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The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

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From the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, an authoritative story of the constitutional changes that built equality into the nation’s foundation.

The Declaration of Independence announced equality as an American ideal, but it took the Civil War and the subsequent adoption of three constitutional amendments to establish that ideal as American law. The Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and the equal protection of the law, and equipped black men with the right to vote. The federal government, not the states, was put in charge of enforcement. By grafting the principle of equality onto the Constitution, the amendments marked the second founding of the United States.

Eric Foner’s rich, insightful history conveys the dramatic origins of these revolutionary amendments in citizen meetings and political negotiations. He explores the momentous court decisions that then narrowed and even nullified the rights guaranteed in these amendments. Today, issues of birthright citizenship, voting rights, due process, and equal protection are still in dispute, the ideal of equality yet to be achieved.

224 pages, Hardcover

First published September 17, 2019

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About the author

Eric Foner

172 books580 followers
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes and remains the standard history of the period. His latest book published in 2010 is The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

In 2006 Foner received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 296 reviews
Profile Image for David Eppenstein.
688 reviews165 followers
January 11, 2021
This is a book that will appeal to a narrow field of readers. While it is about the Reconstruction Period it is really about how the events of that era affected our Constitution and how the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments became necessary. The book then is really a Constitutional history that is shaped by the Civil War and the post war necessity of dealing with the consequences if emancipation. As I mentioned to a friend after reading this book it made me realize that, strange as this may sound, the Civil War was a blessing. That war caused the upheaval of our society that made the passage of these amendments possible. Had there been no war and slavery died a natural death at the hands of industrialization we would probably have become an apartheid nation like South Africa and our race issues would be even worse than they are. It's something to think about and this book does layout the problems that Reconstruction had to deal with and the hoped for solutions that these three amendments would deliver. Sadly through poor drafting, politics, bigotry and a Supreme Court affected by all of these defects the hoped for solutions failed to achieve prompt meaningful success.

The book is rather short for such a complex history and its issues. The book is 176 pages of text and 25 pages of notes but it is by no means a quick page turner. Since it is a constitutional history it will probably only be of interest to constitutional wonks (marginally guilty). It was very informative however and illustrated how the war and the post war event caused the transition from government dominated by states rights to a new era where the federal government became the central and key player. I found myself stopping a several places to contemplate alternative scenarios of how our history would have changed had certain things occurred or not occurred. It was during such moments that the realization of the Civil War's advantages became apparent. The war removed the obstructionism of the South and made possible the constitutional changes referred to in this book. Without the Civil War there would never have been a 14th Amendment and I shudder to think of all the advances that have been made because of that amendment. So if you are interested in reading about a very turbulent period of constitutional history then this is a book for you.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
November 20, 2019
This is a great book by a great scholar on how the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment changed the political and cultural idea of the United States. I don't have a critique of the history or the book, but I disagree with the basic idea. I think the US should have scrapped the first constitution and should have just written up a new one that was not a big old concession to slavery. Sure, they gave freedmen the right to vote, but they kept the electoral college and the makeup of the senate etc etc thereby ensuring that the slave states would continue to have too much influence on the future and the economy of the nation. The 13th-15th amendments were way too weak to change the trajectory of the country
Profile Image for Colleen Browne.
286 reviews67 followers
January 6, 2020
Eric Foner is known as "the expert" on Reconstruction. In this book, he expands that reputation to include the Civil War amendments. Thoroughly researched and intelligently written, this short book tells the story of the rocky road to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and how they have been interpreted. He turns particular attention to the Supreme Court decisions that interpreted the amendments, particularly during the 19th Century. Finding the Court, not really up to the job, he criticizes the decisions that for a long period of time, made them dead letters in the Constitution although he does single out Justice Harlan for being on the side of the angels (in most cases). Bowing to Southern Democrats, the Court wrote judgments that took away the protections guaranteed by the amendments. It wasn't until the Warren Court in the 1950's and 1960's that the issues were revisited and earlier bad decisions (like Plessey v. Ferguson) were overturned. That said, Foner posits that in recent years many of those protections have been turned back by the conservative court. Moreover, we still have a lot of work to do to realize the promise in the Declaration of Independence.
Profile Image for Joseph.
476 reviews48 followers
May 14, 2021
A good solid overview of the Reconstruction amendments. The author argues that the battles begun in the nineteenth century are still being fought today. And I agree with him. Prejudice and discrimination are still immense forces of darkness in the modern world. All we can do as a people is fight for what we believe in and not become complacent in regards to the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. A very thought provoking effort, and one worthy of your time.
Profile Image for Ryan Boissonneault.
185 reviews2,016 followers
September 23, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Christopher.
734 reviews40 followers
December 7, 2020
Dec. 2020 Review:
I read this book around this time last year for my own personal pleasure. I decided to read it again because, with the issue of the paperback edition in August, I offered this book as an extra credit assignment to students in my American government classes. So, I figured that I should reread it in order to refamiliarize myself with Mr. Foner’s arguments. This is still a great work of legal and political history as Mr. Foner dives into the forces that gave birth to the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution and how by the early 20th century much of what these amendments was intended to do was ignored or subverted by the Supreme Court. While this book is relatively short, it is not an easy read, as I mentioned in my review from last year. Mr. Foner’s language is dense and, occasionally, impenetrable. Despite that, this book is incredibly valuable to understanding the intent of the authors of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and how looking at that history can provide new avenues for expanding the reach and protection of civil rights in the 21st century. As this past summer’s racial reckoning showed us, America has a long way to go in order to get rid of the “badges and incidents” of slavery and achieve the racially egalitarian society that the Reconstruction Amendment authors, as well as millions of former slaves, dreamed of. This is a valuable supplement to any history of the Reconstruction period in American history.

