What's better than a patriotic holiday in July? Pop a brew tonight, then, and let's celebrate our heritage of democracy and equal rights. We owe these freedoms not so much to the events commemorated every July 4, but to those of July 21.
On this day in 1868, after a bruising ratification struggle, Congress passed a resolution proclaiming that the 14th Amendment was part of the Constitution. More than the Declaration of Independence, more than the original Constitution, more than even the Bill of Rights, it is the 14th Amendment that makes America a democratic country.
But, as the beer commercials say, celebrate responsibly: Our current toxic immigration debate shows that, more than a century later, genuine democracy has powerful enemies. In 2006, the anti-immigrant movement is attacking the amendment's central meaning of equal protection of the law for all.
Please don't feel bad if the words "14th Amendment" don't immediately call to mind a list of rights. Most literate citizens — and even many lawyers — have trouble focusing on the radical changes this massive post-Civil War reform made in the original Constitution. The 14th Amendment is such a giant presence in our lives today that it's hard to see it as a single thing.
But consider this. Until the 14th Amendment, the idea of human equality, extolled in the Declaration of Independence, appeared nowhere in the Constitution. The word "equal," when written in the original document, referred mostly to voting privileges for the states. In addition, the Constitution contained no definition of American citizenship, seemingly leaving the matter to the states.
The day will probably go unnoticed by most people in most places across the country, but if nothing else the amendment deserves a reading today. But I'll stick to Section 1.
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 wherein 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 laws.
The author of the Salon piece says the anti-immigrant movement is attacking meaning of equal protection under the law. I'm not saying he's wrong, but I can think of at least one other movement that's waging war on the same concept.