Reconstructing Reconstruction-Era Rights
76 Pages Posted: 3 May 2022 Last revised: 14 Nov 2022
Date Written: May 1, 2022
It is conventional wisdom that the Reconstruction generation distinguished between civil rights, with respect to which the Fourteenth Amendment would require equality, and political and social rights, which would be excluded from coverage. This paper challenges that wisdom. It demonstrates that social rights were not a concept relevant to the coverage of Article IV’s Privileges and Immunities Clause (the Comity Clause), the precursor to the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause. Antebellum legal and political sources used the term “social rights” in a variety of ways, but none tracked the purported Reconstruction-era trichotomy of civil, political, and social rights; most uses of the term connected social rights to civil rights, which Article IV (and therefore the Fourteenth Amendment) reached.
The harder question is whether the Fourteenth Amendment reaches “public” rights and privileges as opposed to “private” rights. A close examination of antebellum jurisprudence suggests that public rights were excluded from the scope of Article IV because they were privileges of “special” citizenship but not “general” citizenship common to the citizens “in the several states.” Public privileges are likely included under the Fourteenth Amendment, however, which guarantees the privileges and immunities of citizens “of the United States” within particular states, including the privilege of all U.S. citizens to the public privileges of their own states to which they contribute through general taxation. If this framing is correct, then both the interracial marriage and school desegregation cases are easier to sustain on originalist grounds than prior studies have suggested.
Keywords: social rights, civil rights, political rights, reconstruction, fourteenth amendment, public rights, public privileges, comity clause, Article IV, privileges or immunities, segregation, desegregation, originalism, poor laws, corporate privileges, common property, Corfield v. Coryell, Brown v. Board
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