Sunday, August 22, 2010

14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment, one of the so-called "Reconstruction Amendments," has lately been in the news over the issue of something called "birthright citizenship." Much of the "debate"--if one can classify what was transpired in the political arena this summer over this issue as a debate--has centered on what Congress "meant" be its passage of the 14th Amendment. How do we determine what this body of legislators meant to accomplish be this piece of legislation? We cannot  ask them, of course, because most of them have been dead for more than 100 years.

What historians do, of course, is to look at, think about, and try to make sense of the documents produced at the time these amendments were passed. This is not the only path historians take to try to understand the past, of course. They also read what other historians have written about a particular issue, and usually use part of their argument to bolster their own--or to take exception to a part of an older argument that they believe is in error.

This is in large part what this course will focus on--the work of historians, and how the themes that we examine help us to understand the past. The first assignment will (I hope) begin to help you understand how this process will work during the semester. In your reading  assignment this week, pay special attention to the text of the 14th Amendment. We will discuss in some detail what prompted the various clauses of the amendment. Questions that may arise will include: What punishments were prescribed for those states that violated this amendment? Were there any groups of people who were denied protection from this amendment? Why would that be the case? These and other questions will  be raised, and answers offered, during class on Wednesday.

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