There are perhaps no more consequential and inspiring amendments to the United States Constitution than those ratified in the wake of the Civil War, establishing equality for the first time in American law. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—known as the Reconstruction amendments—abolished slavery, provided for birthright citizenship, guaranteed equal protection of the laws and due process to all, and expanded the suffrage to black men. But the ambiguities of the amendments opened them to reinterpretation and debate. A conservative Supreme Court essentially nullified the amendments in the late nineteenth century. And the debates continue to play out in headlines and the courts today, highlighting both the promise and the fragility of the amendments’ guarantees.
In his new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner explores the significance of the Reconstruction amendments, their origins and enactment, and their subsequent fate in the Supreme Court. He underscores how, with enforcement entrusted to Congress and not the states, the amendments greatly enhanced the power and reach of the federal government. And though many Americans are unaware of the political changes made during this period, the legacies of Reconstruction continue to endure even today.
A rich, insightful, and compact history, The Second Founding informs our understanding of the present as well as the past: knowledge and vigilance are always necessary to secure our basic rights. Foner sees hope for the future in the amendments born of the second founding.
Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, specializing in the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and 19th-century America. He is the author of many acclaimed books, including The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize. He is one of only two persons to serve as President of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians. He has also been the curator of several museum exhibitions, including the prize-winning “A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln,” at the Chicago Historical Society.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.