The end of slavery, Douglass argued, would never be secured if the nation's four million ex-slaves were left to the mercies of their Southern white neighbors. State governments would use racially discriminatory legislation to impoverish and immobilize former slaves, and they would never voluntarily permit black men to vote. The antislavery movement must press forward, lobbying the government to do more to protect and empower black Southerners, lest the moment's potential be lost.
The period known as Reconstruction was defined by the questions of race and power that Douglass identified, questions that flowed logically and continuously out of the Civil War. Those questions reverberate in many political debates today—debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.
For all its significance, however, Reconstruction seems more difficult to remember than to forget. The New York Times' innovative and successful Disunion series is ending, echoing predecessors like Ken Burns's epic documentary, The Civil War, which skipped Reconstruction almost entirely.
But that may be starting to change. After commissioning a handbook on Reconstruction that will soon be available in parks, the National Park Service has begun a yearlong study of sites that could be appropriate for memorializing Reconstruction. We will be participating in that study and assessing how the nation might best commemorate this remarkable period.
There is a great deal to look at. Reconstruction was a nearly unprecedented period of transformation. While most slaveholding societies—with the exception of Haiti—refused to enfranchise ex-slave men upon emancipation, the United States extended the vote to black men, and Southern constituencies soon elected black men to Congress, state legislatures, and crucial local offices including sheriffs and assessors.
This political transformation, pressed forward by the lobbying of Douglass and hundreds of thousands of freedpeople and white Republicans, transformed the South in turn. New state governments created public schools and hospitals, and black people and their white allies founded colleges, churches, and benevolent organizations.
Instead of facing exclusion from legal systems, some black Southerners now ran them. Once treated as property, they could now legally own property, and many struggled heroically to do so. Once prohibited from reading, they now built schools and flooded them with teachers and students. Once blocked from the legal protections of marriage, they now registered their unions and claimed the privileges commonly associated with both marriage and parenthood.
And these grassroots transformations also remade the country. New constitutional amendments refashioned American citizenship and promised new rights. After the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment established national citizenship, protected the federal debt from repudiation, and promised individuals equal protection and due process of law. The Fifteenth Amendment attempted to outlaw racial discrimination in the right to vote. Together, these amendments were a second founding of the nation, a remaking of citizenship and rights so broad as to stand with the constitutional convention itself as a signal moment in the making of America.