The quest for racial equality in the United States of America

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The quest for racial equality in the United States of America

The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction… by Eric Foner, W. W. Norton & Co., US $26.95, Pp 256, September 2019, ISBN 978-0393652574

The Declaration of Independence announced racial equality, but it was the Civil War that pushed the adoption of three constitutional amendments that converted this declaration of racial equality into law. Known as the Reconstruction amendments, these amendments abolished slavery and gave black men the right to vote. In The Second Founding, Eric Foner discusses the history of the constitutional amendments that brought racial equality in the nation’s legal system. These amendments established the principle of birthright citizenship. They also empowered the federal government to reverse the priority of the original constitution and the Bill of Rights. The amendments were so revolutionary that they have been described as the second founding of the United States.

The Civil War and the Reconstruction period that followed form the pivotal era of American history. The era’s most tangible legacies are the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. The Thirteenth amendment irrevocably abolished slavery. The Fourteenth amendment constitutionalized the principles of birthright citizenship and equality before the law and sought to settle key issues arising from the war, such as the future political role of Confederate leaders and the fate of Confederate debt. The fifteenth Amendment aimed to secure black male suffrage throughout the reunited nation. Eric Foner says that the war destroyed the institution of slavery, ensured the survival of the Union, and set in motion economic and political changes that laid the foundation for the modern nation. During Reconstruction, the United States made its first attempt, flawed but truly remarkable for its time, to build an egalitarian society on the ashes of slavery. Eric Foner says that some of the problems of those years haunt American society today — vast inequalities of wealth and power, terrorist violence, aggressive racism.

Together with far-reaching congressional legislation meant to provide former slaves with access to the courts, the ballot box, and public accommodation, and to protect them against violence, the Reconstruction amendments greatly enhanced the power of the federal government, transferring much of the authority to define citizens’ rights from the states to the nation. Eric Foner says that they forged a new constitutional relationship between individual Americans and the national state, and were crucial in creating the world’s first biracial democracy, in which people only a few years removed from slavery exercised significant political power. All three amendments end with a clause empowering Congress to enforce their provisions, guaranteeing that Reconstruction would be an ongoing process, not a single moment in time. Eric Foner argues that this in itself was a significant innovation.

The Bill of Rights said nothing about how the liberties it enumerated would be implemented and protected. Introducing into the Constitution the words “equal protection of the law” and the “right to vote,” along with the qualifying “male,” to the outrage of the era’s women’s rights activists, the amendments both reflected and reinforced a new era of individual rights  consciousness among Americans of all races and backgrounds. Eric Foner argues that these changes were so profound that the amendments should not be seen simply as an alteration of an existing structure. He quotes Republican leader Carl Shurz who said that these constitutional amendments should be seen as a “second founding,” and “a constitutional revolution”, that created a fundamentally new document with a new definition of both the status of blacks and the rights of all Americans.

Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away. Eric Foner says that a century and a half after the end of slavery, the project of equal citizenship remains unfinished. However, flawed the era that followed the Civil War can serve as an inspiration for those striving to achieve a more equal, more just society. Every day we live the complex legacy of Reconstruction and its overthrow. And because the ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy are always contested, our understanding of the Reconstruction Amendments will forever be a work in progress. So long as the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow continue to plague our society, we can expect Americans to return to the nation’s second founding and find there new meaning for our fractious and troubled times.

Eric Foner traces the origin of the three amendments that brought on the statute books what the Declaration of Independence had promised to the people of America and how the struggle to bring about racial equality was carried out in the realm of law. This is a very meticulously researched and brilliantly written history of three constitutional amendments that complements the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. If you thought you knew everything about the Civil War, The Second Founding will tell you didn’t. Eric Foner tells you how the America we live in was founded and re-shaped. It is a commendable effort to redefine America.

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