Eric Foner, one of the leading historians on the Civil War era, has previously published numerous books on the politics of the era including the definitive contemporary history of Reconstruction. His latest book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, focused on the most enduring legacy of a period that brought so much change to American society but also saw much of that change reversed by the era’s conclusion.
After Reconstruction ended in 1876, slavery was restored in all but name in labor relations throughout the South and Black Southerners lost many of the rights and freedoms promised by Union victory in the Civil War.
What remained were the three amendments added to the Constitution after the war. The 13th abolished slavery, the 14th established birthright citizenship for Black Americans and immigrants alike, and the 15th gave Black men the right to vote.
Those amendments were enforced unevenly even when they were new and were enforced with even less vigor in the decades that followed. And sometimes the amendments were diverted from their original purpose and twisted into directions that the Congressmen who passed them never intended. For example, the 14th Amendment was narrowed by the Supreme Court to offer little protection for the civil rights of Black people but was expanded to offer increasingly wide protection to railroads and other Gilded Age business behemoths on the principle of “corporate personhood.”
Congress and the Supreme Court get more attention in Foner’s book than do presidents. But Grant comes up several times as a supporter of passing and enforcing Reconstruction legislation to protect the lives and rights of Black Southerners.
As the first president elected with the help of Black voters, in his case, those already enfranchised in reconstructed Southern states, Grant was especially enthusiastic about the passage in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment igiving Black men the vote across the nation:
The usually taciturn Grant dispatched a proclamation to Congress jailing the amendment as “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government…the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life.”
Foner also talks about how Congress passed three additional pieces of legislation, known as Enforcement Acts, the third of which allowed Grant to successfully crush the KKK through arresting and successfully prosecuting the group’s leaders between 1871 and 1873.
Grant comes off less well when Foner describes how the Panic of 1873 had undermined Republican support in the North, “the Grant administration seemed paralyzed,” when Black voters asked for protection from ex-Confederate terrorists.
The most important legacy of the amendments was that they remained in the Constitution ready to be reactivated when the civil rights movement started in the 1950s.
Once again, the 14th played a key role, but this time as the basis to challenge state laws mandating segregation in everything from schools to public transportation. Foner thinks that all three amendments, especially the 13th which has been largely forgotten since the end of slavery, could be reactivated even further to advance civil rights and finish the work of making the United States a free and fair nation for people of all races and especially Black Americans.