Thirty years ago Eric Foner secured his reputation as one of America’s foremost historians with the publication of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. Comprehensive and dense, the book still stands as the best starting point for any inquiry into the period. Amid its maze of details, however, one can easily lose sight of Foner’s argument. Why did he deem Reconstruction a revolution, albeit an unfinished one?

Now Foner, the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia, has written The Second Founding to clarify his answer to this question. His new book focuses on the federal government’s attempt to define, extend, and enforce equal citizenship after the Civil War. It strips down the narrative, incorporates new scholarship, and provides a concise account of what went right and what went wrong during Reconstruction.

The pillars of Foner’s “second founding” are the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which he sees as remedying the defects of the first founding: no definition of citizenship, pervasive inequality in rights, restricted suffrage, pernicious federalism, and slavery. Although the coming of the Civil War showed that the Constitution “had palpably

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