The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution—the linchpin of the current constitutional system—was ratified 150 years ago Monday, on July 9, 1868. July 9 marked the date on which the legislatures of South Carolina and Louisiana approved the amendment, bringing the total number of state approvals to the required 28 and inscribing the amendment in the Constitution for good.
Or, wait, hold that thought. In fact, before the approvals on July 9, the legislatures of Ohio and New Jersey had “withdrawn” their approvals—an action not provided for in the Constitution. The notifications of approval (like those of “withdrawal” before them) flowed, as a matter of course, to the office of Secretary of State William Seward, whose duty it was to keep track of proposed and adopted amendments.
On December 5, 1865, Seward had proclaimed that Alabama’s legislature had approved the Thirteenth Amendment, and its prohibition on “slavery or involuntary servitude” was now part of the Constitution; but three years later, in July 1868, Seward seemed to be temporizing. Though Seward had been appointed by Abraham Lincoln, he now served President Andrew Johnson—a virulent racist who had, during the elections of 1866, become the proposed Fourteenth Amendment’s most determined foe. At the time the amendment had been proposed in 1866, some had whispered that the secretary, at the direction of Johnson, might simply refuse to send the amendment to the states at all. Prudently, Seward had actually sent it forward without, apparently, consulting Johnson.