From the Pulitzer Prize–winning scholar, a timely history of the constitutional changes that built equality into the nation’s foundation and how those guarantees have been shaken over time.
The Declaration of Independence announced equality as an American ideal, but it took the Civil War and the subsequent adoption of three constitutional amendments to establish that ideal as American law. The Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed all persons due process and equal protection of the law, and equipped black men with the right to vote. They established the principle of birthright citizenship and guaranteed the privileges and immunities of all citizens. The federal government, not the states, was charged with enforcement, reversing the priority of the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In grafting the principle of equality onto the Constitution, these revolutionary changes marked the second founding of the United States.
Eric Foner’s compact, insightful history traces the arc of these pivotal amendments from their dramatic origins in pre–Civil War mass meetings of African-American “colored citizens” and in Republican party politics to their virtual nullification in the late nineteenth century. A series of momentous decisions by the Supreme Court narrowed the rights guaranteed in the amendments, while the states actively undermined them. The Jim Crow system was the result. Again today there are serious political challenges to birthright citizenship, voting rights, due process, and equal protection of the law. Like all great works of history, this one informs our understanding of the present as well as the past: knowledge and vigilance are always necessary to secure our basic rights.
Our WNYC colleagues fact-check a family legend about "40 acres and a mule," and find a story about the promise and peril of the American Dream at the end of Reconstruction.
Elbert Lester has lived his full 94 years in Quitman County, Mississippi, on land he and his family own. That’s exceptional for black people in this area, and some family members even say the land came to them through “40 acres and a mule.” But that's pretty unlikely, so our WNYC colleague Kai Wright, host of The United States of Anxiety, went on a search for the truth and uncovered a story about an old and fundamental question in American politics, one at the center of the current election: Who are the rightful owners of this country’s staggering wealth?
- John Willis is author of Forgotten Time
- Eric Foner is author of The Second Founding
- The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is located in Montgomery, Alabama. For more information about documented lynchings in Mississippi, and elsewhere, visit the Equal Justice Initiative's interactive report, Lynching in America. You can navigate to each county to learn about documented lynchings there.
A controversial settlement between the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) has been voided. The settlement, approved in November, would have required UNC to hand over the Confederate monument “Silent Sam” to SCV and pay the group $2.5 mill...
John C. Frémont, one of the United States’s leading explorers of the nineteenth century, was relatively unknown in 1842, when he commanded the first of his expeditions to the uncharted West. But in only a few years, he was one of the most acclaimed people of the age – known as a wilderness explorer, bestselling writer, gallant army officer, and latter-day conquistador, who in 1846 began the United States’s takeover of California from Mexico. He was not even 40 years old when Americans began naming mountains and towns after him. He had perfect timing, exploring the West just as it captured the nation’s attention. But the most important factor in his fame may have been the person who made it all possible: his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont.
Jessie, the daughter of a United States senator who was deeply involved in the West, provided her husband with entrée to the highest levels of government and media, and his career reached new heights only a few months after their elopement. During a time when women were allowed to make few choices for themselves, Jessie – who herself aspired to roles in exploration and politics – threw her skill and passion into promoting her husband. She worked to carefully edit and publicize his accounts of his travels, attracted talented young men to his circle, and lashed out at his enemies. She became her husband’s political adviser, as well as a power player in her own right. In 1856, the famous couple strategized as John became the first-ever presidential nominee of the newly established Republican Party.
With rare detail and in consummate style, Steve Inskeep tells the story of a couple whose joint ambitions and talents intertwined with those of the nascent United States itself. Taking advantage of expanding news media, aided by an increasingly literate public, the two linked their names to the three great national movements of the time—westward settlement, women’s rights, and opposition to slavery. Together, John and Jessie Frémont took parts in events that defined the country and gave rise to a new, more global America. Theirs is a surprisingly modern tale of ambition and fame; they lived in a time of social and technological disruption and divisive politics that foreshadowed our own. In Imperfect Union, as Inskeep navigates these deeply transformative years through Jessie and John’s own union, he reveals how the Frémonts’ adventures amount to nothing less than a tour of the early American soul.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is wrong about what caused the Civil War, and wrong to give the benefit of the doubt to the slavers over the slaves.
Two starkly contrasting approaches to remembering troubled histories
A white southern mayor confronts the history in his city.
"There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it," said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in his now-famous speech in May of 2017. As Landrieu said those words, city workers a few blocks away uprooted an enormous statue of Robert E. Lee – the last of four Confederate monuments the mayor removed from the city after a years-long process. In a conversation with The Atlantic's editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Landrieu discusses the politics of race in the south, his grappling with history as a white southerner, and his own family’s connection to the story of civil rights in America.
I love extended interviews on small topics like this one. This does a really good job of taking a look at some of the broader details behind removing Confederate statues in New Orleans.
When it comes to America’s racial sins, past and present, a lot of us see people in one region of the country as guiltier than the rest. Host John Biewen spoke with some white Southern friends about that tendency. Part Six of our ongoing series, Seeing White. With recurring guest, Chenjerai Kumanyika.
Photo: A lynching on Clarkson Street, New York City, during the Draft Riots of 1863. Credit: Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation.
Growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, John Biewen heard next to nothing about the town’s most important historical event. In 1862, Mankato was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history – the hanging of 38 Dakota warriors – following one of the major wars between Plains Indians and settlers. In this documentary, originally produced for This American Life, John goes back to Minnesota to explore what happened, and why Minnesotans didn’t talk about it afterwards.
If you haven’t been listening to this excellent series, I hope you’ll stop what you’re doing right now and listen to them all. I highly recommend it as required listening for everyone–even if you think you know what the message is.
Though this particular episode wasn’t specifically created for this series, it fits in incredibly well. I almost wish that some of the others in the series delved this deeply into some of the history as this one does. It really brings the problem into high relief and puts a more human face on the problems we may not see around us by looking back at a particular incident.