The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents, a Follow-up to The Founders' Constitution

This unprecedented collection presents the original historical documents relating to the framing and ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.


University of Chicago Press has just published "The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents," a two-volume collection of original historical documents relating to the framing, ratification and public understanding of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the American Constitution. Prior to this publication no such collection existed. In this and three additional posts, I will explain the theory behind the collection, the nature of the included documents, and how scholars can use the collection to teach a basic course on the Reconstruction Amendments. My thanks to Eugene Volokh and the folks here at the VC for giving me this opportunity.

Ten years in the making, the completed volumes contain over four hundred original historical documents which collectively tell the story of America's struggle to define and redefine the meaning of American freedom, national citizenship, constitutional federalism and the basic rights of all persons. Beginning with the antebellum public debates over slavery and the original Constitution, and ending with ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, the two volumes open a window on the grand national debates which attended the second most important period of constitutional debate in American history. A great deal of this material, particularly documents relating to the ratification of the three amendments, has never before been published (or, in many cases, even identified).

The collection focuses on the public debates which drove and accompanied constitutional reconstruction. The extraordinary constitutional conversation that prompted the adoption of the three Reconstruction Amendments included the voices of presidents, governors, military officers, radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, constitutional abolitionists like Lysander Spooner and Joel Tiffany, black civil rights activists like David Walker and Frederick Douglass, women's rights activists like Francis Watkins Harper, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pragmatist Republicans and obstructionist Democrats, the participants in freedmen's conventions and the equal rights conventions, southern newspaper editors and northern political scientists, as well as politicians like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, James F. Wilson, James Ashley, John A. Bingham, Lyman Trumbull, Jacob Howard, and George S. Boutwell.

Volume One begins with the antebellum debates that set the stage for constitutional reconstruction. This includes antebellum debates over the nature of federalism, the role of slavery in the original Constitution, the meaning of citizenship, and the scope of national liberty. The second half of Volume One presents the legislative and public debates attending the framing and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. In my second post, I will describe some of the key documents in Volume One, including the first Thirteenth Amendment which would have constitutionally entrenched chattel slavery, and the extraordinary decision of the state of Wisconsin to nullify the federal Fugitive Slave Clause and invoke Madisonian federalism in support of anti-slavery state policy.

Volume Two presents the legislative and public debates over the framing and ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. These documents include not only the congressional debates (now word-searchable), but also the heretofore unavailable (or unknown) state ratification debates. Finally, I also have prepared a Teacher's Manual with a model syllabus and teaching notes for a fourteen-week course on the Reconstruction Amendments.

In my next post, I will discuss the theory and content of Volume One, The Antebellum Constitution and the Thirteenth Amendment. This will be followed by a post on Volume Two, and then a final word on the collection and the available teaching materials.

For now, I close with a word about the title, "Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents." In some cases, "essential" refers to the importance of the included documents themselves, such as the documents presenting the drafting debates of the Thirty-Ninth Congress.

In other cases, however, "essential" refers not to a particular document but to the essential importance of the issue discussed within that document. For example, for each amendment, I have included newspaper coverage of the framing and ratification efforts. These newspaper articles are meant to illustrate how closely the public was able to follow the framing debates, assess the arguments in favor of ratification, and consider the implications of failure or success. This contemporary public awareness is itself an "essential" aspect of constitutional reconstruction.