To a historian, the beginning of the Senate’s impeachment trial of Donald Trump seems to be an appropriate time to consider our nation’s history. Trump has been impeached for his actions to involve a foreign country in undermining the 2020 election and — by extension — undercutting the right of U.S. citizens to choose their own leaders.
We will certainly hear a great deal of fake history — both of the recent and founding fathers variety — this week. For the real deal, I turn instead to one of our country’s most prominent historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scholar Eric Foner.
The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution is Foner’s most recent book, bringing together a lifetime of scholarship around this most contentious era in our nation’s history. And in spite of its look at a period some 150 years in the past, this is work with great resonance for this day, this political climate, and the major questions of how we will advance as a nation.
As Foner states in his preface, “Key issues confronting American society today are in some ways Reconstruction questions.” When we are faced with an impeachment trial that may not call any witnesses or ask for any documents, we are far removed from the country that professes to be democratic and subject to the rule of law. Foner suggests that, “most historians see Reconstruction, as W.E.B. Du Bois argued three-quarters of a century ago, as a key moment in the history of democracy and its overthrow as a setback for the democratic principle in the United States and throughout the world” (emphasis added).
Anyone who looks at our history through rose colored glasses clearly has not read Foner’s “direct and vivid prose,” as described by one reviewer. Foner writes “without a trace of specialized language, which anyone with a passing interest in the subject can read, learn from, and enjoy.” As someone whose father and uncle were victims of an early form of McCarthyism, due to their writings on African American and labor history and sympathies with communism, Foner knows first hand how so many of our advances as a nation have been half-steps and partial victories, pulled back by conservative interests.
The Second Founding is a slim volume that looks at the three Reconstruction-era amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the 13th, 14th, and 15th—which abolished slavery, guaranteed all persons due process and equal protection of the law, and equipped black men with the right to vote. Foner’s work highlights the radicalism of these amendments and how, as Georgetown professor Michael Kazin writes in a review in The Nation,
“…over the past 150 years, clever and powerful conservatives have diligently sought to undermine their egalitarian promise. As Foner reminds us, the ‘key elements of the second founding, including birthright citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and the right to vote, remain highly contested…. Rights can be gained, and rights can be taken away.’”
The battles today on the floor of the U.S. Senate, in the Supreme Court, and in state capitols across the land, remind us that while we’ve come a long way towards “fulfilling the agenda of Reconstruction,” deep inequalities remain. Foner’s work in The Second Founding points directly to Supreme Court decisions as undermining the Reconstruction amendments and the push for equality in fundamental ways, often requiring very creative reading of the historical texts.
His point is not “that the counterinterpretation” to these Supreme Court rulings is the one and only true meaning of what Congress intended when the amendments were passed in the late 1860s, but that “viable alternatives exist to actual Supreme Court jurisprudence, alternatives rooted in the historical record which would infuse the amendments with greater power.”
It will require a change in the political environment to bring forward the true meaning of those amendments. Perhaps a show trial in one of the most consequential acts a Congress is ever asked to address, is what it will take to drive such a change.
More to come…