Eric Foner on Reconstruction’s Continued Relevance

Eric Foner on Reconstruction’s Continued Relevance

Mississippi Ku-Klux Klan
Mississippi Ku-Klux in the disguises in which they were captured. Harper’s Weekly, January 27, 1872.

Last week, Eric Foner addressed an audience at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to discuss why Reconstruction matters. This was a timely moment, with the anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment earlier in the week and historians wondering if there was to be any events marking the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction. Foner’s public discussion kicked off what will be a series of events sponsored by the National Constitution Center and the Constitutional Accountability Center examining what they’ve termed the “Second Founding.” Hopefully other institutions will follow suit.

Foner cleared up many misconceptions about Reconstruction’s development and demise. Foner reminded the audience that Reconstruction represented a fundamental shift in thinking about the relationship of the federal government to the people. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, for instance, restrained the power of the states and asserted Congress’s authority to enforce the amendments’ mandates. While in the first ninety(ish) years the Constitution and its amendments had limited the power of the federal government and illustrated Americans’ belief that too much centralized power threatened liberty, after the Civil War Congress set about protecting individual liberty from potentially oppressive state power.

Foner also noted that Reconstruction was a process of redefining what it meant to be an American citizen. For the first time, the federal government created a national standard for civil liberties and sought to ensure those liberties were protected and even nurtured through federally sponsored programs. Likening the Freedman’s Bureau to a New Deal agency without a precedent to follow, Foner explained that reconstructing the nation meant reimagining what the federal government was capable of. As Congress put the broken country back together, lawmakers also created something new of the United States.

These events and the decisions lawmakers made at the time resonate well beyond the nineteenth century. To underscore the point, Foner invoked a number of contemporary problems whose origins date to Reconstruction–homegrown terrorist organizations like the KKK and White Leagues, for instance. Foner’s comments and the dialogue that resulted sets a wonderful standard for new discussions of the continued importance of remembering and thinking about Reconstruction–perhaps allowing the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction to set precedent once again by moving discussions of citizenship, liberty, and race forward rather than leaving them mired in the past.

Rebecca Capobianco

Rebecca Capobianco earned her M.A. in History at Villanova University in 2013.

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