The Civil War and Reconstruction

Review :

We shouldn't forget that the original United States Constitution, for all its brilliance, did explicitly condone the practice of slavery. For example, the "three-fifths compromise" counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating state representation in Congress, while Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 prohibited Congress from passing laws banning slavery until 1808. Additionally, Article 4, Section 2 states, in essence, that escaped slaves must be returned to their owners in the original state from which they fled.

In other words, the Constitution was far from perfect (luckily, it allowed for its own modification). And that's why many historians consider the "second founding" during the Reconstruction era to be of equal or greater significance than the founding itself. The Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War saw the passage of three amendments that would forever transform politics in the US, both in terms of civil rights and in the balance of power between the federal government and the states.

In "The Second Founding," historian and Reconstruction expert Eric Foner tells the story of how these three amendments-the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth-together represent the foundation for the continuing struggle for universal rights. The abolition of slavery, birthright citizenship, equal protection under the laws, universal suffrage, and the Incorporation Doctrine (which forces the states to honor the Bill of Rights) are all the direct or indirect result of these three crucial amendments. And yet the "second founding" remains less well-known among the public than the first.

This book is the remedy for that gap in public knowledge, and is invaluable for understanding not only the Reconstruction era but also the subsequent civil rights movements and the modern conservative attack on equality. Foner shows, for example, how talk of "state rights" has almost always been a cover for blatant discrimination. "State rights" has variously meant the right to enslave, the right to deny the vote to blacks and women, the right to violate the Bill of Rights, and the right to discriminate based on race and gender. As Foner wrote, "Before the war, for example, southern states adopted laws making criticism of slavery a crime without violating the First Amendment since these were state laws and not acts of Congress." The real danger, in terms of rights violations, has always been greater within the individual states.

This book can also act as a good inoculant against conservative rhetoric that hasn't changed in at least 156 years. The reader will be amused to find the same state's rights and reverse discrimination arguments throughout the book. Andrew Johnson, for example, in his opposition to the fourteenth amendment, said, "The distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race." As Foner wrote, "In the idea that expanding the rights of nonwhites somehow punishes the white majority, the ghost of Andrew Johnson still haunts our discussions of race."

The underlying message of the book seems to be that any rights granted by the Constitution are worthless if not enforced. Constitutional rights can be ignored, distorted, or narrowly interpreted to deprive certain groups of equal protection and treatment under the law. But if we can't even recognize when this is happening-and we don't properly understand what the second founding was trying to accomplish-then we are all powerless to prevent a regression to discriminatory politics under the guise of "state's rights," "originalism," and all the rest.


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