Dec. 2019 Review:
As the United States is once again engaged in a struggle for race-consciousness and democratic renewal, historians have turned their gaze to the little known and little understood period of Reconstruction. The period from 1865-1877, roughly, birthed three new amendments to the Constitution, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. In this new work by the leading historian on Reconstruction, Mr. Foner examines the history behind the creation, ratification, and legal legacy of the Reconstruction amendments and makes the argument that their intent was far more expansive than anyone, particularly the justices, past and present, of the Supreme Court, have ever dared to believe.

The end of the Civil War raised a series of questions regarding the relationship between the federal government and the states, between the government and its citizens, and between white and black citizens themselves. The 13th amendment officially ended slavery in America, but Mr. Foner notes that section 2 of the amendment, which gives Congress the power to enforce the the amendment through legislation, fundamentally altered the previous federal system the country operated under. Mr. Foner notes that the Due Process clause of the 14th amendment has had long reaching consequences for Americans' civil rights, but notes how the authors of the amendment thought the Privileges and Immunities clause could be more far-reaching. And Mr. Foner notes how the 15th amendment protection of African-American mens' right to vote could have been much stronger had the politics of the time been much different. Through all of this, Mr. Foner notes the multifaceted debates that surrounded all of these amendments and how, like the story of Reconstruction as a whole, the Supreme Court's retreat from fully implementing these amendments, even working to outright nullify them at times, still lingers over the country today, like a malevolent shadow.

While this book is a relatively short read at approximately 170+ narrative pages, this is by no means an easy read. Like a good historian, Mr. Foner gets into the weeds of congressional debate, lawmaking, and jurisprudence. This makes for an incredibly complicated reading experience, especially as there are no subtitles in the chapters to help orientate the different subjects Mr. Foner covers. That, more than anything, would've been extremely helpful in following along with his arguments.

Still, this is an incredibly important work of political and legal history coming at just the right time to help us better understand the true history of such a maligned historical period as Reconstruction and how, in the country's ongoing quest to overcome our shared legacy of slavery, racism, and inequality, a better understanding of the past can help us better our circumstances in the present. While the complicated debates described in this book can be daunting, this is a work of history that should be read by all historians, legal scholars, judges, politicians, and lovers of American history.
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews34 followers
October 3, 2019
History is so important. I wish more people would spend more time learning, discussing and making decisions based upon our own, fairly recent, history. Eric Foner is the pre-eminent historian regarding the Reconstruction/Redemption era of the United States. This book is partially a review of his more comprehensive tome regarding these events; however, he does a detailed analysis of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the constitution in this small book. He explains the events, players, politics and ethos of this time in history. He does a thorough explanation of the Supreme Court's impact on history with these amendments. It is an excellent book which anyone involved in politics (all voters?) should read and take to heart. I thoroughly enjoyed this and we could all learn from this review of our tragic and disgraceful past. There is no "fake news" in scholarly historical analysis. What is clear is how the American People, and their "leaders" are plagued by selfish, uninformed, misguided and outright evil motives, with lots of "fake news" (propaganda) feeding the pyres.
Profile Image for Raymond.
338 reviews247 followers
June 28, 2020
"As history shows, progress is not necessarily linear or permanent. But neither is retrogression." -Eric Foner, The Second Founding

