February 18, 1865 Harper's Weekly cartoon depicting celebration in the House of Representatives after adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Source: Internet Archive

How Reconstruction Transformed the Constitution

A Feature Conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner

If you turn on the news, you’re likely to find a heated debate about big issues, from citizenship to voting rights. For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, these issues are at the heart of what are often called the “Reconstruction Amendments”: the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. They were passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870, respectively. And if you ask Eric, they’ve been misinterpreted and overlooked for generations. 

On this episode, Ed sits down with Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, to talk about public perceptions of Reconstruction, the landmark amendments to the Constitution and how they have the power to change the country today. Foner’s new book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this podcast, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


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How Reconstruction Transformed the Constitution Lesson Set

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In the years following the Civil War, the United States government faced the difficult challenges of needing to heal the country while providing rights and opportunities to African Americans. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution provided unprecedented rights for African Americans. However, these rights were not always realized because of coordinated efforts in the American south to undermine federal law with state laws and regulations that maintained segregation and disenfranchisement. Though federal law had changed, these “Jim Crow” laws prevented African Americans from achieving true equality. For this reason, many historians have categorized the Reconstruction era as a “failure.”

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, focus on the legacy of the Reconstruction era. The episode provides an interview with historian Eric Foner. He argues that Reconstruction should be thought of as an “unfinished revolution” rather than a historical failure. In fact, he believes that the United States is still grappling with the fallout of the Reconstruction Amendments in today’s political landscape. The goal of this lesson is to provide a critical lens for viewing both the positive and negative elements of Reconstruction.