Ten -- plus 14

December 17, 1991

The Bill of Rights -- the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution -- has gotten a good deal of attention this week on the 200 anniversary of its adoption, but little note has been taken of the fact that had it not been for one more amendment -- the 14th -- all the others would have had little meaning.

It was the great 14th Amendment, one of the three additions to the Constitution that grew out of the Civil War, which extended the protection of the freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights to the states as well as to the national government.

It is hard to imagine how different the country would be had it not been for the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court over the past 60 years which held the states to the standards contained in the Bill of Rights. There was the 1931 case of Near vs. Minnesota, which held that Minnesota could not suppress a newspaper; the 1962 case of Engel vs. Vitale, which held that the state of New York could not write an official prayer for school VTC children to recite each day; the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which held that Kansas could not maintain segregated schools; the 1962 case of Baker vs. Carr, which held that Tennessee could not deprive citizens of representation in legislatures; the 1963 case of Gideon vs. Wainright, which held that Florida could not send a man to prison after a trial in which he was denied legal representation; the 1961 case of Mapp vs. Ohio, which held that Ohio could not convict a woman on evidence seized without a search warrant; the 1973 case of Roe vs. Wade which held that the state of Texas could not prevent a woman from terminating a pregnancy in the early stages.

Every one of these decisions represented 14th Amendment applications of the Bill of Rights to the states -- not just to the state that was circumscribing rights or liberties in the particular case, but to all states.

Yes, it is fitting to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the great limitations on the power of government. But let us not forget that the guarantees in that charter would mean little had not it been for the 14th Amendment extending the protections to the states -- as James Madison wanted the Bill of Rights to do in the first place.

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