Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover questions 97 and 98.
Q97: What amendment gives citizenship to almost all persons born in the United States?
A. 13th Amendment
B. 14th Amendment
C. 15th Amendment
D. 16th Amendment
Q98: When did all male citizens obtain the right to vote, regardless of race?
A. Before the Civil War
B. With the 15th Amendment
C. By a congressional bill in the 1830s
D. With the Missouri Compromise
Who is a citizen? How does one become a citizen (or lose citizenship)? And what does it mean to be a citizen?
These questions have been present since early in America, when the first naturalization act in 1790 confined granting the possibility of naturalized citizenship to those moving to the United States to whites. When the United States acquired Louisiana, it offered the possibility of citizenship to those in the newly purchased land, and similarly did so for Mexican citizens in the southwestern territory – acquired after the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. (In the latter case, however, relatively few were eligible for it, as the borders were intentionally drawn to maximize land that had been only minimally settled by Mexican citizens.)
In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the Dred Scott opinion, which controversially held that blacks, even those born in America, could not be citizens of the United States. (The dissenting opinions by Justices John McLean and Benjamin Curtis argued that Taney had warped history, particularly ignoring the fact that while blacks moving to America were banned from citizenship, blacks born in America were citizens of at least five states, including the slave-holding North Carolina, at the time of the Constitution’s passage.) Although Republicans viewed the opinion as unworthy of respect as a precedent, with President Lincoln largely refusing to be bound by its reasoning, they formally moved to reverse the opinion with the Fourteenth Amendment, which would put into effect the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address. Building on the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, which constitutionally abolished slavery throughout the United States, a central objective of the Fourteenth Amendment was effectively to reverse the Court’s decision in Dred Scott regarding citizenship; Section 1 of the Amendment guaranteed the citizenship of all those born within the United States “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” In light of these two amendments, no Americans could be enslaved, nor could they be denied citizenship on the basis of their race.
The Fourteenth Amendment is often considered a re-founding of America, when the political promises of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were applied to all. It is often described as the centerpiece of the post-war period known as Reconstruction, focusing on rebuilding the South from a white supremacist slave power into the “republican form of government” guaranteed in Article IV.
The Amendment also sought to ensure that all states protected a core of individual rights. While the Bill of Rights initially only protected individuals from the federal government, the Fourteenth Amendment extended the individual rights protections of the first eight amendments to apply to state governments as well. Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment also required that states offer equal protection of the laws and “due process” to all within their boundaries. In addition, it guaranteed that, with few exceptions (such as the children of diplomats or Indians “not taxed” and living in communities separate from the rest of American society), all who were born within the United States would be citizens, thus ensuring black Americans would be participants in the American political society.
Another Reconstruction Amendment, the 15th Amendment ratified in 1870, prohibited discrimination in voting on account of race; in other words, all male citizens would have the right to vote, legally speaking. Put differently, while the 14th Amendment protected citizenship, due process, and the equal protection of the laws from race-based discrimination, the 15th Amendment protected the right to vote, regardless of race.
President Ulysses S. Grant achieved success in enforcing these amendments, and black Americans voted at high rates in the South through the early to mid 1880s, But, Americans eventually grew tired of the effort necessary to ensure southern compliance and the amendments were allowed to largely become a dead letter until the 1950s and 1960s, when new enforcement bills passed Congress, a period sometimes called the Second Reconstruction.)
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments dealt with both the questions who is a citizen? and how does one become a citizen? In 1924, Congress further clarified that all indigenous peoples in the United States are also American citizens, whether they live on tribal land or not. These questions were fleshed out even more by the Nineteenth and Twenty-Sixth Amendments, which further clarified that women and individuals 18 years and older should be permitted to vote.
To this day, the Dred Scott opinion is regarded as one of the most notorious decisions the Court ever rendered. What does it say? Students will read the arguments on citizenship excerpted from the opinions: Chief Justice Taney’s majority opinion, and dissents from Justices McLean and Curtis. They will also read part of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech discussing it. A short excerpt from an essay Frederick Douglass wrote, on what became the 15th Amendment, is also included as an optional reading.
- Provide each group with a copy of Dred Scott: Judicial Opinions and Lincoln’s Speech
- Provide each group with the Dred Scott Reading Guide.
- Print a copy of the Dred Scott Reading Guide: Answer Key for yourself
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes an answer key.
- Divide the class into groups of 2-3 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Ideally, each group of 3 should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C.
- If students are in pairs rather than groups, then divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- This activity works equally well on the individual level.
- Instruct the students to begin by reading the handout provided and thinking about the content provided using the reading guide. Suggest that they annotate the readings as necessary. Due to the length of the material, depending on the class, you may choose to review the reading as a group over two sessions or assign it the night before. This will allow slower readers or those who might struggle with the text the support they need to understand the content and draw conclusions from it.
- Once they complete the reading, they should answer the questions provided.
- Circulate throughout the room as the students complete the worksheets to check for understanding.
- At the end of the activity, facilitate a class discussion, allowing the students to lead with questions or comments. You may then want to use the questions from the handout as prompts
Along with the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were the Reconstruction amendments. These amendments sought to ensure citizenship—especially the core protection of suffrage- was not confined on account of race, as well as to guarantee essential individual rights throughout the Union.
What amendment gives citizenship to almost all persons born in the United States? And what amendment ensures that voting could not be restricted based on race, which effectively meant all male citizens of age could vote?
Do you think that the 14th and 15th Amendments represent a transformative change to the American project, fundamentally departing from the political and constitutional system of the American Founding? Or are these amendments better understood as an extension or completion of the American Founding, fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence? What difference does it make how we understand the significance of these amendments? Use past and current events in your answer.