BOUND BY OATH

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

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.

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