Over the past several decades, Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia, has established himself as one of the preëminent historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In 1988, he published “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,” which became a standard history of the period. “The Fiery Trial,” his story of Lincoln’s relationship to the idea and reality of American slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize, in 2011. Throughout his work, Foner evinces a fascination with how the history he studies has been understood and relayed since the Civil War. One result of that interest is his new book, “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.” It examines the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which banned slavery, universalized due process, and granted black men the vote. Foner’s narrative explores the radical aspirations of the politicians and activists who envisioned these amendments, and the Supreme Court decisions that narrowed their scope, leaving their promise of a racially equitable society unfulfilled.
I recently spoke by phone with Foner. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the heroic vision of Reconstruction’s proponents, the ways in which we misunderstand the legacy of slavery, and whether Trump’s Presidency demands a rethinking of our racial history.