Second Founders

At a time when this ideology that calls itself “constitutional conservatism” demands that we all confine our imaginations of how American government should function to the Founders’ intentions (with a little retroactive Christian Nationalism minus the entrenchment of slavery), it’s important to remember that in response to the trauma of the Civil War, there was a “second founding” encompassed by the Civil War amendments and the effort towards Reconstruction that really must be understood as well.

With perfect timing, Jeffery Rosen of the National Constitutional Center and Tom Donnelly of the Constitutional Accountability Center are announcing a Second Founding Initiative that will undertake a five-year discussion to commemorate the 150th anniversaries of the key moments of those crucial years.

While the American people rightly revere George Washington, James Madison, and their fellow Framers, it took the heroic efforts of Lincoln, Stevens, Frederick Douglass, John Bingham (the framer of the Fourteenth Amendment), and many others to create the “more perfect Union” built on winning a bloody Civil War and ratifying a series of amendments that ended slavery, protected fundamental rights from state abuses, guaranteed equality for all, and expanded the right to vote. While the 1787 Framers succeeded in creating the most durable form of government in history, it’s only after the Second Founding that the Constitution fully protected the liberty and equality promised in the Declaration of Independence….

In light of the Second Founding turning 150, the time is ripe for a national conversation about its enduring meaning and continuing importance. Of course, few Americans have likely thought about this period (or its leaders) since their high school history classes—and, even then, they are as likely to remember Reconstruction as a period of Northern vengeance and national disappointment as they are a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education, King, and the achievements of the civil-rights movement….

Over the next five years, the National Constitution Center and Constitutional Accountability Center will work together on the Second Founding Initiative, with an advisory board chaired by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The bi-partisan initiative is committed to bringing together scholars, thought leaders, and citizens from diverse philosophical and legal perspectives to commemorate and debate the meaning of the Second Founding, the original understanding of the Reconstruction Amendments, and their contemporary significance.

This couldn’t come a moment too soon. Many of us were shocked and delighted when a conservative presidential candidate offered a shout-out to the Fourteenth Amendment as an important Republican accomplishment back in July. But Rick Perry has since dropped out of the race, and the constitutional conservatives who have a tendency to wish away all the unpleasantness of the 1860s (except, of course, when they are looking for an alleged precedent for the movement to recriminalize abortion) are again riding high. Remembering the Second Founders and their determination to keep America from perpetually being a stunted and internally riven eighteenth century agrarian slave-owning oligarchy is an urgent educational–and political–undertaking.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.