Only a fortunate country gets a second chance and a second start.
Our first start was dramatic and inspiring: A Declaration of Independence that promised equality and liberty. A Constitution setting out exquisitely balanced institutions. An inaugural president who not once but twice retired from the field of battle, once the military battlefield, the next the political one.
But even that wasn’t enough to redeem the remarkable potential of the new republic in the New World. The big promises were empty while tens of thousands were enslaved (and that is without considering the near-destruction of the native peoples who inhabited this fertile continent). And so, as Lincoln would put it, a great Civil War came. After the bloodletting and the destruction there came what the distinguished historian Eric Foner considers as a new beginning — again, channeling Lincoln, a new burst of freedom.
Foner, who has taught us more about Reconstruction than perhaps any other scholar or commentator, begins his latest book by stipulating that the Civil War and the period that followed “form the pivotal era of American history” and that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — the first in six decades — “forged a new constitutional relationship between individual Americans and the national state.” They were, moreover, crucial in “creating the world’s first biracial democracy, in which people only a few years removed from slavery exercised significant political power.”
Together these three constitutional amendments form the “Second Founding” that is both title and theme of this brisk but far-reaching book.
Foner argues that the principal issues of our own troubled time pose the same conundrums that were the main areas of Reconstruction contention: searing questions of citizenship, voting rights, the rights of immigrants, the application of “equal protection of the law” and that hardy perennial, the struggle of power between states and Washington.
So consequential were those three Reconstruction-era amendments that in the ferment of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s no new constitutional amendments were required. ‘’The movement did not need a new Constitution,’’ Foner argues, “it needed the existing one enforced.”
These new amendments expanded the national definition of citizenship, altered (at least in principle) the relations between the races, and made the notions of freedom, enfranchisement and, by extension, opportunity, indisputable and indispensable elements of the national creed. Almost all of American history that followed, with the exception of the fights about taxes and tariffs, were about these themes.
It did take a Civil War, and then a Civil Rights movement, to redeem those promises, which remain unfulfilled in our time, when we see decades of progress eroding like the Arctic icecap. But Foner makes this clear: Though Thomas Paine regarded the Constitution as America’s “political bible,”until this Second Founding the Constitution was an instrument of oppression — “a covenant of death and an agreement with Hell,” in the characterization of the New England abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
Throughout these pages Foner demonstrates how the phrase “equal protection,” adopted from abolitionist tracts, became the fundamental locution of the 14th Amendment and, indeed, of all of American jurisprudence. Before that, the language of the Constitution was so circumscribed that abolitionists and black leaders leaned not on it but instead on the Declaration of Independence.
Foner points out that the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, which employed language derived from the Northwest Ordinance, was the first constitutional amendment that expanded rather than restricted the power of the federal government. But because the amendment freed blacks but didn’t address the status of women — a major element of the period’s ferment about the nature of freedom — there was no reordering of the structure of the family, where men ruled, nor of the broader society, where men also ruled.
In this period, one amendment led to another because, as Frederick Douglass said, “a mightier work than the abolition of slavery now looms up.” That work was largely encapsulated in the expansion of the basis of American citizenship: the principle that anyone born in this country, of any racial identity, was a citizen of this country —a notion under siege right now, but one that Foner describes as “a dramatic repudiation of the powerful tradition of equating citizenship with whiteness.” The result, he argues, is “a powerful force for assimilation of the children of immigrants, and a repudiation of a long history of racism.”
With one amendment, America was transformed, and the horizons of Americans were widened.
All of which leads to the mischievous suggestion that maybe copies of this book should be spread around the capital, because the battles of contemporary Washington are but a second act to the struggles prompted by Foner’s Second Founding. Much of the rest of the 19th century was consumed with court and Capitol battles over the application of these three amendments, with the Supreme Court wringing the power out of them, often by returning prerogatives to the states and diluting the role of Washington.
Even so, Foner argues, the three amendments of the Second Founding stand as expressions of American values, symbols of American idealism and distillations of ultimate American goals. “The battle for equality is still pending,” Boston’s Senator Charles Sumner said more than a century and a half ago. But the Second Founding makes it possible — perhaps makes it inevitable — that the battle can be won.
By Eric Foner
WW Norton, 288 pp. $26.95
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.