Power  /  Q&A

Searching for the Perfect Republic

On the 14th amendment – and if it might stop Trump.

Why was section 3 added?

Section 3 is one part of the amendment that has been almost completely ignored until the last couple of years. It doesn’t apply to all southern whites, or even most of them, but to anyone who held an office before the civil war, who took an oath of allegiance to the constitution. That would mean people who served in the military or held some kind of public office. Even a postmaster has to take an oath to the constitution. The purpose was to eliminate the old ruling class of the south from public office. It was to create a space where new governments could come into being which would approve of the principles of the 14th amendment. They did not deny the right to vote to ex-Confederate leaders. But they did deny the right to hold office.

It was almost never enforced. There are only a few examples of this amendment being enforced during Reconstruction. A couple of local officials were disqualified from office because they had held an office before the civil war then served in the Confederate army. In other words, they gave aid to insurrection after having pledged allegiance to the constitution. I think there were a couple in Tennessee. But basically, Congress gave an amnesty after a few years to just about everybody that this covered.

And in the first world war, a socialist member of Congress, Victor Berger, was convicted under the Espionage Act. If you criticized the American participation, you could be put in jail. Congress expelled him under the third clause of the 14th amendment. In other words, he pledged allegiance to the constitution and was now convicted of what they called espionage. It wasn’t actually spying, it was really just opposing the war. But then the supreme court overturned the conviction and Congress let him back in.

In the last year or two, this has become a major issue in relation to Donald Trump. Depending on how you analyze it, Trump took an oath to support the constitution – obviously, when he was sworn in as president – but gave aid to insurrection. If you consider the events of 6 January 2021 an insurrection. He tried to overturn a governmental process, tried to prevent the legitimate election of a president.