Conclusion To Series on The Reconstruction Era

Index to posts in this series

This series was motivated by recent scholarship arguing that the Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, gave our nation a new beginning, one centered on equality of citizens. I discussed The Nation That Never Was by Kermit Roosevelt; The Second Founding by Eric Foner, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, I also discussed several Supreme Court cases from that era, The Slaughterhouse Cases, US v. Cruikshank, and The Civil Rights Cases; and several recent SCOTUS cases continuing their foul legacy. Enough. Here are some final thoughts.

1. Once again I’m reminded of the astonishing amount I don’t know. I think my education as a young person was reasonably solid. But I have no memory of any of the history I’ve discussed in this series. As I recall, I was taught that we passed the Reconstruction Amendments after the Civil War, that Johnson was impeached, and that Grant was corrupt. Then we learned about a the civil service laws, a little early labor history, the financial collapses caused by speculators and frauds, and the reforms of the Progressive Era. I didn’t learn about Plessy v. Ferguson until my first mandatory history course in college. It’s worse today, of course.

Much of what I’ve written about here is posted under Left Theory, because I’ve tried to focus on abstract ideas that might provide a framework for thinking about a left version of the future. It’s hard to get worked up about ideas, which suited me as I didn’t want to write rage posts. But there’s nothing abstract about this series.

I was enraged from the beginning by the insistence of the Founding Fathers on enabling a brutal slave system while yammering about Enlightenment Ideals. Thomas Jefferson enslaved his own children with Sally Hemings even as he claimed that all men are created equal. Maybe Roosevelt is right to say Jefferson was talking about the state of nature but the contrast between ideas and practice is grotesque and disgusting. How are we supposed to accommodate it in our veneration of the Founding Fathers?

The Reconstruction Amendments were drafted by men who had waged and survived the Civil War, knew that the slavers started it, and wanted to stamp out slavery as part of the crushing victory they achieved. Voters elected Senators and Representatives who knew that the slavers had never accepted defeat; that they intended to enforce White Supremacy by force and by legalized resistance, the KKK or state legislatures. Between 1865 and 1875 Congress enacted numerous laws to enforce equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race.

The Supreme Court refused to recognize the Reconstruction Amendments or laws passed pursuant to those amendments. They read the Privileges and Immunities Clause out of the 14th Amendment. They narrowed all three amendments, and ignored the part giving Congress the power to legislate to enforce ir known purpose. Congress passed more laws, and the Supreme Court swatted them away. The Court intentionally substituted its policy preferences for those of the elected branches of government.

I’ve never claimed to be an expert in any of the areas I’ve written about here at Emptywheel. I only claim to be willing to engage with the text and to try to give it a fair reading. But this was simply too emotionally charged. Maybe someone else could read this material as if it were an essay by John Locke, but not me. And to think that a vast majority of moraly and intellectually deficient Red State politicians want to walk away from it — no. Just no.

2. Much of the material in the last part of the series revolves around the role of the Supreme Court and its centuries of rejection of majority rule. But that’s not the whole story. If a majority of White voters thought the Freedmen and their own Black neighbors were their equals they could have forced change one way or another. But while many, perhaps most, white people were sympathetic, that didn’t mean they were ready to accept Black people as equals.

This point is illustrated by a scene in Beloved. Long after the end of the Civil War Denver, a Black woman, desperately needs a job. She goes to the home of the Bodwin’s, the people who helped her grandmother and mother afterthey escaped from slavery. She knocks on the front door, and Janey Wagon, the Bodwin’s maid, opens it.

“May I come in?”
“What you want?”
“I’m looking for work. I was thinking they might know of some.”
“You Baby Suggs’ kin, ain’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Come on in. You letting in flies.” She led Denver toward the kitchen, saying, “First thing you have to know is what door to knock on.” P. 297-8.

Even the Bodwin’s, who were aggressively anti-slavery, didn’t let Black people enter at the front door. I’d guess this was the dominant attitude in that era. Citizenship was one thing. But there was little, if any, support for social equality.

One piece of evidence supporting the view that the national consensus was that social equality was impossible can be found in a 1910 editorial in the New York Times, supporting a Jim Crow law requiring separation of Black and White people on railroad cars in interstate commerce. The Times says the case, Chiles v. Chesapeake & Ohio RR, reverses an earlier decision barring such discrimination.

The present decision reveals the influence of the change in public opinion since the reconstruction era: it justifies both the law and compliance with it by the carrier, and permits the rest of the Southern States to amend their “Jim Crow” laws after the example of Kentucky.

The Southern Legislatures, thwarted during the first years following the civil war in their efforts to separate negroes from whites in public conveyances, have gradually passed laws to this effect in every State save Missouri, and the courts have sustained them.

Without public opinion on their side, Black people were left to their own devices, treated as second-class citizens by state and federal governments. Over time the national mood turned into indifference to violent White Supremacist attacks on Black People. This mood was reflected in Supreme Court decisions in cases like Plessy v. Ferguson. That indifference didn’t even begin to change until the 1950s. White Supremacists, closet racists, and pandering politicians continue to fight a rear-guard action with plenty of wins.