Foner's small book The Second Founding was good but a little dry at times. It describes how the three Reconstruction amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) were written and debated on in Congress. He does a good job of showing how each amendment was a political compromise. The chapters on the 13th and 15th amendments are the strongest in my opinion. He ends with a discussion on how the amendments were strengthened and weakened by the judiciary and by state governments immediately after ratification to the present day.
Profile Image for Rama Rao.
735 reviews103 followers
November 11, 2019
The constitutional, political, and social issues after American Civil War

This is an historical account of the constitutional, political, and social crisis after the Civil War. United States was faced with an enormous task of ending the slavery constitutionally and offering a solution to institutional racism. The constitutional amendments; Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth were adopted between 1865 and 1870 to guarantee freedom to former slaves and offer equality and citizenship rights. The 13th ended slavery. The 14th made anyone born in the U.S. a citizen and a state in the union can't deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The 15th gave the vote to black men but not any women. What followed their adoption was the way the constitutional power was eroded by state laws and supreme court decisions throughout the late 19th and first half of 20th centuries. The full benefits of these amendments were not realized until the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The reconstruction amendments were nullified in the south, step-by-step with the compliancy of the Supreme Court of the United States. Violent groups like KKK resorted to violence to deprive blacks of their rights. This challenge to the 14th was direct but Supreme Court interpreted that it is not a state action, and the private individuals committing private acts of violence should be handled by state laws. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the states. There were additional challenges associated with slave states like Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, which had nearly three-quarters of a million slaves. Since the Proclamation was a war measure against the Confederacy, the states that were in the Union retained the constitutional protections of slavery.

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that the separate but equal facilities in South is constitutional, which suggested that separation is not a form of prejudice or discrimination. It opened the door to all sorts of laws that the Southern states would pass requiring segregation in every phase of life. This became central to the Jim Crow Laws in the 20th century South.

This is an exciting book written by Columbia University Professor Eric Foner who has researched this material much of his academic life. The interpretation of constitutional amendments by states and court systems is highly engaging. United States was born with a belief in individual liberty and reconstruction was intended to create a new republic. But it was created in a harsh environment of racism.
Profile Image for Canon.
638 reviews64 followers
December 2, 2021
This is an important, timely book on the remaking of the U.S. Constitution through the three Reconstruction Amendments: the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870). Foner writes with brilliance and eloquence on matters that remain urgent for us: democracy, equality, racial justice, citizenship, voting rights, and the role of the judiciary. Quoting U.S. Senator from Missouri Carl Schurz (1869-1875), Foner summarizes the meaning of the Second Founding that these amendments enacted: "The constitutional revolution found the rights of the individual at the mercy of the states... and placed them under the shield of national protection. It made the liberty and rights of every citizen in every state a matter of national concern. Out of a republic of arbitrary local organizations it made a republic of equal citizens."

Foner's scholarly brilliance is important, as the vision of the Second Founding that he advances is not uncontested. Alongside the egalitarian Second Founding narrative has persisted what Peggy Cooper Davis has called a Confederate narrative of states' rights trumping individuals' civil rights (a narrative often allied with white supremacist ideology). Or, as Jesse Merriam wrote in an op-ed mulling the impact of Bostock on the conservative legal movement, it is the conservative position that "the Fourteenth Amendment wrought few changes in our federalism," and decidedly not that "the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated against the states, ab initio, not only most of the Bill of Rights but our common law and natural rights as well” (a disagreement, Merriam writes, going back at least to the Slaughter-House Cases). So, Foner's (progressive) narrative of a Second Founding competes with other influential (conservative) narratives about Reconstruction, the Constitution, and federalism. I find Foner’s historical arguments convincing as to the meaning and significance of the Reconstruction Amendments, as I find the Second Founding narrative that Foner articulates powerful and persuasive, essential to the vision that liberals should champion in American politics, against and beyond Trumpism.
Profile Image for Kate  prefers books to people.
551 reviews5 followers
April 18, 2022
This book examines the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments from the context in which they were passed to their implementation and interpretation. Some states effectively nullified amendments through narrowly interpreted Supreme Court decisions. This book is informative and very well organized.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews222 followers
December 6, 2021
Eric Foner's name has been brought up as a historian of the Reconstruction. That is, the period of United States history from 1865 to 1877 where attempts were made to address and make amends for the great crime of slavery.

