Civil and Human Rights

Two Weekend Reads on Our Nation’s “Second Founding”

To help celebrate the 150th anniversary of our Nation’s Second Founding, we will work to highlight pieces that discuss the significance of this key period in American history.  And with the 150th anniversaries of Appomattox (4/9) and President Lincoln’s assassination (4/15) looming, this weekend featured two such pieces.

First, Professor Eric Foner—the scholar who literally wrote the book on Reconstruction—published a powerful op-ed in the New York Times.  In it, he reminded readers of the continuing relevance (and enduring constitutional legacy) of the Reconstruction Era—often referred to by scholars as our Nation’s “Second Founding.”

As Professor Foner notes:

Preoccupied with the challenges of our own time, Americans will probably devote little attention to the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, the turbulent era that followed the conflict.  This is unfortunate, for if any historical period deserves the label “relevant,” it is Reconstruction.

Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions.

. . .

Reconstruction refers to the period, generally dated from 1865 to 1877, during which the nation’s laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee the basic rights of the former slaves, and biracial governments came to power throughout the defeated Confederacy.

            . . .

Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction.  More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.

We strongly encourage you to read Professor Foner’s entire piece.

Second, Professor Gerard Magliocca posted an important reminder on the widely read legal blog, Balkinization:

This is a year filled with sesquicentennial anniversaries of the Civil War.  Lee’s surrender to Grant, Lincoln’s assassination, and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment all occurred in 1865.

But another transformative event of 1865 may not be celebrated at all.  In December 1865, Congress created the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, which gave us the Fourteenth Amendment.  As far as I know, this conclave, which amounted to a Second Constitutional Convention, has never received any official recognition.  Given that Reconstruction was condemned as a disaster until the 1960s, this lack of respect is unsurprising.  We are well past that point now, though, and thus I hope that many elected officials, law schools, and bar associations will work to rectify that wrong.

The Joint Committee on Reconstruction documented the systematic violation of basic civil rights in the Southern States following the Civil War and took the lead in drafting the Fourteenth Amendment—the longest, most detailed, and unquestionably one of the most significant Amendments ever ratified by “We the People.”  It granted U.S. citizenship to everyone born on American soil.  It protected individual rights like free speech from state abuses.  And it guaranteed equality for everyone.

We couldn’t agree more with Professors Foner and Magliocca that the Second Founding and its key milestones are worthy of widespread discussion and celebration.

To watch a video of the first of (what we hope are) many events celebrating the 150th anniversary of our Nation’s Second Founding, please follow this link to an event that we co-sponsored in February at the National Constitutional Center entitled “Lincoln’s Legacy: The Thirteenth Amendment 150 Years Later.”  And to learn more about the Second Founding, please visit SecondFounding.org.

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