Getting Beyond Guns

The Fourteenth Amendment represents a deliberate decision by the people of this nation to make the U.S. Constitution—not state constitutions and not state officials— the primary guardian of liberty in America. The purpose of the amendment was to secure the basic civil rights of all citizens, regardless of race, and to give federal judges both the power and the duty to protect those rights from infringement by state and local governments.

Notwithstanding the misinformed claims of those who prefer a more limited role for courts in protecting constitutional rights, the history, text, and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment are clear. And while some may find the sweep of the amendment’s commands unsettling or uncongenial, that is no warrant to ignore them.

Simply put, the Fourteenth Amendment is about the right to be free—free from the oppressive, arbitrary, and selfaggrandizing abuses of authority that have plagued mankind since the advent of government itself, whether perpetrated by a monarch, a mayor, or a majority. The Fourteenth Amendment speaks broadly because the evils it addressed were broad. At the root of those evils was the illegitimate exercise of government power. At the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment lies its antidote: liberty.

The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted specifically to end a culture of lawless oppression in which the rights of newly free slaves (“freedmen”) and their white supporters were trampled by state and local governments.1 That culture featured the use of legal and extralegal authority to keep these freedmen and antislavery whites in a state of penury and terror.2 Speech promoting equality for blacks was viciously suppressed, just as abolitionist sentiments had been before the Civil War; freedmen and even discharged Union soldiers were forcibly disarmed to make them more vulnerable to intimidation and reprisals; and economic