Schoolchildren learn that the Constitution did not solve the slavery question. That required the Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which dramatically altered how we are governed. This engrossing scholarly history recounts how it happened.
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Foner (Emeritus, History/Columbia Univ.; Battle for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History, 2017, etc.) reminds readers that the Emancipation Proclamation freed some slaves, and the 1865 surrender of Confederate armies freed none. Abolition required the 13th Amendment. Abraham Lincoln stayed neutral as the 1864 Congress debated it. He was in a tight presidential race, and supporting black rights was not a vote-getter. Initially, the amendment failed, with most Northern Democrats opposed, warning that it would lead to black voting and interracial marriage. After the election, in which Republicans increased their majority, it passed. Soon, it became apparent that Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, a vehement racist, was encouraging white supremacists to form governments in former Confederate states. In December 1865, Congress refused to admit their representatives and proposed what became the 14th and 15th amendments. The 14th, the longest in the Constitution, was meant to “establish the rights of the freed people and all Americans; create a uniform definition of citizenship; outline a way back into the union for seceded states; limit the political influence of leading Confederates; contribute to the nation-building process catalyzed by the Civil War; and serve as a political platform that would enable the Republican Party to retain its hold on power.” The 15th, which prohibited denying voting rights based on race, was controversial even in the North. No congressional Democrat voted for it, and post-Reconstruction Southern governments had no trouble disenfranchising blacks. Foner emphasizes that these revolutionary amendments were poorly drawn, difficult to enforce, and not widely popular among whites. Nearly a century passed before the protection of due process, individual rights, and racial equality won over the courts and many, if not all, whites.
A convincing but definitely not uplifting account of how Reconstruction drastically changed our Constitution.