Before the 14th: John Rock and the Birth of Birthright Citizenship | Episode 1

Name just about any modern constitutional controversy—abortion, civil forfeiture, gun rights, immigration, etc.—and chances are that the Fourteenth Amendment is playing a big part. After all, if you are suing a state or local government under the federal constitution, you’re usually making a claim under the Fourteenth Amendment. But you can’t fully appreciate the Amendment’s modern significance without delving into its origins. In Episode One, we do just that, but by way of a story you’ve probably never heard before—through the story of a little known American hero named John Rock:

It’s February 1, 1865. President Lincoln has just signed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. But a crowd of reporters and onlookers have gathered instead at the Supreme Court to witness John Rock, a Boston attorney, sworn in to the Supreme Court bar. The moment was as dramatic and historic as they come; John Rock was the first African-American admitted to argue cases before the Court, and he was sworn in before some of the very same justices who had ruled just a few years earlier in Dred Scott that blacks could never be citizens.

Click here for transcript.

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Dr. Christopher Brooks, Professor of History, East Stroudsburg University

Cheryl Contee, CEO, Do Big Things

Dr. Anne Twitty, Professor of History, University of Mississippi

Dr. Martha Jones, Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University

Sheldon Gilbert, Senior Fellow for Constitutional Studies, National Constitution Center


Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, by Martha Jones

Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 1787-1857, by Anne Twitty

John S. Rock’s Admission to Argue Before the U.S. Supreme Court: The Charles Sumner Correspondence, by Chris Brooks

The Supreme Court Bar’s First Black Member, by Clarence G. Contee

John Rock speeches, via the Black Abolitionist Archive at University of Detroit Mercy:

  • Speech 1: “Now I belong to that class of fanatics….”
  • Speech 2: “One million of mulattoes….”
  • Speech 3: “Many of those who advocate emancipation….”

Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier, by Lea VanderVelde

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