Congress Debates the Fourteenth Amendment | Facing History & Ourselves

Congress Debates the Fourteenth Amendment

Quotations from the 1866 congressional debate over the Fourteenth Amendment help students clarify what the amendment says and its significance.
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights


Rep. Eben Ingersoll (Republican from Illinois) comments on the potential of the amendment to change the nation:

“Carry out the policy of Andrew Johnson, and you will restore the old order of things, if the Government is not entirely destroyed: you will have the same old slave power, the enemy of liberty and justice, ruling this nation again, which ruled it for so many years.”

Scholar Garrett Epps describes the Democratic Party’s argument against the amendment:

“They dismissed the amendment as a useless contraption designed only for temporary partisan advantage; at the same time, they warned that the measure would transform the nation into a centralized despotism.”

Senator Luke Poland (Republican from Vermont) comments on the difference he expects the amendment will make:

“[The South] will be opened and expanded by the influence of free labor and free institutions . . . All causes of discord between North and South being over, we shall become a homogenous nation of freemen, dwelling together in peace and unity.”

Senator Edgar Cowan (Democrat from Pennsylvania) comments on how the amendment will expand federal power:

“What conceivable difference could it make to a citizen of Pennsylvania as to how Ohio distributes her political power?...To touch, to venture upon that ground is to revolutionize the whole frame and texture of the system of our government.”

Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Republican from Pennsylvania) comments on the compromises in the amendment:

“Do you inquire why, holding these views and possessing some will of my own, I accept so imperfect a proposition? I answer, because I live among men and not among angels; among men as intelligent, as determined, and as independent as myself, who, not agreeing with me, do not choose to yield their opinions to mine. Mutual concession, therefore, is our only resort, or mutual hostilities.”


Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Republican from Pennsylvania) comments on Section 1:

“[Section 1] allows Congress to correct the unjust legislation of the states, so far that the law which operates upon one man shall operate equally upon all. Whatever law punishes a white man for a crime shall punish the black man precisely in the same way and to the same degree. Whatever law protects the white man shall afford ‘equal protection’ to the black man.”

Scholar Garrett Epps describes Democratic opposition to Section 1:

“Andrew Rogers of New Jersey gave the fullest explanation of the opposition when he warned that the first section would take away the government’s traditional power to choose groups among citizens who are worthy of ‘privileges and immunities,’ and would instead confer these treasured prerogatives as rights on the unworthy. ‘The right to vote is a privilege,’ he said. ‘The right to marry is a privilege. The right to contract is a privilege. The right to be a juror is a privilege. The right to be a judge or President of United States is a privilege. I hold if [Section 1] ever becomes a part of the fundamental law of the land it will prevent any state from refusing to allow anything to anybody embraced under this term of privileges and immunities,’ he said. ‘That, sir, will be an introduction to the time when despotism and tyranny will march forth undisturbed and unbroken, in silence and in darkness, in this land which was once the land of freedom...’”

Senator Jacob Howard (Republican from Michigan) comments on Section 1:

“[Section 1] will, if adopted by the states, forever disable every one of them from passing laws trenching upon those fundamental rights and privileges which pertain to citizens of the United States, and to all persons who may happen to be within their jurisdiction. It establishes equality before the law, and it gives to the humblest, the poorest, the most despised of the race the same rights and the same protection before the law as it gives to the most powerful, the most wealthy, or the most haughty. That, sir, is republican government, as I understand it, and the only one which can claim the praise of a just Government.”

Scholar Garrett Epps describes the impact of the amendment’s definition of citizenship:

“Nearly a century and a half later, the citizenship language seems almost obvious. But in 1866, the idea of a preeminent national citizenship was a radical repudiation of the ‘state sovereignty’ theory, which held that each state had a right to define its own qualifications for citizenship, and that Americans were state citizens first and only secondarily citizens of the Union. Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania spoke for the Democrats in repudiating the radical implications of the new language, which would make both the nation and each state within it into multiracial republics, in which equality was a birthright and not a gift of the majority. The language, he said in horror, would make citizens of even the most undesirable nomads.”

Senator Edgar Cowan (Democrat from Pennsylvania) warns about the ramifications of the amendment’s definition of citizenship:

“There is a race in contact with this country which, in all characteristic except that of simply making fierce war, is not only our equal but perhaps our superior. I mean the yellow race; the Mongol race. They outnumber us largely. Of their industry, their skill, and their pertinacity in all worldly affairs, nobody can doubt . . . They may pour in their millions upon our Pacific Coast in a very short time. Are the states to lose control over this immigration? Is the United States to determine that they are to be citizens?”


Scholar Garrett Epps describes Thaddeus Stevens’s support for Section 2:

“To Stevens...the second section was ‘the most important in the article,’ because it would ‘either compel the states to grant universal suffrage or so...shear them of their power as to keep them forever in a hopeless minority in the national Government.’”

Scholar Garrett Epps describes Senator Jacob Howard’s (Republican from Michigan) support for Section 2:

“‘[I favor black suffrage] to some extent at least, for I am opposed to the exclusion and proscription of an entire race.’ But the committee did not believe a suffrage amendment could be ratified. So the second section ‘is so drawn as to make it the political interest of the once slaveholding States to admit their colored population to the right of suffrage.’ It would operate whether the Southern states drew a racial line to exclude freed slaves from voting or used a formally nonracial category like a literacy test, he said.”

Rep. James Brooks (Democrat from New York) responds to the exclusion of women from Section 2:

“I raise my voice here on behalf of 15 million of our countrywomen, the fairest, brightest portion of creation, and I ask why they are not permitted to be represented under this resolution . . . Why, in organizing a system of liberality and justice, not recognize in the case of free women as well as free negroes the right of representation?” 2


Scholar Garrett Epps describes revisions made to Section 3 during the debate in the Senate, changing the penalties for former Confederates:

“The Senate unanimously struck out Section 3, which would have disenfranchised former Confederates from voting until 1870...[Senator] Howard brought forward a new disenfranchisement section, far more lenient than the [previous] House version; it did not limit ex-Confederates’ right to vote, but only excluded a small group from holding office: those who had ‘previously taken an oath’ to support the U.S. Constitution and then had afterward participated in the Confederate cause.”

Historian Eric Foner describes the level of support for disenfranchising former Confederates:

“[A] majority of Republicans considered disenfranchisement [of former Confederates until 1870] vindictive, undemocratic, and likely to arouse opposition in the North.” 3


Senator Jacob Howard (Republican from Michigan) comments on Section 5:

“[Section 5] casts upon Congress the responsibility of seeing to it, for the future, that all the sections of the amendment are carried out in good faith, and that no State infringes the rights of persons or property . . . It enables Congress, in case the States shall enact laws in conflict with the principles of the amendment, to correct that legislation by a formal congressional enactment.”

Sen. Thomas Hendricks (Democrat from Indiana) comments on Section 5:

“When these words were used in the amendment abolishing slavery they were thought to be harmless; but during the session there has been claimed for them such force and scope of meaning as that Congress might invade the jurisdiction of the States, rob them of their reserved rights, and crown the Federal Government with absolute and despotic power."


  • 1Except where noted, all quotations excerpted from Garrett Epps, Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (Henry Holt, 2006), 224–239.
  • 2Garrett Epps, Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (Henry Holt, 2006), 111.
  • 3Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, Perennial Classics ed. (HarperCollins, 2002), 254.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Congress Debates the Fourteenth Amendment," last updated March 14, 2016. 

This reading contains quoted text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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