This is the first book of Foner's I've read; the other one I'd heard of was Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, which is three times the length of this volume. I can assume that this volume was not just a work of historical analysis, but also a presentation of questions about Reconstruction to a wider audience.

The first three chapters of the book cover the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. The 13th abolished slavery, the 14th guaranteed citizens equal rights, and the 15th prohibited states from denying the right on "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". Each gets a single chapter, which is more explicitly focused on the congressional debates about the exact wording of each amendment.

Foner's argument here stems from the sentence at the end of the 13th: "Congress shall have
power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation", and a turn towards the power of the federal government and away from delegation to the states rights. This has much broader implications for the structure and function of the government.

The fourth chapter covers court cases and the role of the Supreme Court in suffocating these amendments from 1866 to 1900 or so, where the court narrowed the focus of the legislation to a much more limited role than was originally intended. In this chapter, as in the previous three, Foner does emphasize contingency - it didn't have to be like this.

But as this book is intended for a wider audience, Foner makes some gestures towards an "alternative" way of interpreting law, and he is sure to stress that while "progress" is not constant or permanent, neither is "retrogression".
Profile Image for Mark.
973 reviews96 followers
January 15, 2022
Over the course of his prolific career Eric Foner has written several books that detail the long and often dispiriting history of the struggle to acknowledge the equality of the millions of Black Americans living in the middle of the 19th century. In particular, his 1988 classic Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 describes in full the political and legal efforts to define the status of Blacks in post-Civil War America, and endures as the standard work on this period of American history. Foner’s focus in this book is narrower, as he focuses instead on the attempts by Republicans to amend the Constitution to establish the equality of Blacks, which he sees as so transformative as to regard this period as akin to a “second founding” of that historic document.

The very idea of amending the Constitution was an extremely radical one at that time, especially as it had only been done so twelve times before then, with 1804 being the last time an amendment was ratified successfully. Though amendments had been proposed in 1860-1 in an effort to avert the attempted secession of the slaveholding states, these focused on enshrining in the nation’s foundational document the right of people in those states to enslave others – the very antithesis of what the second founding would achieve. Though the war led Abraham Lincoln and the Republican-controlled Congress to introduce measures freeing slaves throughout much of the South, the legally questionable nature of such measures as the Emancipation Proclamation fueled calls for an irrevocable measure to end slavery for good.

The result was the passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. Though most enslaved people had been freed by the time the amendment was ratified in December 1865, the event was nonetheless celebrated to a degree forgotten today. The exemption within the amendment providing for involuntary servitude of convicted criminals, however, provided an opening for Southern state legislatures to extract labor from Blacks – an ominous foreshadowing for how the application of the amendments would be perverted in ways beyond the intent of the legislators who voted for them. Nothing demonstrated this better than the infamous “Black Codes,” which restricted the freedom of Blacks to the point of rendering it virtually nonexistent.

In response, Republicans flooded Congress with proposals for new amendments. Foner describes how from them Republicans in the Joint Committee on Reconstruction hammered out a new amendment designed to guarantee the equality of Blacks in America. Yet for all of the subsequent importance the Fourteenth Amendment would assume, contemporaries regarded the Fifteenth Amendment, which was designed to protect the right of Blacks to vote, as the more important measure. One of the most fascinating aspects of Foner’s book is his summary of the debate over whether to make the language of the amendment “positive,” which would establish a right to vote, or “negative,” which would prohibit its limitation. The eventual choice of the latter proved regrettable, as it paved the way for the subsequent restriction of the vote by other, ostensibly “color-blind” methods. As Foner demonstrates, the limitation of the scope of the amendments was made possible by a series of Supreme Court decisions that made a mockery of the intended goals of the amendments’ authors and leaving it to later generations for a more sincere effort to fulfill them.

Foner’s book is a powerful exposition of the Reconstruction amendments and how they embodied a new direction in American constitutional development. His explanation of their subsequent blunting by the courts is particularly relevant, as it highlights a resistance to their effect that is still ongoing today. That the American legal system today is still burdened with the often tortuous and stunted application of the amendments is a legacy of this, and it points to the value of Foner’s book for understanding not just the United States of the later 19th century but the country as it is today.
Profile Image for Joseph Sciuto.
Author 8 books126 followers
January 13, 2020
"The Second Founding," by Eric Foner is many things: Historically relevant, glorious, despairing, sad, and promising. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are examined and dissected with unusual clarity and precision. The three Amendments combined make up what one would consider the Reconstruction era, directly after the Civil War, where slavery was abolished, male blacks were given the right to vote, citizenship was based on being born in the United States, and the federal government stepped into the forefront to stop the bigotry and racism practiced mostly in the Southern states and a few Northern States. It was, for all practical purposes, a glorious 7 to 8 year period in American history, but like most things that seem way too good to be true, The Supreme Court of the United States quickly started to dismember the amendments and as the democrats took control back in many southern states blacks, once again, were disenfranchised, racism bloomed, segregation was a God send, and the states were once again in charge and the amendments' original meanings and intents, except for the 13th, were revised and distorted for nearly an entire century since the Civil War ended.

