America's Second Founding

In the book of Ezra, the priest records the reconstruction of the temple after the people returned to Jerusalem from exile. While most of the people rejoiced and gave a great shout of praise, “many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house” (Ezra 3:12).

Much like the old leaders in Ezra, who wept at the laying of a new foundation because they were still attached to the establishment that was there before, when it comes to America’s second founding, our own nation’s ongoing reconstruction has often prompted mixed views, with many trying to silence what should’ve been shouts of praise.

Reconstruction — the period following the Civil War — is referred to by scholars as America’s second founding. During this period, Congress sought to secure the civil rights of freed Black people by enshrining them in the 14th Amendment, which acknowledged the equal citizenship of “all persons” including Black and non-white people born in the United States and naturalized immigrants.

However, we rarely celebrate or acknowledge this crucial amendment or the role it played in turning America’s founding principle of equality into federally protected equal rights for all. Watch the video to learn more about America’s second founding.

Transcript

July 4th celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the founding of the United States. Yet, many of the ideas espoused in the declaration (“all men are created equal…” “unalienable Rights…” “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” ) were not made law, nor made accessible to most people in the United States until much later.

The declaration — America’s founding document — called Indigenous people “savages.” Later, the Constitution declared enslaved Africans to be three-fifths human. Our first immigration laws restricted naturalization to “Free White Persons,” and the Supreme Court made decisions that disenfranchised and endangered free Black people.

The founding principle that all people were created equal and endowed with “unalienable rights” was not actually a part of our nation’s laws until the 14th Amendment, the cornerstone of what many call America’s second founding.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

After the Civil War, the Confederate states — which had rebelled and lost — had yet to be readmitted. Despite objections from President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s successor), Congress had conditions for the rebel states before they could return to the Union. Primarily, the states had to first ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 14th Amendment, which acknowledged the equal citizenship of Black and non-white persons born in the states and naturalized immigrants.

With this, Black men and women were finally acknowledged as birthright citizens of the United States, even if they had been born into slavery. Later, first generation Chinese Americans, like Wong Kim Ark whose immigrant parents were ineligible for naturalization, were still American citizens because they were born here. Even white men who didn’t own land and white women were now considered U.S. citizens. With the 14th Amendment, all of the protections and privileges of the Bill of Rights became accessible to everyone – albeit very slowly and unevenly, until federally enforced.

And though the fight for full enfranchisement and enforcement of equal rights continues, the foundation has been laid for us to build a nation with life, liberty, and justice for all.

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