Read - Want to Read: The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner (W. W. Norton & Company)

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.

References to this book and Foner’s work Kai Wright and John Biewen‘s shows I’ve heard in the past week. [1] [2]

Listened to S4 E3: The Cotton Empire by John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika from Scene on Radio

In the decades after America’s founding and the establishment of the Constitution, did the nation get better, more just, more democratic? Or did it double down on violent conquest and exploitation?  

Reported, produced, written, and mixed by John Biewen, with series collaborator Chenjerai Kumanyika. The series editor is Loretta Williams. Interviews with Robin Alario, Edward Baptist, Kidada Williams, and Keri Leigh Merritt.

Music by Algiers, John Erik Kaada, Eric Neveux, and Lucas Biewen. Music consulting and production help from Joe Augustine of Narrative Music. 

Photo: Cotton bale, Old Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Photo by John Biewen.

Listened to S4 E2: “The Excess of Democracy” by John Biewen Chenjerai Kumanyika from Scene on Radio

In the summer of 1787, fifty-five men got together in Philadelphia to write a new Constitution for the United States, replacing the new nation’s original blueprint, the Articles of Confederation. But why, exactly? What problems were the framers trying to solve? Was the Constitution designed to advance democracy, or to rein it in?

By producer/host John Biewen with series collaborator Chenjerai Kumanyika. Interviews with Woody Holton, Dan Bullen, and Price Thomas. The series editor is Loretta Williams.

Music by Algiers, John Erik Kaada, Eric Neveux, and Lucas Biewen. Music consulting and production help from Joe Augustine of Narrative Music. 

I’m sure I’d heard of Shays’ Rebellion before too, but couldn’t have given these sorts of specifics. I’m sure the version I learned in US History class was also pretty sugar coated and sparse.

Listened to Corporations Were Always People from On the Media | WNYC Studios

Ten years ago Citizens United declared that corporations are people and that their money is speech. A historian tells us actually, it was ever thus.

No discussion of money and politics is complete without a tip of the hat to Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court ruling of 10 years ago that recognized corporations as people and their money as speech. 

That ruling was followed a few years ago by the Hobby Lobby decision, giving business owners the right to flout federal law based on their religious beliefs. To many Americans, particularly on the left, both rulings were bizarre and ominous expansions of corporate rights. But, if you think this is the novel handiwork of a uniquely conservative Supreme Court, you haven't been paying attention to the past three or four hundred years of court cases and American history.

Adam Winkler, professor of law at UCLA, is the author of We the Corporations: How American Business Won Their Civil Rights. He told us in 2018 that the principle of corporate rights has been litigated forever and predates our very founding. 

To even out the playing field we should definitely prevent corporate interests from dominating the discussion. Certainly they may need some protections in law where it comes to owning property and some of their basic functions, but allowing them outsized influence in governance is not necessary.

This episode has some fantastic historical discussion. It is painfully disappointing to hear corporations taking advantage of the 13th and 14th amendments that African Americans weren’t able to appreciate in the same way at the same time.