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

Image of The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution
Release Date: 
September 17, 2019
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“This book will probably not comfort readers troubled by the present moment, but it will provide them with a clear view of a fractious past, and encourage them, in the words of the Civil Rights movement, ‘To keep your eyes on the prize.’”

Constitutional crises are as much a part of American life and the American system of government as the Constitution itself. Case in point: the current crisis that has engulfed Donald Trump, his administration, and the nation.

It’s the most recent example in a long history that goes back to “the first founding” of the republic at the end of the 18th century and the creation of the Bill of Rights, which look good on paper but are often paper thin.

Donald Trump only appears once by name in Professor Eric Foner’s new book and that’s near the very end. In his Epilogue, Foner points out that in the run-up to the 2018 election, Trump stated that when he took office he would issue an executive order that would overturn the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which established “the principle of birthright citizenship.”

Foner adds, “The idea that the president can unilaterally abrogate the plain words of the Constitution is alarming.”

There’s a lot more that’s alarming in The Second Founding, which looks closely at the “Constitutional Revolution” brought about by the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; the 14th, which established the principle of citizenship for all persons born in the U.S.; and the 15th, which prohibited federal and state governments from denying the right to vote because of race.

Foner traces both the revolution and the counter-revolution, which created new forms of economic oppression, denied African Americans the right to vote, and undermined the benefits that came with citizenship. Reaction lasted longer than revolution.

The author and editor of 22 books, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), Foner has a knack for looking at past conflicts through the lens of the present, without allowing the present to distort the past.

“During Reconstruction,” he writes, “the United States made its first attempt, flawed but truly remarkable for its time, to build an egalitarian society on the ashes of slavery.”

Foner adds, “some of the problems of those years haunt American society today—vast inequalities of wealth and power, terrorist violence, aggressive racism.”

The “terrorist violence” he has in mind was expressed by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in Tennessee soon after the end of the Civil War and that spread rapidly across the South.

Less well-known but also of profound importance were the members of the “rifle clubs” who carried out acts of violence, including murder against African Americans and who helped overturn legally elected governments in Alabama in 1874 and Mississippi in 1875 and established the rule of white supremacy.

As Foner points out, southern whites who belonged to the rifle clubs, unlike KKK members, didn’t wear white sheets and hoods but rather were undisguised. Racism didn’t hide.

As he explains in his Preface, Foner has devoted much of his career to the study of Reconstruction, and to writing about it and teaching it.

He adds that, “this part of our history is unfamiliar to many, perhaps most Americans.” The Second Founding reads like Foner’s last valiant attempt to place Reconstruction front and center in the “public consciousness.”

If the book doesn’t succeed, that is not the fault of the author who has told a compelling story with dramatic incidents, colorful historical figures and a sense of compassion.

The history of Reconstruction and its aftermath are so fraught with racism, violence and the ugliness of humanity that Americans are not likely to embrace it.

Or to put it another way, profound changes would have to take place today, including an understanding of racism, before Americans are likely to see clearly the part of our history that began about 1865 and that didn’t end until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that finally ensured Africans Americans the right to vote.

It took blood and sweat and tears to accomplish that goal, along with the intervention of the federal government, which played an essential role in Reconstruction, as the author shows.

In this book, Foner has adopted what one might call a philosophical view of history. “Progress is not necessarily linear or permanent,” he writes. “But neither is regression.” He adds, “Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away.”

Like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, one of the heroes of The Second Founding—who led impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson—Foner seems to have joined “radical convictions” with “political pragmatism” and to have recognized that we all live “among men and not among angels.”

At times, one wishes the author was less tentative than he is, as when he writes that racism was “perhaps” the “most powerful legacy of slavery.” Why the word “perhaps”? And if racism was indeed the most powerful legacy of slavery, what progress if any has the nation made?

One also wishes he had used the words “undocumented” rather than “aliens,” as when he wonders, “should the laws [today] protect the rights of aliens as well as citizens?”

But the section on Baltimore in the 1880s is fascinating as is the discussion of the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in helping to establish and reinforce white supremacy.

Foner might have quoted Frederick Douglass, another hero in this book, who noted famously, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Douglass recognized that the threat to “disenfranchise blacks forever” was never far from the agenda of white racist southerners.

Our own times, Foner writes at the very end of The Second Founding, are “fractious and troubled.”

Sometimes the historian has to turn away from the past and pass judgment on the present.

This book will probably not comfort readers troubled by the present moment, but it will provide them with a clear view of a fractious past, and encourage them, in the words of the Civil Rights movement, “To keep your eyes on the prize.”