In the mid-1960's The Warren Court (The Supreme Court) and The Civil Rights Crusade fought back and some resemblance of the American ideal was restored, but as history will attest never underestimate the stupidity, bigotry, and partisanship of the Court as new members take their place, and once again we seem to be moving back as a nation into the good old days before the Civil War where one's skin color is a defining character and the racial divide in our nation seems to be bigger and better than ever... How sad!

President Theordore Roosevelt said many years ago that, "words and 'talk' are meaningless, unless accompanied by action." The Supreme Court and our spineless government employees would be wise to take notice of TR's advice, but then there are so few that even cast a shadow beside this great man that I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for constructive and meaningful action.

Thank you Bradford for this wonderful book.
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book133 followers
January 29, 2022
Excellent and concise history of, well, the subtitle pretty much captures it. The focus here is on politics and constitutional law, but Foner explains all of this in jargon-free prose. His main argument is that the Reconstruction amendments (13, 14, and 15) so drastically changed the role of the constitution and its meaning as to constitute a second founding.

First, the 13th Amendment finished once and for all the question of slavery (with the important exception of forms of forced convict labor), which Lincoln and the Republicans managed to pass at the tail end of the Civil War.

Second, the 14th Amendment established a host of new principles: birthright citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and due process of the law being the most important. While the crushing/abandonment of Reconstruction . Birthright citizenship permitted mass immigration and assimilation as well as a vastly more diverse nation of citizens. Equal protection later became the basis of civil rights reforms and advances for racial minorities, women, LGBTs, and all kinds of groups. Due process became the foundation for the defendant's rights expansions of the Warren Court and other advances. Third, the voting rights established in the 15th amendment enfranchised millions of black men, established more firmly the idea of voting as a prerogative of citizenship, and established federal authority for the enforcement of voting rights and fair elections.

Overall, these laws did a few huge things, albeit over long stretches of time and with significant reversals. First, they permitted social movements to couch their campaigns for justice, rights, and equality in terms of the protections of the Constitution. This may seems obvious, but pre Civil War social/political movements like abolitionism often saw the Constitution as hostile to reform, change, and justice, which in many ways it was. There was a reason that William Lloyd Garrison theatrically burned the Constitution in his speeches; it was in many ways a document that recognized and protected slavery and was not terribly conducive to abolition (there was the Freedom National interpretation, which I think was quite valid, but the Constitution originally was at best a mixed bag on slavery). The Reconstruction amendments changed this dramatically, putting demands for equality and the protection of the rights of citizens in Constitution itself. Second, these amendments drastically increased the POTENTIAL power of the federal government over the states, setting up the fed as the protector of individual rights against the depredations of states AND of private citizens. While this conception of the role of the fed gov't was enforced haphazardly during Reconstruction and then not at all under Jim Crow, it again established a crucial foundation of later change.

Foner pins a lot of the blame for Reconstruction's failure on the Supreme Court in a final chapter. He shows how a business oriented, largely white Supremacist court adopted a very narrow interpretation of the Reconstruction amendments that basically held the fed gov't had extremely limited power to interfere in state's affairs, even when those states were clearly and systematically violating black rights. The court held to the old federalism, as if the Reconstruction amendments hadn't happened, and embraced racist viewpoints (like the paranoia about black white social and sexual mixing) that made them sympathetic to burgeoning Jim Crow laws. Their hamstringing of federal power permitted murderers of blacks and white Republicans to get off scot-free, further undermining the federal government's already flagging willingness to enforce Reconstruction. Later on, the Court and most of the nation adopted the Dunning School view of Reconstruction as a premature attempt to give unready, racially inferior freedpeople power over whites, leading to corruption and violence. It is amazing how the idea of white victimhood and essentially "reverse racism" was used then as it is used now, even in cases where whites had murdered blacks and then claimed oppression if the fed gov't prosecuted them. This section of the book is a bit technical with the many legal cases, but it was really interesting too.

