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

Eric Foner. Norton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-65257-4

In this lucid legal history and political manifesto, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Foner (The Fiery Trial) explores how the “Reconstruction amendments”—the 13th, 14th, and 15th, which abolished slavery, granted birthright citizenship, and acknowledged black men’s political rights—have been interpreted over the past century and a half. Foner begins with Congressional debates immediately after the Civil War about what “freedom” could and should mean in the context of the liberation of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Most relevantly for today, Foner depicts the disagreement among both Democrats and Republicans about who should have, and be allowed to use, the right to vote. He points out that, as recently as 2013, the Supreme Court has failed to use the 15th Amendment to oppose state laws that, while not specifically mentioning ethnicity or race, make it difficult for nonwhite citizens to vote, and has refused to bar discriminatory practices of private citizens, in seeming contradiction to the 14th Amendment. In Foner’s view, the current moment represents a “retreat from racial equality,” but the rights promised in these amendments also remain “viable alternatives.” Readers invested in social equality will find Foner’s guarded optimism about the possibility of judicial activism in this area inspiring, and both casual readers and those well-versed in American legal history will benefit from his clear prose and insightful exploration of constitutional history. [em](Sept.) [/em]