What Reconstruction-Era Laws Can Teach Our Democracy: The NY Times Reviews Eric Foner's Latest BookHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, books, Reconstruction, democracy, Eric Foner
Lincoln Caplan is a senior research scholar at Yale Law School and the author of six books about legal affairs.
Why does the brief period known as Reconstruction, a century and a half ago, still influence the state of the Union so heavily?
As the eminent historian Eric Foner explains in “The Second Founding,” the failure of the United States “to build an egalitarian society on the ashes of slavery” between 1865 and 1877 — the years conventionally associated with Reconstruction — left defining national issues unresolved: who should have the right to vote; who should get citizenship and the imprimatur of belonging in the United States; and how to provide equal opportunity for people who lack wealth and power.
A generation ago, in his masterly account “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,” Foner detailed why the attempt to rebuild the country on a racially egalitarian footing after the Civil War failed: political factionalism, financial corruption and the vindictive President Andrew Johnson’s efforts to subvert reform; an economic depression that triggered “a resurgence of overt racism”; and a campaign of terror against blacks that went unchecked by law enforcement. The enormous consequences of these events — the re-establishment of white supremacy, extreme disparities of wealth and power between whites and blacks, the entrenchment of racism — were divisive for the nation and devastating for blacks.
Against this backdrop, “The Second Founding” makes a surprisingly optimistic argument: “Perhaps the era’s most tangible legacies are the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution,” each “with a clause empowering Congress to enforce their provisions, guaranteeing that Reconstruction would be an ongoing process, not a single moment in time.”