Eric Foner, Author of The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

Published on25 OCT 2019
Making Progress Towards Racial Equity

Eric Foner discusses how passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments reshaped American democracy and how the Reconstruction era continues to influence the modern debate around fundamental rights and their constitutional interpretation. 

On how the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments reshaped American democracy: “These three amendments are not just small changes in an existing structure, but they make the Constitution something different – really fundamentally different than it was in the pre-Civil War period. First of all, abolishing slavery. The original Constitution protected slavery in significant ways, while these three amendments create a real definition of American citizenship for the first time, and put this idea of equality among all Americans, regardless of race, into the Constitution.” 

On the historical impact of Reconstruction: “Reconstruction is a very good example of why historical interpretation changes, but why it's also important. For a long time in the 20th century… the general view of this period after the Civil War was that it was a big mistake…. Reconstruction was sort of a defense of this view of the Jim Crow system. Now, when the civil rights revolution took place, this whole edifice fell to the ground because the racism was just no longer acceptable. And today I think most scholars view that period as a sort of courageous effort to create a genuine interracial democracy in this country for the first time. And that reflects, the post-reconstruction sensibility in this country. So, historical interpretation is written with at least one eye on the present. That's why it always changes, because the present changes and the things we desire and need from history change.”  

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