The Supreme Court and the History of Reconstruction


The article “The Supreme Court and the History of Reconstruction – and Vice-Versa” is written by an American historian, Eric Foner, in 2012. It focuses on the connection between the views of historians on Reconstruction and Supreme Court jurisprudence. The author believes that people who investigated this era in the early 20th century had biased ideas. They considered all interventions targeted at making people of different races equal to be a mistake, which is commonly rejected by modern historians. As a result, the article tends to prove that the disavowal of faulty perceptions of Reconstruction would have a positive effect on the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

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As slavery was abolished and America entered the period of Reconstruction, people started considering how their new world should look like and what place in it should African Americans have. Soon revolutionary ideas of making everyone equal despite their race appeared. The citizens saw them as laws and constitutional amendments that were totally unusual to society. People’s rights turned out to be the main focus of the new federal government. Of course, the implementation of such views was a long period, and the actual conditions differed from the planned ones at the beginning. Still, with the help of the Supreme Court, the Reconstruction Amendments were gradually accepted even though some were limited. When investigating such changes, many scientists who concentrated on history and politics claimed them to be proof of misgovernment and corruption. These scholars believed that Reconstruction was never targeted at reaching racial equality in the whole country and that African Americans were not intelligently able to exercise their new rights.

Such views also affected popular memory and juridical system, which proves that it would be beneficial to rewrite this part of the history and explode the myths. Eric Foner states that the main reason one and the same thing is treated by the scientists from 20th and 21st centuries give different interpretations of the same arguments is their attitudes towards African Americans. It seems to be true to life as the predecessors had not treated black people as the central figures of Reconstruction. Some of them also considered congressional debates too narrowly, which prevented them from complete understanding. With the course of time, courts started to cite not only previous cases that were similar to the current ones but also works of history, which made them influenced by the ideas of previous historians. In this way, the aims of Reconstruction were also wrongly interpreted for a long, and the historical context was ignored, which affected the approach to civil rights.

The Reconstruction’s history was reconsidered later, but many ideas remain undisturbed even today. It was stated that Congress lacks the power to implement positive alterations in the 21st century. As Court Justices tend to prove their decisions, making a reference to the history that is misunderstood, it becomes harder and harder to stick to racial equality. The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, reveals color blindness, as it prevents direct uplifting of African Americans. Thus, the paper tends to underline this ‘diversity’ issue, as it would not attract much attention without being connected to the law sphere.

Eric Foner realizes that a purely historical approach to the problem is not likely to gain much attention and interest a lot of people. That is why he connected the issue of a misunderstanding of Reconstruction with the law sphere. The author discussed the fact that as a consequence of the misinterpretation of Reconstruction, many decisions made by the Supreme Court tend to be opposite to its real aims and fail to support racial equality and human rights. In this perspective, the issue becomes more significant than it could be if was considered only as a faulty perception of the Reconstruction era by the historians of the 20th century. Thus, the problem under investigation is critical, as it proves that there are gaps between the initial intentions and the outcomes of Reconstruction’s interventions.


The article written by Eric Foner provides an opportunity to see how the views of the historians from the 20th century differ from those their colleagues from the 21st century had. It includes a range of concrete examples and references to the ideas of other authors, which makes the work well-grounded. Foner understands that his article is not enough to make all Americans reconsider their beliefs, but he sees it as one of the steps towards improvement. The author also realizes that this work alone will not make the laws change, but it does not mean that it fails to be effective and significant. The article provides authoritative information and thorough discussion that can be used by other historians to support the common idea of misinterpretation. When gathered with numerous works of other scientists, it is likely to trigger the revision of the traditional views on Reconstruction and implementation of changes in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Future alterations will influence the whole country and all people who live in it, which proves that the article is extremely significant at the current stage and in perspective.

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