Introduction And Index To Series On The Second Founding

Index to posts in this series (to be added).

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.

Resistance To Power

Index to posts in this series

Related posts

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link
Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

As we saw in the first post in this series, Foucault’s method is to think about power by considering the forms of resistance to power. He chooses three examples, the power of men over women, the power of parents over children, and the power of psychiatrists over mental illness. He identifies six things these struggles have in common.

  1. They are universal; they’re happening around the world. As an example, New Zealand is going to give 16-year olds the right to vote. Across the globe, the very young are leading the charge for climate action.
  2. The struggles are over power itself. His example is that the medical profession is attacked because of its domination of the bodies of others, not because it is a bunch of money-grubbers empowered by the State to suck up all the money.
  3. These are current struggles against an immediate power demanding an immediate solution. Women refuse to be controlled by any man in their lives. Foucault thinks this struggle is not against some distant enemy male, but that seems wrong to me. Male power is entrenched at all levels of society. He adds that women want action now.
  4. These struggles are about each specific individual. They assert the right to be different, At the same time, they rebel against institutional conditions set by the dominant class, conditions which separate individuals from their chosen communities. They resist the power of the government, and of society acting through the government, to tie individuals to an identity in a constraining way. I think this means, for example, that people are not to be identified solely as mentally ill, or children as dependents, when in both cases they can participate in the broader scope of social interactions.
  5. These struggles are against power generated by knowledge, whether that knowledge is arcane, as in the case of psychiatry, or secret and traditional, as in the case of the patriarchy. “What is questioned is the way in which knowledge circulates and functions, its relations to power.”
  6. In each case, individuals assert their right to determine their own identities, free from the claims of other people, either as individuals or collectively in the form of the government or a profession.

Summarizing, he explains that each of these struggles is against one form of power relation.

This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects.

Foucault describes three poles of these struggles.

  1. Struggles against domination, through ethnicity, social class, or religion.
  2. Struggles against exploitation, which means economic domination.
  3. Struggles against being shoved into niches and forced into being submissive.

Most historic struggles can be seen as combinations of these three strains of resistance. For example, Foucault says that the main focus of current struggles is the pressure of the state forcing certain people into subjectification. An example might be the power claimed by the government to prohibit abortion. The state identifies a pregnant adult or child as less than an autonomous person, and forces them to subject themselves to unwanted or dangerous childbirth.

The problem is that the modern state holds both individualizing and totalizing power. It has the power to tie people to specific identities, and to treat them differently based on those identities. It is everywhere, and its power reaches everywhere, a “totalizing” power, as he calls it. He says this developed out of the pastoral power, and we’ll take this up next.


1. Once again, I note the relation of Foucault’s ideas to those of Pierre Bourdieu and Elizabeth Anderson. Both identify domination as a central issue. Anderson sees it as a violation of human freedom rightly understood. Bourdieu describes the ways people internalize and justify domination. Links above.

2. Foucault is writing in the 1980s, and things have changed. For one thing, rapid communication makes it possible to speed up and broaden the scope of resistance to power, and to organize it more effectively. Thus, young people have used this technology to force the dangers of climate change into public discourse.

3. On first reading, this paper seems highly abstract. I’m trying to add specific examples to make these ideas more concrete, but it’s not easy. As commenters said in the Introduction to this series, Foucault is writing about the last two centuries. But the lessons seem relevant to what we read in The Dawn Of Everything by Graeber and Wengrow.

For example, they talk about rituals of adulthood, the rites by which young men are incorporated into the group through esoteric knowledge such as the powers of totem animals. This gives young men status in the community. Over time this status may have morphed into male domination of women and children through the possession of esoteric knowledge. This process requires women and children to accept the idea that in fact the special knowledge claimed by men is real. Once that happens, it becomes difficult to throw off male domination.

It’s impossible to use Foucault’s method of considering the history of our ancestors as a way of understanding their cultures. We don’t have nearly enough information. But I remain hopeful we can analogize the formation of recent Western cultures to the formation of earlier cultures. That hope is based on the idea that our ancestors were fully human, doing human things, as Graeber and Wengrow think.

4. Republicans oppose all changes to all social structures, Democrats tend to be more supportive. This is a big difference between the parties. I think it’s ane that has deep roots in individual personalities, an issue neither Foucault nor Graeber and Wengrow discuss. I also think it’s really important. It’s not on topic, but here’s a sketch of one explanation.

I think conservatives operate from a fundamentalist view of the world. Fundamentalists think that there is a single truth, and that they know what it is. Thus, fundamentalist Christians believe that the Bible is the sole source of truth. In exactly the same way Sam Alito and several of his SCOTUS colleagues think the Constitution is the sole source of truth about our rights as citizens, and that their Constitutional role includes stating that truth and correcting the errors made by prior versions of SCOTUS. In the political sphere we can describe the fundamentalist view as the idea that there is only one acceptable form of social structure, that that form existed in the past, and it must be recovered.

I think social structures are created by human beings. They should serve human need. As societies change, and as our understanding of the consequences of existing social structures evolves, we should change social structures to match our values. Following Foucault, the first step would be to examine our social structures from an historical perspective: how did we get the social structures we have now?

I think that will be my next step. One important text is Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. One possible book is The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, by Kermit Roosevelt. Here’s an interview of Roosevelt in which he discusses the book.