One thing I really like about Foner's narrative in this book is that he shows the contested nature of all of these ideas. For example, he shows how the abolitionist movement split to an extent during Reconstruction over whether to focus on black male enfranchisement or whether women should come first and/or simultaneously. He shows that people at the time did actually point out that the caveat in the 13th Amendment would lead to abuses. He shows a full range of opinion and complexity in these debates, offering a nice counterpoint to more polemical accounts like the documentary 13th. He shows voices and experiences of all kinds within a fairly short book, which is a big accomplishment.

Reconstruction can be a tough thing to understand: it was a long period of time, it was complex and often very state-specific, and it involved lots of complicated constitutional law. This is probably the best guide to this history that I've found. Even if you have read Foner's big Reconstruction book, this is still worth reading.
Profile Image for Babbs.
216 reviews69 followers
December 18, 2020
A short account of the passing of the post- civil war constitutional amendments, the political climate of the time, and the lasting ramifications. I'll definitely be checking out Foner's more lengthy works on this period in the future.
Profile Image for C. .
46 reviews
July 17, 2019
It seems like forever ago that I first read Eric Foner. To be precise, it was 30 years ago, I was a graduate student in history, and his "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution" blew me away (as it has done to many other readers over the years).

To say that Foner is the dean of Civil War and Reconstruction studies in this country doesn't begin to do it justice. It says a lot about Foner that he's still producing ground-breaking scholarship on a subject that he's already written the book on (literally).

But it also says a lot about the subject: there is still much to be studied and considered. And it feels especially relevant at this moment to be reading about both the Civil War and the Constitution. I found much to chew on in Foner's new book. His scholarship is as remarkable as ever, and his writing is lucid and enjoyable.

"The Second Founding" is a fine book -- and a necessary one for our times. I hope it finds wide readership.

(Thank you to W. W. Norton for an advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review.)
Profile Image for Kurt Ronn.
123 reviews
September 28, 2019
The next time politics of equality enters a conversation and someone says that they are a strict constitutionalist, ask them about forced slavery, women’s rights, and Asian immigrants. Tell them that strict constitutionalism is a bullshit excuse for not supporting equal rights. Tell them to read The Second Founding and then find someone else to talk to at the cocktail party.

Recognize, today, all states have laws based on state precedent that unfairly and unevenly limit rights, and federal laws also exist that do not protect the equal rights of Americans.

The history of the 13,14, and 15th amendments are the history of American reconstruction. We have come a long way, but we need a Third Founding - a constitutional mandate, an equal rights amendment that federally mandates equality for all.

The founding fathers gave us a good start, but they did not provide equal rights for all. It is time.
766 reviews26 followers
January 14, 2020
Very good, brief account on the history of the Reconstruction amendments, how they came about, and how they were interpreted.

Amendments 13/14/15 end slavery, make all native-born people citizens, and extend the vote. That's on the face of it. Beyond that, they attempt to transform and government and US Constitution to be more expensive and give the federal government more authority over protecting people's rights, whereas previously that had been left up to individual states. I knew a lot of this beforehand (which is why it's only 4 stars), but it's a nice overview and understanding of how the amendments were phrased the way they were, and why that caused some limitations.

Prior to the 13th Amendment, many abolitionists and free soilers acknowledged the Constitution allowed for slavery, but then flipped it around by saying unless laws were created in an area to allow for slavery, then the land was free. The default setting was "freedom national" and that approach to the Constitution was on the rise before the Civil War. The amendment grew out of the GOP's free labor ideology. It also made an exception for prisoners, which the South would exploit after the Civil War. Later in the book, Foner notes how this amendment has basically been a dead letter in courts. Though the end of the Amendment says Congress can pass laws to defend it, it's never been used to justify legislation to do so.

The 14th Amendment creates national citizenship, but still allows for state citizenship. The first part of the amendment allows for a constitutional revolution and the next part lets states still handle requirements.

The GOP was slow to embrace giving blacks the vote. The North wasn't thrilled with this idea. It was used against them in the 1868 campaign with some open racism by Democrats. But the supporters successfully argued that it was the only way to preserve the change wrought by the Civil War; the logical result of emancipation. When it passed, it voided laws in 17 northern & border states on the black vote.

