America’s Unfinished Second Founding

A century and a half after the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments, public debate still revolves around the rights they guarantee.

Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where the Constitution was signed in 1787 (Charles Hoffman / Flickr)

In the closing months of 1865, the U.S. was at a crossroads. The Civil War was over. President Lincoln was dead. And the nation was beginning to confront a series of vexing questions in the aftermath of the Civil War. How does the U.S. answer the Declaration of Independence’s prophetic call for equality? How does the country define what it means to be a U.S. citizen? How broadly should the right to vote sweep? And what role should the federal government play in protecting the civil rights of all? If these issues sound familiar, it’s because the questions America faced then are still present today.

A century and a half ago, these issues pitted President Andrew Johnson against congressional Republicans. On one side, Johnson was “for a white man’s government” and a swift return to normalcy. The South had to renounce secession and accept the abolition of slavery, but little else. Abolition aside, Johnson would leave Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom”—and the fate of the newly freed slaves—to the Southern states. And for several months in 1865, he did just that, pardoning thousands of Confederate officials and plantation owners, and standing aside while the former rebels seized political control of the South.

On the other side, Representative Thaddeus Stevens and many of his Republican colleagues in Congress were committed to leading a second American Revolution. As Stevens explained in a speech before the House in April 1866, “Our fathers had been compelled to postpone the principles of their great Declaration and wait for their full establishment until a more propitious time. That time ought to be present now.”

While Stevens didn’t achieve everything that he wanted, he and his colleagues fought off Johnson and, in turn, redefined the meaning of freedom and equality in America. Along the way, they passed landmark statutes like the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (America’s first major civil-rights bill) and, more importantly, secured a series of transformational amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—which many scholars describe as the country’s “Second Founding.”

Recall where the Constitution stood 150 years ago today—before this Second Founding. It didn’t mention the word “slavery.” And, worse, various provisions—including the Three-Fifths Clause and the Fugitive Slave Clause—had increased the political power of the slave states throughout the pre-Civil War period. The Constitution was silent on the Declaration’s promise of equality and on the issue of African American voting rights. States could violate key Bill of Rights protections like free speech with impunity—and many Southern states did throughout the pre-Civil War period, banning abolitionist speech, with at least one state punishing such advocacy with death. And citizenship rights were left to the states and the courts—with Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney infamously concluding in Dred Scott that African Americans could not be citizens and that they had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

While the American people rightly revere George Washington, James Madison, and their fellow Framers, it took the heroic efforts of Lincoln, Stevens, Frederick Douglass, John Bingham (the framer of the Fourteenth Amendment), and many others to create the “more perfect Union” built on winning a bloody Civil War and ratifying a series of amendments that ended slavery, protected fundamental rights from state abuses, guaranteed equality for all, and expanded the right to vote. While the 1787 Framers succeeded in creating the most durable form of government in history, it’s only after the Second Founding that the Constitution fully protected the liberty and equality promised in the Declaration of Independence.

But the Second Founding remains, to borrow a phrase from historian Eric Foner, an “unfinished revolution.” This was true in the Second Founders’ own time. Political compromise, the Supreme Court, and Jim Crow later silenced the promises of the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. It took the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil-rights movement to begin to redeem it, through landmark civil-rights laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act as well as the enforcement of these laws and other constitutional guarantees by the president and federal courts.

In light of the Second Founding turning 150, the time is ripe for a national conversation about its enduring meaning and continuing importance. Of course, few Americans have likely thought about this period (or its leaders) since their high school history classes—and, even then, they are as likely to remember Reconstruction as a period of Northern vengeance and national disappointment as they are a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education, King, and the achievements of the civil-rights movement.

We are seeking to spark a conversation that helps to restore the Second Founding to its rightful place at the center of public discourse—and explore its story, its legacy, and its relevance to many of today’s most significant issues, including race, immigration, and voting rights. In part, we aim to emulate the celebration of the U.S. Constitution when it turned 200 in 1987.

Then, Congress passed a law establishing a commission charged with commemorating the Constitution. Chief Justice Warren Burger resigned from the Supreme Court to head this commission, which worked with the Reagan Administration, political leaders, civic organizations, leading scholars, and communities across the nation to ensure a fitting tribute to the Framers’ remarkable achievement. During the bicentennial year, students competed in essay contests, read newly published books on the Founding, and six million citizens signed copies of the Constitution, reaffirming their allegiance to our nation’s charter. On Constitution Day 1987, at the pinnacle of the celebration, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech at Independence Hall, bookended by a nationally televised parade in the morning and a nationally televised entertainment gala in the evening. The following year, Reagan signed the Constitution Heritage Act, establishing the National Constitution Center as a private nonprofit on Independence Mall in Philadelphia with an inspiring mission: “to disseminate information about the U.S. Constitution on a non-partisan basis.”

Over the next five years, the National Constitution Center and Constitutional Accountability Center will work together on the Second Founding Initiative, with an advisory board chaired by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  The bi-partisan initiative is committed to bringing together scholars, thought leaders, and citizens from diverse philosophical and legal perspectives to commemorate and debate the meaning of the Second Founding, the original understanding of the Reconstruction Amendments, and their contemporary significance.

We hope to educate students of all ages, and to inspire them to learn more about our constitutional history. The more we understand the constitutional history of the Reconstruction era, the better equipped we will be to confront the constitutional questions of our present and future.