The Civil War and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution that were ratified in its wake created a new America as imaginative and fraught with controversy as the country founded after the Revolutionary War. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to describe this period as America’s “Second Founding.” But neither the enduring power of the Second Founding nor its limitations can be fully understood without an examination of the Third Founding—the civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century.
The extraordinary courage, vision, and commitment of civil-rights lawyers and activists in the period between 1954 and 1968 rooted an America as new and bold as the one forged from the battles of the 18th-century Revolutionary War and 19th-century Civil War. But that the battles of the civil-rights movement continued nearly 100 years after the passage of the Civil War amendments demonstrates the limitations of the rights articulated in the Reconstruction amendments, which proved to be the least self-executing of all of the Constitution’s rights-expanding amendments.
This was not lost on the framers of the Reconstruction amendments. They understood from the outset that the rights of suffrage, equal protection, due process, and freedom from slavery would need to be protected from the actions of the state and enforced by the federal government. This is, in no small measure, the essence of the Second Founding—a fundamental reordering of the relationship between the states and federal government. “States’ rights” were to be tempered and cabined where they undermined black citizenship. The powerful enforcement clauses and unequivocal “no state shall” language of the Reconstruction Amendments is the textual evidence of the framers and the clear intention to recalibrate state power in relationship to blacks.