When Steven Spielberg adapted Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” into “Lincoln,” his celebrated 2012 film, he shrewdly compressed the 900-page tome down to one crucial, cinematic episode: the president’s valiant effort to push the 13th Amendment through the U.S. House of Representatives. The film dramatizes Lincoln’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers, numerous and delicate, with success scarcely assured.
Now Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner picks up the thread in “The Second Founding,” a slender yet potent study that illuminates how the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments — which abolished slavery, conferred birthright citizenship and granted voting rights to all men — were hammered into the Constitution, in effect a “second founding” that answered, with force and clarity, fraught questions lingering from the Revolution a century earlier.
Foner hews closely to the progression, with titans such as Frederick Douglass and Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts demanding the franchise for freedmen, and villains — former planters in the vanquished South and Lincoln’s duplicitous successor, Andrew Johnson — undermining the government at each turn, the authority of the executive and legislative branches hanging in the balance.
In key ways the 13th was the easy lift; the conditions for abolition had percolated in the years leading up to the blood-drenched Civil War. When the amendment passed the ratification benchmark in December 1865, with three-fourths of the states on board, a wave of euphoria swept the Union, the scourge of bondage wiped out (although Kentucky refused to ratify until 1976 and a recalcitrant Mississippi held off until 1995).
The 15th sparked a similar catharsis, with elected freedmen in legislatures of the Old Confederacy fueling the drive to equality. As the renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison noted, nothing in history could equal “ ‘this wonderful, quiet, sudden transformation of four millions of human beings from the auction block to the ballot box.’ ”
But it’s the 14th, which established birthright citizenship, that’s been the cornerstone for the laws and politics that still shape us, the prism through which we view ourselves and our government’s responsibilities. “It is remarkable how little the elation greeted the Fourteenth Amendment,” Foner writes. “Unlike the Thirteenth, there was no jubilation when Congress approved it. Unlike the Fifteenth, its ratification did not inspire celebratory parades throughout the country. … Nonetheless, contemporaries recognized it as a far-reaching transformation. … The Fourteenth Amendment would lead many Americans to view the federal government as the ultimate protector of their rights.”
With “The Second Founding,” Foner offers a taut, absorbing companion piece to his magisterial “Reconstruction,” published three decades ago.
The coda to both histories is grim: Reconstruction formally ended in 1877 as part of the deal that resolved the previous year’s controversial presidential election, and the civil rights of African-Americans slipped away. Jim Crow rose to take their place and still haunts us, with the surge in voter suppression and race-based gerrymandering. Our democracy again buckles with structural rifts. Foner strikes a note as clear as a bell: We cannot sustain a third founding.
The Second Founding By: Eric Foner. Publisher: W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $26.95.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.