The 14th Amendment and Birthright Citizenship

In July 1868, the ideas of African American activists transformed the terms of citizenship for all Americans with the adoption of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Discover the origins of universal citizenship for people born in the U.S. and how that birthright principle continues to impact national conversations about citizenship 150 years later.

Dates and Eras Pre-War, The Civil War, Reconstruction
Themes Slavery,  Emancipation, African Americans
Grades 6–9, 9–12
Standards VS.8, USI.1, USI.9, USII.4, CE.3, CE.10, VUS.6, VUS.7, VUS.13, GOVT.11, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.6, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.3, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7

 

Historical Context

The three “Reconstruction Amendments” were passed in the wake of the American Civil War and serve as an expansion of the rights due to all Americans. The second of these is the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and was ratified in 1868. It grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” and provides all citizens with equal protection under the law.

This video is from the ACWM’s Foundry Series and it explores a topic that serves as the root of several modern issues. One that has been debated time and time again, is the issue of citizenship and the different paths to becoming a citizen of the United States. Professor Martha Jones delves into the debates over slavery, emancipation, and citizenship, especially among the formerly enslaved and African-American people in the early 19th century.

Suggested Questions

  1. In what ways did African American people define citizenship for themselves, and how do people do that today?
  2. What arguments did people have against birthright citizenship in the 19th century that they don’t have today, and vice versa?
  3. Professor Jones says that the ideas behind statutes and amendments often become law after “sustained activism” on the part of the people who have the most stake. What are a few other examples of constitutuional amendments that came about through activism?

Suggested Activities

  1. Before watching the video, ask your students what it means to be a citizen in general and what it means specifically to be an American. Do they feel that “American-ness” is fixed, or does it change over time? Have them jot down answers down on a sticky note and ask the same question after viewing the video. How do their answers compare? has their idea of citizenship changed?
  2. Watch the video with your students, then have them break into groups to come up with questions that they have after viewing. As a whole class, discuss the different questions they have and see if any students can answer another’s question. Give them time to research possible answers to their questions and have them share their answers with the class.
  3. Have your students compare the discussion in the video with modern discussions around citizenship. Think about how politicians, government, media, and others portray citizens compared to non-citizens.