December 1, 2019
Michael Kazin Reviews Eric Foner's Latest Book, The Second FoundingHistorians in the News
tags: Reconstruction, American History, Eric Foner, nineteenth century
Michael Kazin teaches at Georgetown University and is a coeditor of Dissent. He is at work on a history of the Democratic Party.
For nearly half a century, Eric Foner has been challenging and overturning the benighted assertions made about the most studied and contentious period in US history. Nothing has been more important to the development of American society and politics than the Civil War and Reconstruction. Yet until the 1960s, most influential scholars conceived of the era as a sad departure from America’s grand march of progress toward political liberty and economic plenty. They claimed that the “war between the states” could have been avoided if sage voices of compromise had only been able to silence the hotheaded abolitionists and their secessionist counterparts. Their view of Reconstruction tended to be even more wrongheaded, rendering a decade of biracial democracy as an era dominated by vengeful Yankees who headed south to stir up racial antagonisms, echoing the pro–Ku Klux Klan narrative of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
Foner has dedicated his career to demolishing these assumptions about how the Civil War happened and how the victors shaped what came after. Inspired by the black freedom movement of the 1960s and its successors, he has demonstrated, perhaps more than any other historian of his generation, how central emancipation was to the political conflicts that eventually exploded into civil war. In his most influential work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, published in 1988, he showed that the struggle for equality and freedom continued long after the Confederacy died, even if its victories were frustratingly incomplete.
The Second Founding, his new book about the trio of landmark constitutional amendments all ratified less than five years after Lee’s surrender, demonstrates his talent at unearthing insights about the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, in particular how Americans defined and acted on the ideals of freedom and democracy. It’s a slim volume that synthesizes the vast library of works devoted to Reconstruction. But he uses that rich scholarship to highlight the radicalism of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and how, over the past 150 years, clever and powerful conservatives have diligently sought to undermine their egalitarian promise. As Foner reminds us, the “key elements of the second founding, including birthright citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and the right to vote, remain highly contested…. Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away.”