Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment and Compensation for Emancipation of Slaves

March 19th, 2014

Today, one of the least-discussed aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is whether it gave rise to a takings claim. The Proclamation was enacted under Lincoln’s war powers, whereby he seized property (slaves) in the rebel states, and then emancipated them. Apparently, many southerners sought to raise takings claims against the Federal Government. Similar claims were lodged following the ratification of the 13th amendment. At the time, Congress estimated that the cost of compensating the emancipated slaveowners was somewhere between $1.6 billion and $2 billion, roughly half of the total value of all property (real and personal) in the south.

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment would make all slaves born or naturalized in the United States into citizens of the United States, and of the state in which they resided. This would nullify Dred Scott, and vitiate any claims that slaves could still be held as property. But what about any outstanding claims that resulted from the Emancipation Proclamation, or the 13th Amendment?

In direct response to this concern, the framers of the 14th Amendment added this sentence to the end of Section 4.

“[N]either the United States nor any State shall assume or pay . . . any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave.”

In other words, this provision would have mooted any possible takings claims against the United States, or a state, as a result of emancipation of slaves. At the time, because the states were given an all-or-nothing ultimatum for ratification, this provision received little debate. It recognizes that the framers of the Amendment were concerned about the ramifications of takings claim. Imagine if a single judge found a taking, and that issue would go up to the Supreme Court! The opinion, if it found a taking, would have to reaffirm the principles of Dred Scott that slaves prior to the 14th Amendment were in fact chattel.

As Professor Aynes notes in his article, “Unintended Consequences of the Fourteenth Amendment“:

Even with Salmon P. Chase, a leading antislavery lawyer and the national architect of the antislavery movement’s legal strategy, as its Chief Justice, the memory of Dred Scott was too vivid in the mind of the public to erase the possibility that a suit by even a single former slaveholder might result in a judgment against the United States for taking property without just compensation. Moreover, the perpetual fear of an alliance between former slaveholders and their former allies, northern Democrats, provided a strong incentive to lay this question to rest by a constitutional amendment. The prospects of risking between $1.5 and $2 billion in debt, when weighed against complying with common law jury provisions, would make the latter seem petty. Faced with such a choice, even a ratifier who disdained common law jury provisions would see ratification as a “greater good.”

This is also an example of an Amendment specifically modifying an earlier Amendment, such as how Section 5 of the 14th Amendment impacts the 10th and 11th Amendments. Here Section 4 of the 14th Amendment seems to create a carveout from the 5th Amendment’s takings clause.

Cross-Posted at Law & Liberty.