The Lost Promise of ReconstructionRoundup
tags: slavery, Reconstruction, Eric Foner, Trump
Eric Foner is an emeritus professor of history at Columbia and the author, most recently, of “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution,” from which this essay is adapted.
Among the unanticipated consequences of the election of Donald Trump has been a surge of interest in post-Civil War Reconstruction, when this country first attempted to construct an interracial democracy, and in the restoration of white supremacy that followed. Many Americans feel that we are living at a time like the end of the 19th century, when, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “principles which we all thought to have been firmly and permanently settled” were “boldly assaulted and overthrown.”
Douglass was referring to the rights enshrined in three constitutional amendments ratified between 1865 and 1870. The 13th Amendment irrevocably abolished slavery. The 14th constitutionalized the principles of birthright citizenship and equality before the law. The 15th sought to guarantee the right to vote for black men throughout the reunited nation. All three empowered Congress to enforce their provisions, radically shifting the balance of power from the states to the nation.
The amendments had flaws. The 13th allowed involuntary servitude to continue for people convicted of crime, inadvertently opening the door to the creation of a giant system of convict labor. The 14th mandated that a state would lose part of its representation in the House of Representatives if it barred groups of men from voting but imposed no penalty if it disenfranchised women. The 15th allowed states to limit citizens’ right to vote for reasons other than race.
Nonetheless, the amendments should be seen not simply as changes to an existing structure but as a second American founding, which created a fundamentally new Constitution. Taken together, as George William Curtis, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, wrote at the time, they transformed a government “for white men” into one “for mankind.” Yet they do not occupy the prominent place in public consciousness of other key texts in our history, nor are their authors, Representatives James Ashley, John Bingham and others, widely known.
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