- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; 1st edition (September 4, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805086633
- ASIN: B003D3OGYW
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.9 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 9 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,686,637 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
In December 1865, the 39th Congress had urgent business, says Epps in this passionate account of Reconstruction politics. If the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union, ex-slaves would swell those states' congressional power, but without congressional protection, the freedmen would never be allowed to vote, and the Southern white elite would have disproportionate influence in the federal government. Epps follows every twist of Congress's response to this problem, and his energetic prose transforms potentially tedious congressional debates into riveting reading. He illuminates the fine points, such as the distinction in the 19th century between civil rights—relating to property and employment, which many thought blacks should have—and political rights, which some thought only educated men of wealth should have. Congressmen were not the only people energized by the conundrums of electoral representation. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton petitioned for women's suffrage on the same grounds as blacks. While Congress hammered out the 14th and 15th Amendments, white Southerners were putting in place the Jim Crow codes that would subvert those amendments until the 1960s. As constitutional scholar and novelist Epps (The Shad Treatment) notes in a rousing afterword, there are many corners in which they are not fully realized today. 7 pages of b&w illus. (Sept. 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Most people imagine that democracy in America was something that came with the Revolutionary War. In reality, the founding fathers were deeply suspicious of the common people to make decisions regarding their political future. It would be a stretch to imagine that they foresaw the attack ad ridden political culture of today, but there is some merit in this thought. In the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, a mere 2% of the voters of the state of New York were permitted to vote. In 1828, only 7% of the population took part in the election of Andrew Jackson. Popular voting for president occurred in South Carolina only after the Civil War. Changes came about only as migration to west made some of the property requirements irrelevant, but up until Reconstruction, White Male America might enjoy political rights (the franchise) and civil rights (the right to marry, make contracts) although not everyone had those rights (and would not until the repeal of the poll tax in the 1960s! African Americans were prevented from registering to vote until the mid-1960s, and there are still election year purges of the voting rolls in doubtful states in election years) .
The status of slaves evolved rapidly from 1858-1865, when Dred Scott asserted that slaves were not citizens, but chattel and enjoyed no more rights than cattle to the idea that newly freed Africans Americans would have both political and civil rights. Like numerous controversies that would follow and would grow out of the 14 Amendment, the idea of black enfranchisement was no more popular with the majority of the population than gay marriage is today in some circles. The notion that former slaves might exercise the franchise was an abomination in many circles North and South. As usual, it took the work of a band of elites to insert into the constitution the notion that all people were equal in their relationship to the state, not a platitude, but a real controversial issue of the day.
It took men like Thaddeus Stevens, whose views of racial equality have largely become accepted at least in most quarters was regarded as a radical by the standards of his day. To understand just how out of step Stevens was with the attitudes of his day and up until the end of WWII, one need only look at his subsequent portrayals. Stevens inherently reasonable and farsighted position led to him being caricatured by subsequent historians and even D.W. in his racist epic, Birth of a Nation.
The villain of the book is the 17th president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, the alcoholic racist president, determined in the name of equality to keep former slaves in a new form of bondage. The author thinks it was a pity he was not impeached and I am inclined to agree with them. It would have been different for the people who would spin the history of Reconstruction in later generations to make Johnson into a hero had he been removed from office. The political ineptitude of Johnson should be celebrated, even if his ideas of making the United States a country fit only for white people are repugnant to all right thinking people. Had he not proven to be such a failure as a political leader the 14th Amendment would never have been passed. He solidified the ranks of the Republican Party better than any leader could have done and pushed them to greater progressive thought than would have been possible had he compromised. A lesson is here for politicians of both parties.
Getting the 14th Amendment passed involved a variety of political shenanigans by the radicals. Elections were declared invalid, southern representatives, who had opposed the United States only a year before, were not seated in congress and rebellious states were not allowed to be readmitted. Garratt Epps demonstrates the various parries and thrusts by Stevens and his allies, all to put forth the idea that all men were created equal and make it more than a slogan, but a genuine rebirth of freedom.
The authors of the 14th Amendment were flawed in the sense that they did not go far enough. Women were excluded and this served to drive a wedge between the two camps of the former abolitionist movement. Those who sought an equal roll just for the former slaves became divorced from their female emancipation allies.
Once the 14th Amendment was passed and even before people were horrified at the idea that people would be regarded as equal under the law and steps were taken to undermine its impact. As the memories of the Civil War retreated, people wanted to forget, they wanted sectional unity more than they wanted freedom. It really took the end of another war, WWII and a gradual discrediting of racist views for the Amendment to assume a larger role. Yep, this is what all those "liberal judges" cite when new freedoms are found in court cases and this is the amendment that gives all those people who are outraged by these decisions promoting equality under the law fits. May it long continue to do so.
However I graded it at 4 stars because I found it somewhat disjointed. I really wanted a book that focused on the crafting of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendment and while I recognize topics should be placed in context and also readily acknowledge that he does a great job of finding interesting things to present in that context, the narrative jumped back and forth across the years to an extent that disrupted my ability to follow the narrative I was looking for. Walt Whitman appears from time to time. Realistically, he has nothing to do with the narrative. By the second half of the book, the author should not be jumping back in time to the role of African American soldiers in the war. The second half of the book also introduces biographical sketches of Frederick Douglass and Robert Owen, the latter of which harks all the way back to his childhood in 1800 Scotland, and branches off into a sketch of a woman named Fanny who leaves America in the 1840s and has absolutely nothing to do with the postwar events but was apparently unusually sexy for the time. This kind of context was enjoyable early on but, as one nears the end of the book and is still looking for the narrative thread, I for one would have preferred some tighter editing and focus.
Also the book covered too familiar ground when it left the postwar era. For just one example, this reader does not need to have it proven over several pages that the Emancipation Proclamation did not spring solely from a sudden recognition of the moral injustice of slavery.
Also, I felt the prose tends to become hyperbolic and overstated at times. That is part of its vividness and others may find it enhances the reading. That tends to grate on me but it is just a matter of taste. Bottom line is, it is pretty good popular, nonacademic history reading.