Over time, the Supreme Court whittled it down in the Slaughter-House Case, the Cruikshank Case, the Civil Rights Cases, and other decisions. Things changed in the mid-20th century, but no gains are guaranteed to last. These days, the Court is most likely to use the amendments to protect rights of whites fearing black gains than it is to protect blacks, who were actually designed to be protected. He notes that using the commerce clause as a charter for human rights is ridiculous because that's not what it's designed for, but the parts that are designed to aid civil rights are frequently muted to protect powers that be.
Profile Image for Dave.
747 reviews21 followers
August 20, 2021
When I grow up I want to be Eric Foner. I have read a number of his books and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. His focus is on antebellum years, the Civil War and Reconstruction. In fact he took his massive work on Reconstruction and condensed it into a shorter history of the era for a more general audience. With all of that writing about Reconstruction, I wondered what more he could have to say about it in this book. Plenty, it turns out.

This shorter work describes the elements and passage of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution (the 13th, 14th and 15th). He then describes how the courts, including the Supreme Court, eviscerated them over the next 25 years or so, necessitating the renewed push for civil rights in the 20th century.

The writing occasionally gets a little dry as Foner outlines the details in some of the court cases, but that doesn't detract from the overall delivery of an important period in our history that relates directly to today's news.
Profile Image for Kristi Thielen.
324 reviews5 followers
February 27, 2020
Foner takes an excellent, lawyerly look at Reconstruction and the three amendments to the Constitution which took place during that era: amendments to abolish slavery; provide all persons due process and equal protection of the law; and give black men the right to vote.

He explains the cultural and political changes in America that led to these amendments, how they impacted the lives of black Americans – and then details the insidious resistance of southern whites to the implementation of each of them.

The book gives further weight to the true understanding of the Confederacy and the 20th century glorification of the “Lost Cause.” It was never about state’s rights; it was about contempt for black Americans, anger at the loss of slave labor and racial bigotry.

But Foner also makes clear that possession of land was vital to 19th century Americans, whose lives were largely rural and agricultural. Giving freedom to black Americans – but making insufficient efforts to provide them land – virtually guaranteed decades in which southern blacks were free but too poor to move up in the world.

The federal government wearied of enforcing Reconstruction and when they withdrew southern states reasserted their authority over black people. Those governments are rightly condemned for destroying much of what these pivotal amendments had granted. But it is also clear that the U.S. Supreme Court played a fateful role in confirming the southern state decisions.

Unfortunately, the issues of birthright citizenship, due process, voting rights – much of what these amendments were established to protect – are under assault for today’s political forces.

Will we, too, grow weary and let them chip away at people’s rights?

Profile Image for Mary Ann.
416 reviews37 followers
June 18, 2021
January 15, 2021
I read this important book nearly a year ago and did not realize I hadn't rated it or shelved it as read until this morning when my friend David Eppenstein's excellent review appeared again in my update feed. That review and seeing Henry Louis Gates's very moving PBS documentary, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, were what motivated me to seek out the book. Despite its brevity, Foner's history offers much food for thought to anyone interested in the post-Civil War period and the far-reaching implications of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. I have found myself referring to it in light of the events of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in May and the renewed energy of the Black Lives Matter movement. Racial and economic inequality, the Covid-19 epidemic, the Trump presidency, and the 2020 election with its aftermath all seem to synergize in creating a state of social and cultural upheaval in today's America which is akin to that of the 1860s and '70s.

The link is to a New Yorker interview with Eric Foner at the time of the book's publication; it's worth reading.
Profile Image for Online-University of-the-Left.
61 reviews26 followers
November 3, 2019
Excellent in its detail about the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Then Foner shows how they were largely thwarted in practice, at least for 100 years, and we are still trying to realize their full potential to this day.
Profile Image for Jeff.
79 reviews8 followers
April 1, 2020
What is it to be free in America?

One solution is the freedom to dominate others and to get laws to enforce your dominance over others.
The other solution is equality before the law throughout the land.

In the wake of the Civil War the constitution was amended with equality for all as their purpose. Equality before the law, guaranteeing the bill of rights for all, negating the previous reign of states to impose whatever hell they wanted upon their citizens, was exactly the intent and meaning of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Read them for yourself, with out benefit of the later interpretations and see for yourself their clear meaning.

But soon after their passage, the Supreme Court negated their meaning. This allowed the South and at times the North to be terrorist states and kleptocracies in regards to black people. This allowed for the disenfranchisement of black people's votes while allowing the Southern states to count them towards their congressional allotments.

Foner tells the story of some, black and white, who stood up for the freedoms we assume everyone enjoys in America. He tells the story from the perspective and the bias of the Gettysburg address. We can do better, and we need to change how we view these amendments to fix our law.

