Civil and Human Rights

OP-ED: Another Independence Day and the Founders you never knew about

Many years ago, a leading scholar sat down to pen a letter and dated it “Year 1 of American Independence.” The date was not July 4, 1776; it was Feb. 1, 1865, the day after congressional passage of the 13th Amendment.

There is no doubt that July 4, 1776, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence mark a watershed moment in our history that deserves celebration. The Declaration’s “self-evident” truths embody our national ethos — a measuring stick against which our nation’s progress is constantly assessed — and rightly so. Furthermore, the courageous patriots who signed the Declaration pledged their “Lives,” their “Fortunes” and their “sacred Honor” not only to that sacred document’s enduring principles, but also to the American experiment itself — a project in self-government unparalleled in world history. What followed was as improbable as it was magnificent — a successful Revolution, an end to British rule and, eventually, the creation of the most democratic form of government the world had ever seen.

However, even at Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826, for many, the Declaration’s truths were a mere parchment prophecy and antebellum America a nation of false prophets — pledging fidelity to the Declaration’s central truth that “all men are created equal,” while remaining complicit in our nation’s original sin of slavery. It would take nearly a century, a bloody civil war, and the work of the most important Americans you’ve probably never heard of to write Jefferson’s promise of equality into our Constitution — and our nation’s original sin out of it.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments deserve fireworks and parades just as much as the Declaration of Independence. More importantly, they deserve to be taught, discussed and understood on the same scale. These Amendments, and the years spanning their drafting and ratification, form what is known among scholars as our nation’s “Second Founding.” These transformative additions to our Constitution enshrined the “new birth of freedom” President Lincoln vowed at Gettysburg into our national charter. Together, they ban slavery, promise equality for all, and guarantee the right to vote, free from racial discrimination. Our Second Founders like John Bingham, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner deserve a place in our collective national memory every bit as prominent as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

As we celebrate the achievements of 1776, we should also vow to celebrate the achievements of 1865 and beyond. We should vow to celebrate the achievements of people like Frederick Douglass and Robert Smalls, Bingham and Stevens. In June, the Senate made a good start, unanimously passing a Resolution designating 2015 as the “Sesquicentennial of Our Nation’s Second Founding” and “encourag[ing] State and local governments to join in the Sesquicentennial celebration by organizing appropriate ceremonies, activities, and educational outreach; and encourage[ing] the people of the United States to explore the history and significance of the Second Founding.”

And there should be ceremonies and events, but they don’t all have to be fireworks and parades. Groups can identify a local historian to give a talk on the Second Founding. Libraries can feature books about the period like Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction: An Unfinished Revolution,” Gerard Magliocca’s “America’s Founding Son,” and W.E.B. DuBois’s “Black Reconstruction.” Families can host a movie night to watch “Lincoln” and discuss the film. Individual citizens can virtually sign a copy of the 13th Amendment just like Abraham Lincoln did. Or they can just take a moment to read the Wikipedia entry for John Bingham — once described by Justice Hugo Black as the “Madison of . . . the Fourteenth Amendment.”

It’s a start.

Our nation still grapples with many of the questions we confronted in 1865. In the words of historian Eric Foner, “Citizenship, rights, freedom, democracy — as long as these questions remain central to our society, so too will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction.” This statement rings all the more true as our nation continues to struggle with the issue of race — especially following the recent tragedy in Charleston.

So let us use the sesquicentennial of our nation’s Second Founding this year — beginning this Fourth of July weekend — to start to learn about our Second Founders.

And let us be prepared to celebrate the anniversary dates of each of our Second Founding Amendments, starting on December 6th, with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The more we understand our history — all of our history — the more equipped we are to confront the questions of our present and future.

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