Civil and Human Rights

EDITORIAL: Lincoln’s ‘more perfect union’ deserves more study

Following the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the end of the Civil War last Thursday, newspapers across the country will round out their Civil War coverage this week with tributes to Abraham Lincoln on the 150th anniversary of his assassination today.

But the story shouldn’t end with Appomattox or with President Lincoln’s death. As acclaimed Reconstruction historian Eric Foner put it in the New York Times last month, “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.”

Appomattox and Lincoln’s death were significant endings, but they were also the beginning of a Reconstruction that wrought transformational – and still ongoing – change.

This week’s anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate the place of President Lincoln and his generation in our constitutional story.

The “new birth of freedom” that President Lincoln promised the nation at Gettysburg was brought about by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to our Constitution.

These transformational amendments that Lincoln and his generation fought to secure have been rightly described by scholars as our Nation’s “Second Founding.”

President Lincoln and his generation played a vital role in making our country the “more perfect union” that it is today, and their effort deserves to be restored to its rightful place at the center of our constitutional discourse. The amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War bent our Nation’s history toward justice, and finally wrote Thomas Jefferson’s call for equality in the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution.

* The 13th Amendment bans slavery and forced labor. Following his reelection in 1864, President Lincoln aggressively pushed members of Congress to approve the Amendment, eventually securing its passage on January 31, 1865. The next day, even though the President has no formal role in the amendment process, Lincoln took the unusual step of signing the 13th Amendment before sending it to the states for ratification.

* The 14th Amendment contains a host of constitutional guarantees. It grants U.S. citizenship to everyone born on American soil. It protects individual rights like free speech from state abuses by applying the Bill of Rights to the states. And it promises equality under the law for all Americans.

* The 15th Amendment guarantees the right to vote free of racial discrimination. Although it was ratified in 1870, the promise of the Amendment was obstructed for nearly a century through discriminatory practices like poll taxes and literary tests. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.

These Amendments contain some of our Constitution’s most inspiring and important passages. They transformed our Nation’s Charter from an aggressively pro-slavery document to one that prohibits slavery. Where once the Constitution permitted racial discrimination in voting and stood aside while states abused individual rights, it now prohibits such discrimination and protects rights like free speech against state abuse.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Today these Reconstruction Amendments are as relevant as they were 150 years ago. With marriage equality before the Supreme Court in two weeks, and issues like immigration and voting rights perennially on the political stage and in our courts, it’s time to have a national conversation about the enduring meaning of the Reconstruction Amendments. In the words of Professor Foner: “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.”

Information for this column was provided by the Constitutional Accountability Center.

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