I recommend this book to everyone interested in American History. There is no better historian than Foner and he might be the finest for this period of history. Book groups would be well served. Democratic party and Republican party groups should read this and know it. He, in effect, sets out the constitutional agenda for how we need to redress things such as "citizen's united." This is a piece of our history that groans for completion, the story of freedom in America.
Profile Image for Brian Willis.
579 reviews32 followers
January 3, 2021
Foner homes in on the legal legacy of the Civil War with the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. He details how the amendments were constructed and passed in Congress, and then how they were applied and enforced in real life and interpreted in the courts.

Most importantly, Foner examines how the amendments were also limited and restricted by subsequent Supreme Court rulings through the early 1900s. This includes the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896, which legally allowed segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also suggests ways in which those amendments could be applied to other aspects of life, such as labor law, immigration law, affirmative action, and of course, voting rights. I would argue, as Foner does here, that the 14th Amendment has been the most significant addition to the Constitution since the Bill of Rights, whose Equal Protection Clause has protected the rights of persons whose governments and employers have demonstrated bias because they are different. The Obergerfell decision in 2015 that legalized same sex marriage was won on the basis of that clause.

A great book that enhances our understanding of those 3 critical amendments and their legal legacy today. A fun read as well, one that could be accomplished in an afternoon at 176 pages of very readable and sometimes passionate argument. Well done again, Mr. Foner.
Profile Image for Shane.
325 reviews3 followers
May 17, 2022
"Our people have the satisfaction of putting the American government's back to the wall, forcing it to make plain the depth of the nation's commitment to Jim Crow."

Foner's thesis is that the addition of the Reconstruction Amendments (13, 14, and 15) to the Constitution of the United States constituted what is essentially a second founding of the nation. The original constitution as written in 1787 contained too many fatal concessions to the slave powers, and a reckoning was inevitable.

To Foner, the Civil War and Reconstruction served as a sort of gut check for the United States, and the subsequent amendments were the attempts of the victorious north to extract some meaning out of the war. Foner emphasizes the importance of each of the three amendments but takes particular care to profile the 14th. Casting light on the context surrounding the creation of these amendments displays just how many different voices there were trying to assert their own interpretation of events and meanings.

This is a fine book with a narrow historical focus. Foner makes his case that the changes wrought through the Reconstruction Amendments were as momentous a change for the country as the original document. It reminded me of the line from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address about the Civil War being a test to see whether a nation founded on democratic principles could endure. Foner convinces that the nation's continued endurance is due more to these amendments and their ambitious legislators than to any battle of the war.
Profile Image for David Anderson.
231 reviews42 followers
September 13, 2020
"This book’s thesis is captured in its title: the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—which, respectively, abolished slavery, granted birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law, and established voting rights for black (male) Americans—did not just change the text; they created “a fundamentally new document.” Foner has written more than 20 heralded books on the Civil War. This one traces the roller-coaster history of the core acts of Reconstruction from their passage, through the “long retreat” of the Jim Crow decades, to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, to the Supreme Court’s 2013 rollback of the Voting Rights Act, to the uncertain present. The message is clear: progress is not linear. Rights can be granted, “and they can be taken away”—in this case for an entire century. The book makes constitutional jurisprudence easily accessible to nonlawyers and illuminates the United States’ continuing troubled history of racism. Without shortchanging present-day struggles, Foner’s view of the future is surprisingly hopeful."

Capsule review by Jessica T. Mathews from Foreign Affairs


Highly recommended; 4/5 stars.
Profile Image for Benjamin Smith.
31 reviews
October 28, 2021
Going into this book not knowing much about Reconstruction, it was an impressively concise account of the era in support of a fairly straightforward but powerful idea: the three Reconstruction amendments tried (in a revolutionary way!) to make sure that citizenship meant something for freed slaves. There are some dense bits to get through, but I feel like I learned a lot about the political arguments going on at the time and the pitfalls of imprecise language in the amendments that still echoes in their interpretation today. Would definitely recommend if you’re interested in learning more about this period of American history at all!
Profile Image for Vincent Lombardo.
474 reviews8 followers
April 10, 2022
An excellent book, very lucid and highly informative. Foner recounts how and why the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were adopted, and how the U.S. Supreme Court for decades thereafter so narrowly interpreted the Amendments and the laws passed to enforce them that it rendered both the Amendments and the laws meaningless. Foner, as always, writes clearly and concisely, but there are a lot of facts in this short book, and it is not a quick read.
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