Researching and Teaching the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments

A new word-searchable collection of original historical documents creates new opportunities for research and for creating a course on the Reconstruction Amendments.


The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents (2 Volumes) presents researchers, students and judges an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the original public understanding of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. For the first time, scholars have a word-searchable collection of speeches, debates and publications relating to the framing and ratification of the three Reconstruction Amendments. In this fourth and final post, I will briefly discuss the new research methodologies made possible by the collection, and describe newly available teaching materials for a semester course on the Reconstruction Amendments.

The two volumes contain more than 400 original historical documents spread across approximately 1,200 oversized pages (matching the Founders' Constitution) with single spaced text. There is a lot of stuff in here.

Some researchers will know immediately where to look: perhaps straight to Susan B. Anthony's "Make the Slave's Case or Own," (Vol. 1, p. 283) or Charles Sumner's effort to broaden the language of the Thirteenth Amendment, (Vol. 1, p. 434), Jacob Howard's Speech Introducing the Fourteenth Amendment to the Senate (Vol. 2, p. 185) or Frederick Douglass's criticism of the Fourteenth Amendment as an "unfortunate blunder." (Vol. 2. p. 293). Others may simply be interested in, say, studying the Fifteenth Amendment framing debates (Vol. 2, pp. 439-536). These kinds of specific interests are easily located in the collection, either by way of the Table of Contents or the indexes.

Those who purchase the e-edition of the volumes have the additional opportunity to conduct word-searches of the documents (as some VC members have discovered and put to good use!). This allows scholars to search a curated collection of Reconstruction-era documents for terms like "privileges or immunities," "Corfield v. Coryell," "appropriate legislation," "the Federalist," "bill of rights," "natural rights" or "women's rights." The results of these searches can be surprising. Researchers will discover, for example, that the Reconstruction debates contain a great many references to "McCulloch v. Maryland," but that the speakers held significantly different understandings of Chief Justice John Marshall's famous opinion.

The documents in both volumes are arranged in chronological order and can be (and aspire to be) read cover to cover. Readers interested in doing so will be rewarded with a deep understanding of antebellum constitutional argument and the grand public constitutional debates of 1864-1870. Each section interconnects with the next. By the end of the collection, readers will realize that the Fifteenth Amendment debates contain significant arguments about the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment debates contain significant arguments about the meaning of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Thirteenth Amendment debates contain significant arguments about the nature of the original Constitution.

Readers lacking a background in antebellum and reconstruction history, however, may find themselves at sea when confronted with such a vast array of historical documents. Absent some knowledge of the historical context in which these debates arose, it may be difficult for readers to appreciate the significance and, occasionally, even the meaning of antebellum and reconstruction constitutional debate. For that reason, both volumes include substantial introductory essays for each section of the collection. These essays explain the nature of the included documents, why they are important, and the historical context in which they appeared.

The essay introducing the drafting of the Thirteenth Amendment, for example, describes the included documents, explains the historical context of the Thirty-Eighth Congress, describes the major arguments for and against passage, notes how the proposed language of the amendment developed over the course of the debates, and provides the historical context, including the importance of President Lincoln's reelection. Similar essays introduce the drafting and ratification of all three reconstruction amendments: The documents are briefly described, placed within their historical context, and the course of events explained so that lay readers may engage the documents with a basic idea of what happened, when it happened, and who participated.

The two volumes, along with their explanatory introductory essays present an opportunity for teachers to create a course on the history of the Reconstruction Amendments. Currently, there few (any?) such courses on the history of the Reconstruction Amendments at American Law Schools—at least prior to the publication of these manuscripts. This last term, Prof. Michael McConnell at Stanford Law School created such a course on Constitutional Reconstruction using the documents in this collection (and has graciously added his comments about doing so to the book's promotional materials—see "review quotes" at this link).

To facilitate the creation of more such courses, I have prepared a set of teaching materials. They are available both at my SSRN webpage, and as a link posted on the University of Chicago Press webpage for the volumes (see "download the instructor's manual"). These teaching materials include a sample syllabus for a fourteen-week course, weekly reading assignments with specific page numbers, explanations for the instructor regarding the nature and context of the assigned materials, and suggested questions for class discussion for each week of the course.

It is my hope, and it was my purpose, to provide a set of documents and teaching materials that would be useful to researchers, teachers, lawyers and judges regardless of their position on originalism, their interpretation of "privileges or immunities," or their stance on the "1619 Project." My goal is to have lowered the barriers to original historical research and teaching about this critical period in our constitutional history.

My thanks to Eugene Volokh and his fellow conspirators for giving me a chance to talk about what I did for my summer vacation … over the last ten years.