Various constitutional lawyers have been weighing in lately on whether former president Donald Trump and others who participated in the effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election are disqualified from holding office under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The third section of that amendment, ratified in 1868, reads:

“No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.”

On August 14 an article from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review by William Baude of the University of Chicago Law School and Michael S. Paulsen of the University of St. Thomas School of Law became available as a preprint.

It argued that the third section of the Fourteenth Amendment is still in effect (countering arguments that it applied only to the Civil War era secessionists), that it is self-executing (meaning the disqualification of certain people is automatic, much as age limits or residency requirements are), and that Trump and others who participated in trying to steal the 2020 presidential election are disqualified from holding office.

This paper was a big deal because while liberal thinkers have been making this argument for a while now, Baude and Paulsen are associated with the legal doctrine of originalism, an approach to the law that insists the Constitution should be understood as those who wrote its different parts understood them.

That theory gained traction on the right in the 1980s as a way to push back against what its adherents called “judicial activism,” by which they meant the Supreme Court’s use of the law, especially the Fourteenth Amendment, to expand the rights of minorities and women. One of the key institutions engaged in this pushback was the Federalist Society, and both Baude and Paulson are associated with it.

Now the two have made a 126-page originalist case that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits Trump from running for president. Their interpretation is undoubtedly correct. But that interpretation has even larger implications than they claim.

Moderate Republicans — not “Radical Republicans,” by the way, which was a slur pinned on the Civil War era party by southern-sympathizing Democrats — wrote the text of the Fourteenth Amendment at a specific time for a specific reason that speaks directly to our own era.

When John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, Congress was not in session. It had adjourned on the morning of Lincoln’s second inauguration in early March, after beavering away all night to finish up the session’s business, and congressmen had begun their long journeys home where they would stay until the new session began in December.

Lincoln’s death handed control of the country for more than seven months to his vice president, Andrew Johnson, a former Democrat who wanted to restore the nation to what it had been before the war, minus the institution of slavery that he believed concentrated wealth and power among a small elite. Johnson refused to call Congress back into session while he worked alone to restore the prewar system, dominated by Democrats, as quickly as he could.

In May, Johnson announced that all former Confederates except for high-ranking political or military officers or anyone worth more than $20,000 (about $400,000 today) would be given amnesty as soon as they took an oath of loyalty to the United States. He pardoned all but about 1,500 of that elite excluded group by December 1865.

Johnson required that southern states change their state constitutions by ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting enslavement except as punishment for a crime, nullifying the ordinances of secession, and repudiating the Confederate war debts. Delegates did so, grudgingly and with some wiggling, and then went on to pass the Black Codes, laws designed to keep Black Americans subservient to their white neighbors.

Under those new state constitutions and racist legal codes, southern states elected new senators and representatives to Congress. Voters put back into national office the very same men who had driven the rebellion, including its vice president, Alexander Stephens, whom the Georgia legislature reelected to the U.S. Senate. When Congress reconvened in December 1865, Johnson cheerily told them he had reconstructed the country without their help.

It looked as if the country was right back to where it had been in 1860, with legal slavery ended but a racial system that looked much like it already reestablished in the South. And since the 1870 census would count Black Americans as whole people for the first time, southern congressmen would have more power than before.

But when the southern state delegations elected under Johnson’s plan arrived in Washington, D.C., to be seated, Republicans turned them away. They rejected the idea that after four years, 600,000 casualties, and more than $5 billion, the country should be ruled by men like Stephens, who insisted that American democracy meant that power resided not in the federal government but in the states, where a small, wealthy minority could insulate itself from the majority rule that controlled Congress.

In state government a minority could control who could vote and the information to which those voters had access, removing concerns that voters would challenge their wealth or power. White southerners embraced the idea of “popular sovereignty” and “states’ rights,” arguing that any attempt of Congress to enforce majority rule was an attack on democracy.

But President Lincoln and the Republicans reestablished the idea of majority rule, using the federal government to enforce the principle of human equality outlined by the Declaration of Independence.

And that’s where the Fourteenth Amendment came in. When Johnson tried to restore the former Confederates to power after the Civil War, Americans wrote into the Constitution that anyone born or naturalized in the U.S. was a citizen, and then they established that states must treat all citizens equally before the law, thus taking away the legal basis for the Black Codes and giving the federal government power to enforce equality in the states. They also made sure that anyone who rebels against the federal government can’t make or enforce the nation’s laws.

Republicans in the 1860s would certainly have believed the Fourteenth Amendment covered Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of a presidential election. More, though, that amendment sought to establish, once and for all, the supremacy of the federal government over those who wanted to solidify their power in the states, where they could impose the will of a minority. That concept speaks directly to today’s Republicans.

In The Atlantic, two prominent legal scholars from opposite sides of the political spectrum, former federal judge J. Michael Luttig and emeritus professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School Laurence H. Tribe, recently applauded the Baude-Paulsen article and suggested that the American people should support the “faithful application and enforcement of their Constitution.”

Seth Wenig (AP)

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics