This book’s thesis is captured in its title: the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—which, respectively, abolished slavery, granted birthright citizenship and equal protection under the law, and established voting rights for black (male) Americans—did not just change the text; they created “a fundamentally new document.” Foner has written more than 20 heralded books on the Civil War. This one traces the roller-coaster history of the core acts of Reconstruction from their passage, through the “long retreat” of the Jim Crow decades, to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, to the Supreme Court’s 2013 rollback of the Voting Rights Act, to the uncertain present. The message is clear: progress is not linear. Rights can be granted, “and they can be taken away”—in this case for an entire century. The book makes constitutional jurisprudence easily accessible to nonlawyers and illuminates the United States’ continuing troubled history of racism. Without shortchanging present-day struggles, Foner’s view of the future is surprisingly hopeful.
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