After the Bill of rights

This is chapter six of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, and Five can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided links.

The Bill of rights is not the entire list of constitutional rights. It is the platform upon which we have expressed a growing recognition of the rights of the people and the limits we place on the Federal government. The first amendment added after the Bill of rights was submitted for ratification a little over two years after the ratification of the bill of rights, and ratified within a year. Of course there were only fifteen states at the time, streamlining the process we face today. Most of the next few amendments were clarifications of existing constitutional provisions.

The eleventh amendment reads:

“The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State”.

This amendment is often used as the foundation for what we refer to as “state sovereign immunity”, essentially meaning that you cannot bring suit against the government for the repercussions of a law, in this case extending the protections to states against prosecutions from out of state. The most recent argument was Alden v. Maine in 1999, in which a state was sued for a federal violation. This isn’t something that affects the majority of people directly.

The twelfth amendment addresses presidential elections, again, not something directly affecting the average citizen. From an historical perspective, I find it more interesting to see what it corrects. With the number of states growing (now at seventeen) a number of adjustments were being made, for instance the idea of one star and one stripe on the flag for each state was abandoned. The text of this amendment is rather long, but this is where we started electing a vice president rather than the vice president being the second place winner of the presidential election.

By the time the thirteenth amendment was ratified, the country had been through some major changes. It was now 1865, there were thirty six states, but the year before there had been twenty three states, Nevada and West Virginia hadn’t been recognized as states, and the eleven Confederate states had seceded from the Union. As a response to the issue of slavery which had divided the nation, these words were added to our constitution:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation”.

At the time, “radical Republicans” were arguing for a more expansive amendment, as you will see there are loopholes for discrimination in the thirteenth amendment. The alternative version was much more direct:

All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave; and the Congress shall have power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere in the United States

Republicans argued that slavery was uncivilized and that abolition was a necessary step in national progress, Democrats who opposed the amendment generally made arguments based on federalism and state’s rights. The Emancipation Proclamation was of questionable relevance, as it applied to citizens of the Confederacy and not the United States (and under the eleventh amendment was fairly obviously illegal, ignoring the sovereign status  of the Confederacy). States that initially rejected the amendment were Alabama, Kentucky, Delaware and New Jersey.

The definition of slavery continues to be argued today. The definition of “person” is still being argued. Nonetheless. The thirteenth amendment was a turning point in society. Although nations such as The Netherlands and Britain had outlawed slavery within their own borders, they remained the major traffickers of international slaves and exploited slavery in their colonies. Following the abolition of slavery in America, the world view of slavery began to change, and in 1926 the League of Nations addressed slavery, followed by a United Nations resolution in 1948.

The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments were ratified in response to the responsibilities placed on Congress by the thirteenth amendment. The fourteenth defines citizenship, contains the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause, and deals with post-Civil War issues, and the fifteenth prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (but not sex, that comes later). These amendments have applications beyond their motivations.

Due to the scope of those amendments, I will address them in the next chapter.






2 comments on “After the Bill of rights

  1. […] of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided […]


  2. […] chapter of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided […]


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