A relatively obscure section of one of the most consequential amendments to the Constitution might provide a way out of the debt ceiling dispute in Washington. But like so much else in the Constitution, Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, means different things to different people today just as it did then. Add today’s hyper-partisanship to the mix of contrasting legal interpretations, and there’s no consensus on whether President Biden may raise the debt limit himself to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its obligations as early as next month. No president has ever taken such authority.
Section 4 reads “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 was meant to protect public debt held by the federal government after the Civil War while barring former Southern secessionists from honoring Confederate debts after they returned to the reconstructed Congress.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Jeremi Suri talks about Section 4’s enduring relevance, as its intent was to stop one party or faction from disrupting the government in its essential duties. It is also a reminder of the importance of civics education.
“How do you understand the functioning of our society? You study how our society was formed from the founding forward and you study how it has functioned and changed over time. One of the important lessons of civics is that democracy is ever evolving and the rules are ever changing,” said Mr. Suri, the author of “Civil War By Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy.”
History As It Happens is available at washingtontimes.com or wherever you find your podcasts.
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