The second wade | History News Network

Brook Thomas is the Chancellor’s Emeritus Professor of English and the Center for Law, Society, and Culture, UC Irvine. His specialty is law and literature of the 19th century in the United States. He has published six single-authored books and a casebook on PLESY c. FERGUSON. His book RECONSTRUCTION LITERATURE: NOT BLACK AND WHITE (2017) won the Hugh Holman Award.

An 1870 print by Thomas Kelly optimistically depicted the impact of the newly ratified Fifteenth Amendment.

The original Constitution’s compromise with slavery has increasingly prompted scholars to celebrate the Reconstruction Amendments for producing a “second foundation” which, according to Eric Foner, “created a fundamentally new document” with a guarantee more equal rights. In a chapter of their The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution, Joseph Fishkin and William Forbath call the Republican Reconstruction Party the “carrier of constitutional redemption.” by Noah Feldman The Broken Constitution insists on a “break” between the old Constitution and “the moral Constitution that we know and revere today”. The new amendments “were in turn applied during Reconstruction, betrayed by the rise of Jim Crow segregation, and redeemed by Brown v. School Board, . . . the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965”. With the “redemption” always “incomplete”. these amendments “should be our beacon”.

The image of a new Constitution serving as a beacon betrays how indebted the rhetoric of the second foundation is to John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and the tradition of American exceptionalism. Implicitly or explicitly invoking the authority of the nation’s two most famous speeches – Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” delivered before the Lincoln Memorial – this rhetoric carries with it the warning of Jeremiah to the chosen people not to stray from their sacred mission. But Reconstruction is also a story about white supremacists’ alternative narrative of national redemption and, less noticed, voices from diverse political perspectives anticipating today’s concerns that even an amended Constitution retains provisions disproportionate to a government democratic.

What was particularly disturbing was what a writer for the Atlantic Monthly in 1878 called the “election machinery” “obsolete and absurd.” Figures as diverse as Andrew Johnson and Charles Sumner have called for electing the president by popular vote, but Congress has not approved any of the nine formally proposed amendments to reform or abolish the Electoral College. “Direct election by the people”, the Atlantic the article concedes, “is too vast a change to think of at all.” Instead, after the 1877 joint session of Congress to count voters lasted a month and a day, the author proposed a new voter count law. In 1887, Congress finally passed the flawed and ambiguous law that contributed to the confusion of January 6, 2021. After its passage, political scientist John Burgess attacked the false respect for the Founding Fathers as “chauvinistic piety” and prophetically warned that the country’s outdated system of electing a president “means the accumulation of errors until no kind of revolution can correct it. It means the clogging of the body politic until nothing else that the shedding of blood cannot relieve him.”

The racist Burgess was one of many prominent Northerners, like Harvard President Father Lawrence Lowell, historian Francis Parkman and Mark Twain, who linked the nation’s political woes to mistaken dreams of suffrage. universal. But Henry Cabot Lodge, praised today for sponsoring an 1890 federal election bill, assured Southern whites not to worry about the Fifteenth Amendment. “Nothing in this bill or any other prevents a state from excluding ignorance from suffrage. Massachusetts has an educational test. South Carolina can do the same.

Albion Tourgée, who supported universal suffrage and would become Homer Plessy’s lead attorney, responded directly to Lodge. Considering the Fifteenth Amendment almost “worthless for the purposes for which it was designed”, Tourgée lamented that if the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments “had been drafted with some knowledge of the actual conditions and not with the idea that a speech strain in the belly of a law was a reliable specific for national cramps”, they “could have, at least, been cut off from the humiliation of making people believe that we have enough law if enforced”. Roger A. Pryor, the reactionary New York “Confederate carpetbagger”, countered by defending “The sufficiency of the new amendments”.

George Julian advocated land redistribution for freedmen and, like Tourgée, opposed literacy testing. In 1868 he unsuccessfully proposed an amendment for women’s suffrage. Disheartened by the course of Reconstruction, he became a Democrat and used a journal founded by Lodge to express his fear that the United States was lagging “behind the governments of the Old World in their handling of affairs. People “. A British contributor to Lodge’s diary pointed out that the British now had a more direct say in choosing their chief executive than the Americans.

Foner acknowledges that the compromises leading to the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments left them open to “conflicting constructions”, but urges us to “embrace” this “ambiguity” to create “opportunities”. But the Supreme Court interprets the ambiguities. Interpretations of a Court dominated by Grant and Lincoln appointees caused Tourgée’s nemesis, the racist Thomas Dixon, to hail it as “the last bulwark of American liberties”.

Dixon had his own version of “the second foundation” in which, after the bloody sacrifice of the Civil War, the united nation Lincoln envisioned came into being when the Klan redeemed it from the corruption of Reconstruction. Brought to the screen by DW Griffith, this vision would have been shared by Woodrow Wilson, himself a racist. Indeed, Wilson’s skepticism of reconstruction measures allowed Griffith to quote him, Lincoln and Daniel Webster in the film. But despite popular myth, Wilson almost certainly never praised the film. In fact, his response to Reconstruction was an instructive double-edged sword.

Both Wilson and Griffith described the reconstruction as reminiscent of, in Wilson’s words, “the darkest measures of an oligarchy or a despot”. But Griffith highlighted corrupt and ignorant freedmen usurping America’s unique system of government, while Wilson warned of scapegoating “ignorant elements.” The problem was the secret conduct of congressional business by closed committees. To be sure, Wilson’s attack was partly aimed at rebuilding Congress. But only in part. For him, the United States had systemic problems requiring constitutional change. Significantly, unlike Griffith, he sought alternatives beyond American borders and welcomed open debate in the British parliament while proposing increased cabinet government for the United States.

Although Wilson later abandoned his argument for cabinet government, he replaced it with a proposal for economic reconstruction to complement the political one. His double-edged response to Reconstruction is a reminder that in addition to praising the Second Foundation for fighting the racism shared by Wilson, we must recognize the many undemocratic constitutional provisions left untouched that particularly affect people of color today. As the United States struggles to catch up with nations guaranteeing universal suffrage and peaceful transfers of power, Wilson’s words of 1879 still resonate. Worried about the diminishing confidence “not only in the men by whom our national policy is controlled, but also in the very principles on which our government rests”, Wilson, a staunch supporter of a living Constitution, noted that “defects serious, perhaps radical, in our mode of government” create daily “anxiety about the future of our institutions.

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