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1866 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2024
1min read

Ratifying the Fourteenth

On July 19 Tennessee became the first state to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution despite the opposition of President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean himself, to the legislation. “We have fought the battle and won it,” Gov. William Gannaway Brownlow telegraphed the U.S. Senate.

The Fourteenth Amendment proposed that state legislatures be held to the same constitutional standards as the federal government, and thus it formally settled the question the war had answered: whether the United States was a single nation or a collection of states, each with its own laws. Persons born or naturalized in the United States (including former slaves) would be recognized as citizens of the United States and the states in which they lived, and all males of twenty-one years or more would be allowed to vote, with the exception of Indians who were not taxed.

President Johnson’s main objection to the amendment was over Section 3, in which persons who had held elective state or federal office and later embraced the rebellion were barred from office in the postwar South. One estimate claimed that this eliminated at least eighteen thousand Southerners from politics. Johnson questioned Congress’s right to determine who would be eligible to be a state’s representative in Washington.

After assembling a successful quorum in favor of the amendment, Governor Brownlow cabled the U.S. Senate: “We have ratified the constitutional amendment in the [Tennessee] House, 43 voting for it, eleven against it, two of Andrew Johnson’s tools not voting. Give my respects to the dead dog of the White House!” Minutes after the governor’s message arrived, a joint resolution was put before the Senate restoring Tennessee to the Union. When other state legislatures resisted ratifying the amendment, Congress explicitly made ratification a condition for reentry. The amendment became the law of the land in July 1868.

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