That thought takes the edge off the fury and exposes a deeper layer of emotions: sadness that just like the Founding Fathers we do not live up to our professed ideals.

The Fifteenth Amendment

Index to posts in this series

After the 14th Amendment and the Reconstruction Act of 1867 were adopted the Freedmen in the former slave states had the vote. That left all the Black men in the Union and Border States and Tennessee, and that eventually was seen to be untenable. The Democrats, then the right-wing party, made universal Black suffrage an issue in the election of 1868. In The Second Founding, Eric Foner says this campaign “… witnessed some of the most overt appeals to racism in American political history.” P. 97. Grant won, but the popular vote was close, and Democrats made gains across the Union. That gave impetus to passage of an amendment to ensure the vote to all Black men.

Several amendments were introduced. The main choice was whether to support universal suffrage or only for Black men. The Radical Republicans wanted a bill setting national standards for voting, a position consonant with Art. 1 § 4 of the Constitution.

But here the true level of US bigotry revealed itself. Several Union states made it clear they wouldn’t support suffrage for Germans and/or Irish Catholics (and as one of the latter, I’d say we’re pretty harmless). In the West, prejudice against Chinese immigrants was a powerful force, evoking racist comments akin to those directed at Black people. As time expired, we got the Fifteenth Amendment in its most limited form:

1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2 authorizes Congress to make laws enforcing Section 1.

Section 1 is not a positive grant of suffrage to Black people. Instead, it authorizes the states to control suffrage as they see fit as long as they don’t use race as a condition. Thus it authorized Ohio to deny suffrage to German immigrants, and Rhode Island to grant suffrage only to Irish Catholic property owners; and it enabled the states to use non-racial laws to exclude Black men from the polls.

The Republicans worried that Northern states wouldn’t ratify a positive version, granting suffrage to all adult males, let alone a broader version, barring discrimination on the basis of, for example, religion. There was no question of enfranchising women or Native Americans. The final draft of the bill in each house included the right to hold office, but that was eliminated in conference, and the House version of a positive enfranchisement was dropped in favor of the Senate’s negative version.

Foner points out that legislators knew that the negative version could be gamed by the states, but assumed, or perhaps hoped, that the 14th Amendment would make that poisonous to the slave states, because discriminatory requirements would affect White people too. But that turned out to be a false hope, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Supreme Court. Also, it turns out that rich white Southerners weren’t opposed to blocking poor whites from the ballot box, or shielding them from the laws with other techniques.

The first few years after the Civil War saw the creation of a number of White vigilante groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. These groups wreaked terror on Black people across the former Confederacy, murdering and raping, pillaging and burning. The slave states did nothing to stop this hideous violence, and they did nothing for decades, leaving their Black populations to die, leave, or suffer in silence.

In the early 1870s Congress began consideration of laws to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments. Three bills, the Enforcement Acts, gave the federal government the power to punish violence against Black people, using federal courts and marshals. But they were inadequate to force the slave states to protect their Black citizens. Eventually Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was a comprehensive effort to protect Black people from all kinds of private violence intended to deny Black people the rights guaranteed by the Reconstruction Amendments.

In the debates over all these laws, a substantial number of federal legislators called these laws violations of the principles of federalism. As we will see, the Supreme Court agreed, and struck down the new laws. Eventually because of the intransigence of the Court, the 13th Amendment was ignored, the 14th Amendment was gutted, and the 15th Amendment was barely useful.


1. Foner integrates into his text excerpts from the debates in Congress over the Amendments, and from newspaper articles, giving a flavor of the rhetoric and feelings of the speakers and perhaps those of the elites. Here’s a nice example:

“Tell me nothing of a constitution,” declared Joseph H. Rainey, a black congressman from South Carolina whose father, a successful barber, had purchased the family’s freedom in the 1840s, “which fails to shelter beneath its rightful power the people of a country.” By the people who needed protection, Rainey made clear, he meant not only blacks but also white Republicans in the South. If the Constitution, he added, was unable to “afford security to life, liberty, and property,” it should be “set aside.” P. 119. Fn omitted.

The other side was equally direct and eloquent:

In the debate over the Ku Klux Klan Act, Carl Schurz, representing Missouri in the Senate, said that preserving intact the tradition of local self-government was even more important than “the high duty to protect the citizens of the republic in their rights.” Lyman Trumbull complained that the Ku Klux Klan Act would “change the character of the government.” P. 120.

These anecdotes make this book a real pleasure to read. They remind us that our ancestors were thoughtful and forthright, or even bombastic, whether or not we agree with their sentiments today. I do not think the same of the former members of the Supreme Court, whose opinions are very difficult to read, and reek of unwillingness to deal with the Reconstruction Amendments and the facts of the cases they decided.

