​How History Matters for the Future of Voting Rights

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

The University welcomed distinguished reconstruction scholar and author Eric Foner for a lecture Oct. 12, titled “Enfranchising Equality: How History Matters for the Future of Voting Rights.”
Foner, described by Vice-Chancellor John McCardell as one of America’s preeminent scholars of reconstruction—the process of reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War—is Dewitt Professor of History at Columbia University and has published works such as “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877,” “Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction,” and “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” the last of which won the Pulitzer, Bancroft and Lincoln prizes for 2011.
The lecture was schedule to “explore the rich and complicated history of the 15th Amendment by bringing together some of the nation’s leading historians, constitutional scholars, lawyers and judges to reflect on the Amendment’s future in light of its past,” according to the University’s website.
“I have devoted much of my career to studying Reconstruction, but I have to admit that most Americans know very little about it—so many people are so knowledgeable about the Civil War and so few know little about Reconstruction. Having published a 600-page book on the subject, that’s a bit disheartening,” he joked.
Foner continued, saying that many of the key issues being dealt with in contemporary society are what is left from the Reconstruction era, a period of time that served as a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement—sometimes referred to by historians as the Second Reconstruction.
“The Civil War and Reconstruction transformed American society as we know it,” Foner said. “Many of their effects are still with us today, as are controversies as to how the period should be remembered. But perhaps the most tangible legacies of the era of Reconstruction are the three amendments that served as a second founding in the aftermath of the Civil War—the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. So profound are those changes that historians refer to them as a second founding, the creation of a new legal structure for the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. Key issues of our own society today are in some way Reconstruction questions: who is entitled to citizenship? Who should have the right to vote?”
According to some 21st century historians—in the view of William Dunning of Columbia University—Reconstruction was the lowest point in the saga of American democracy.
According to this view, President Lincoln, at the end of the Civil War, wanted to bring the defeated South back into the Union quickly. After Lincoln’s assassination, his efforts were continued by Andrew Johnson, who was soon thwarted by the “villains of the radical Republicans in Congress,” Foner said of the Dunning view. These “villains” were motivated by either vindictive hatred of the South or the desire to fasten the grip of northern capitalism on the South, or the desire to keep the Republican party in power.
Foner said to fully understand how radical the idea of Reconstruction was, a reminder of the status of African Americans during the Civil War era is necessary.
“On the eve of the Civil War, no black person could be a citizen of the United States. Blacks were considered aliens, even if born in the United States. States could make African Americans citizens if they wished, but the federal government didn’t have to recognize state-granted citizenship of blacks,” he said.
Foner added that the two traditions of state-controlled voting and of a “racist recognition of American nationality” would be powerful obstacles for African Americans moving forward.
Foner spoke of the 13th Amendment, of how it was this amendment—not Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—that was responsible for the eradication of slavery.
“The Emancipation Proclamation left in bondage 750,000 slaves in the four border slave states that remained in the Union, and some portions of the Confederacy remained slave states. Emancipation does not mean abolition,” he said. “Inadvertently, the 13th Amendment created a loophole that would later allow for convict labor to be used by farms and businesses even in the present. Sometimes unintended consequences are as important as the original intent.”
Foner also commented that the 14th Amendment was the first time a gender distinction was introduced into the Constitution. It was also responsible for constitutionalizing the principle of birthright citizenship.
Foner spoke of the 14th amendment and its relevance today. In recent decades, the courts have used the 14th amendment to expand the rights of all sorts of groups, most notably the right to marriage for gay men and women.
“The 14th amendment writes the concept of equality into the Constitution for the first time, which is only included in the Constitution saying each state has an equal number of senators,” he said. “The 14th amendment makes the Constitution what it never was before—a vehicle for which individuals and groups who believed they lack equality can take their claims to the federal court. Our definition of liberty expands all the time and today reaches into the most intimate aspects of life.”
By the early 20th century, the 13th Amendment had fallen into disuse, and both the 14th and 15th Amendments were ruled dead letters.
“We Americans sometimes like to think that our history is a straight line of greater and greater, upward and upward, to greater and greater freedom. But as Reconstruction shows, it’s a more complicated and interesting path of ups and downs, of progress and regression, a story about rights that are gained and rights that are taken away to be fought for another day. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote when Reconstruction began, ‘Revolutions may go backward.’ Reconstruction was a revolution, and the fact that it happened at all laid the foundation for another generation a century later to try to bring to fruition the goals of the era, of the concept of a country beyond the tyranny of race.”