Thaddeus Stevens’s greatest achievement, the 14th Amendment, is once again in the news

As the president and Congress grapple over the debt limit, many commentators are saying one solution is to simply have the President pay the nation’s debts as the 14th Amendment requires. The fourth section of the amendment says: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

It would seem the provision is custom-made for this situation since the debts have already been authorized by Congress and now they are in need of payment. Refusing to increase the debt limit is like running up a credit card bill and then not paying because you don’t feel like it. The 14th Amendment says the county can not do that.

But even though this solution is getting more traction than it has in the past, many politicians are saying the constitutional provision only applies to the situation after the Civil War when the arrogance of ex-Confederates threatened to tank the finances of the United States.

Right after the Civil War, southern politicians let it be known that if they got back into power, they were going to reject the federal debt, which had been run up to an astronomical level to put down the rebellion. They also intended to honor the debt to Confederate bond owners. In essence, they wanted the United States to pay for the war against itself.

President Andrew Johnson helped the ex-Confederate in this insidious plan by allowing the white southerners to hold congressional elections and elect ex-Confederate officers and politicians. But fortunately, Stevens and fellow Republicans were able to bar the ex-Confederate from taking their seat with the use of a brilliant parliamentary maneuver on December 4, 1865. And then just to make sure the ex-Confederate and their allies didn’t try later to reject the federal debt, Congress included the debt provision in the 14h Amendment.

The possibility of using the 14th Amendment was bandied about in 2011 during the last debt limit crisis. But now it is getting more serious consideration as shown by 11 Democratic Senators recently sending a letter to President Biden urging him to use the amendment. One of the strongest proponents of using the provision is Professor Garrett Epps, a noted Constitutional scholar.

His argument can be found in this video.

The 14th Amendment is the longest amendment in the Constitution and covers much more than just the national debt. It repeatedly comes up when the country deals with issues as diverse as citizenship, equality, freedom of speech, the press and religion, and even abortion.

Perhaps if Stevens was mentioned more often about his role in creating this crucial part of the Constitution he would be better known.

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Ross Hetrick is president and founder of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, which is dedicated to promoting Stevens's important legacy. Hetrick was a business reporter for 18 years in Baltimore and owned Ross's Coffeehouse & Eatery in Gettysburg from 1996 to 2004.

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MJ Diner
MJ Diner
1 year ago

Interesting how when Republicans talk about the 14th amendment, they want to put it into the historical context of the civil war aftermath. Then, when it comes to the 2nd amendment, it is all about literal interpretation (well, except for that little matter about “well regulated”).

Ross Hetrick
1 year ago

Here is the missing link that should be at EPPS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JknnYrsO7Mw

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