2. These quotes illustrate the issues around federalism. Both of the books in this series claim that the Reconstruction Amendments changed the nature of the US governing structure, by giving the federal government the power to protect the Constitutionally guaranteed rights of its citizens from private parties and from the states themselves. As we know, this hasn’t exactly worked out in practice. Even today and even in the supposedly less-racist cities and states, police and private citizens violate the civil rights of citizens, use all sorts of tricks to strip the power of minority voters, and treat citizens differently. SCOTUS is fine with that, as we saw in the ridiculous advisory opinion in 303 Creative.

We need a discussion of the purposes of federalism in this country, and we need to discuss publicly what it means to be an American citizen as opposed to a citizen of Mississippi or Minnesota. Why is it that our fundamental rights arise from citizenship in Mississippi or Minnesota, instead of from our national document, the Constitution? I’m pretty sure most uses of federalism are to discriminate against or punish people the benighted legislature doesn’t like.

3. Constitutional amendments and laws don’t change people’s minds. The Civil War didn’t really change any minds. Is it possible that elites, including supreme courts can’t get out of their own privileged pasts?

Introduction And Index To Series On The Second Founding

Posts in this series
The Intent Of The Declaration Of Independence
Problems With The Standard Story Of The Revolutionary War And The Constitution
States Rights
The Better Story
Democracy Is Our Hope For A Better Future
The Thirteenth Amendmeent
The fourteenth Amendment
The Fifteenth Amendment
The Slaughterhouse Cases
Cruikshank, Gun Control, And Bad Rulings
The Major Questions Metadoctrine and The Slaughterhouse Cases
The Supreme Court Has Always Been Terrible

The term “second founding” refers to the fundamental changes made to the US Constitution and in our society by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. I had not heard this term before did some reading for this this post praising Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s questions at oral argument on the recent Alabama redistricting case. Justice Jackson actually knows her history, unlike the Fox News members of SCOTUS, and, well, me.

Shortly after writing that post I heard a podcast featuring Kermit Roosevelt discussing his book, The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story. I read it and was discussing it with a friend who recommended I look into the work of Eric Foner. That led me to his recent book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

In this series I’ll take up these two books. They’re short and very readable, and they complement each other. Foner focuses on the events of the period, while Roosevelt focuses on the legal/theoretical side.

The Nation That Never Was

Roosevelt teaches law at Penn, and yes, he’s the great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt. The premise of his book is that we are telling the wrong story about our constitutional history. The conventional story starts by describing the Declaration Of Independence and the Constitution as our founding documents, incorporating our national values of freedom and equality for all, but hmmm, slavery was bad so we had a Civil War and Reconstruction and cured that problem, but then we found out about racism, and then Martin Luther King solved that problem and now things are great. It’s a story that the right-wing fetishizes.

The rest of us have a more adult view of our history. It doesn’t question starting point of the standard story, the part about the Declaration and the Constitution. But it adds all the horrors of the Jim Crow Era, the abuses of a perverted capitalism against workers of every description, and the horrifying treatment of Native Americans. It’s grim and unsatisfying, but at least it’s more accurate.

Roosevelt thinks we need a story that gives us real heroes, people who give us hope and inspiration for the future. He also thinks we need to look very closely at the founding documents, and the decisions of the First Founders as well as their omissions.

Roosevelt suggests a new story. First we had a system that was OK with the most brutal forms of slavery. Then we fought a war to wipe it out. We won that war at huge cost in blood and treasure. We changed the very nature of our society and we can take pride in that effort and the people who did it. We aren’t perfect. But the Civil Rights Amendments gave us the tools we need to reach for freedom and equality for all, and it’s a task for which we as citizens are all responsible.

Roosevelt discusses reparations, but I’m not going to address that, except to say this. I urge readers to take the time to read this article by Ta’Nehisi Coates. It’s a tough read. I certainly know I have benefited from the current structure of society, almost certainly at the expense of others who have suffered unfairly. I don’t know what to do about that, but it is unjust.

The Second Founding

Foner teaches history at Columbia. I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far there’s a lot of detail about our history I didn’t know or ever think about. Much of that has to do with the sausage-making behind the Civil Rights Amendments, and the arguments made by opponents of those Amendments. I read Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From An American substack every day, in large part because she is attuned to the parallels between the politics of the Civil War Era and those of today. Here’s an example. In the same way, Ibram X. Kendi shows that arguments by racists never die, and Hannah Arendt shows that anti-Semitism is an endemic hate virus. White supremacy and Christian Nationalism seem to be ineradicable.


My current plan is to do a fairly short series. I’ll start with the Roosevelt book. There is a conventional view of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but that story is utterly inadequate. Then I’ll turn to Foner’s book to look at the politics of the Reconstruction Amendments, and the way they were weakened by centrists and subverted by White Supremacists and the Supreme Court.

We’ll see what else pops up.

Taken together, I think these two books give us a good introduction to a different way of thinking about our history, one in which we can take pride, one that gives us heroes we can respect, one that sets our aspirations and hopes for our future and our descendants. The history is suitable for grown-ups, and therefore is probably illegal in Florida and Texas.

We can’t fix the past, but we can do better for the future, just as the Second Founders did. That’s what it means to be a citizen.