on something that few of the 50.7% of the people thought they had voted for: privatizing Social Security.
So Bush went around talking about how there wasn’t a Social Security Trust Fund. Instead, it was “just IOUs.” It’s a totally bizarre claim. To start with, cash is also “just IOUs.” But more to the point, Bush wanted to transfer a huge part of Social Security to private investment accounts. That would have meant that instead of having US bonds, we would have had stock certificates. So we again would have had “just IOUs.” The difference would be that governments IOUs are considered the safest investment in the world, and stocks are, well, not quite as safe.
The broader point is that Bush was doing exactly what the Fourteenth Amendment said no one should do. But from his perspective, it didn’t much matter. Sure, the Fourteenth Amendment was a Republican thing, but that was the liberal Republican Party. Other than occasionally mentioning Lincoln (because now even conservatives admit that slavery was wrong), the modern Republican Party is cut off from its past. More recently, Republicans have been calling for an end to automatic citizenship for people born here — Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. But I’m not naive; if the Fourteenth Amendment justified something that Republicans wanted to do, they would be quoting it — selectively.
But this day in 1868 was a very good day because the Fourteenth Amendment transformed the nation. I just wish conservatives would read it.