ELB Book Corner: Kurt Lash (Post 1 of 3): “The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents” (2 volumes) (Kurt T. Lash, ed.) (University of Chicago Press, 2021)– A New and Unprecedented Collection of Historical Materials

I’m delighted to welcome my friend and former colleague Kurt Lash to the ELB Book Corner, for a series of three guest posts on his exceedingly important collection, The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents. Here’s Kurt:

ELB Book Corner

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Press has just published “The Reconstruction Amendments: Essential Documents,” a two-volume collection of original historical documents relating to the framing, ratification and public understanding of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the American Constitution.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. My thanks to Rick Hasen and the Election Law Blog for inviting me to introduce the collection and talk about why it might be a particular interest to readers of this blog.

The two volumes contain more than 400 original historical documents spread across approximately 1,200 oversized pages. The format intentionally copies the University Chicago Press’s earlier five volume publication, “The Founders’ Constitution,” with this collection serving as a kind of sequel.

The collection emphasizes the public debates which led to the adoption of the three Reconstruction amendments. It includes the voices of politicians, presidents, governors, generals, radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, constitutional abolitionists like Lysander Spooner and Joel Tiffany, Black civil rights activists like William Yates, David Walker and Frederick Douglass, women’s rights activists like Francis Watkins Harper, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the proceedings of the “Colored Conventions,” “Southern Loyalist Conventions,” “Equal Rights Conventions,” southern newspaper editors, northern political essayists, and politicians like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, James F. Wilson, James Ashley, John A. Bingham, Lyman Trumbull, Jacob Howard, and George S. Boutwell.

There is a lot of stuff in here. Some researchers will know immediately what they want to see: Perhaps Susan B. Anthony’s “Make the Slave’s Case or Own,” (Vol. 1, p. 283), William Yates’ “The Rights of Colored Men” (Vol. 1, p. 134), Charles Sumner’s effort to broaden the language of the Thirteenth Amendment, (Vol. 1, p. 434), the Women’s Suffrage Petition presented in the Thirty-Ninth Congress (Vol. 2, p. 47), John Bingham’s call for an amendment enforcing the Bill of Rights (Vol. 2, p. 108), Jacob Howard’s Speech Introducing the Fourteenth Amendment, (Vol. 2, p. 185), Frederick Douglass’s criticism of the Fourteenth Amendment (Vol. 2. p. 293), or the Fifteenth Amendment framing debates (Vol. 2, pp. 439-536).

Those purchasing the Kindle e-edition of the volumes will be able to conduct word-searches of the documents (a tool some scholars have already put to good use). For the first time, scholars can search a curated collection of Reconstruction-era documents for terms like “Black suffrage,” “equal suffrage,” “universal suffrage,” “privileges or immunities,” “appropriate legislation,” “bill of rights,” “natural rights” or “women’s rights.” There is a vast difference between being able to word-search, say, a noncurated collection of tens of thousands of historical newspapers, and searching a specially curated collection of documents—the ratio of relevant to non-relevant “hits” will be much higher.

The collection actually aspires to be read from beginning to end. Together, the documents present the remarkable story of how the American people, enslaved and free, politically empowered or not, together engaged in an eighty year debate over the nature of the original Constitution, its relationship to slavery, the scope of constitutional federalism, the meaning of American liberty, and the basic rights of every human being.

Not everyone who uses the collection, of course, will have a background expertise American constitutional history. Accordingly, every major section of documents begins with a lengthy introduction describing the included documents, their historical context, and how they relate to the broader issue of constitutional reconstruction. Lay readers will thus engage the historical documents with a basic idea of what happened, when it happened, who participated, and why it’s important.

For example, the introduction to the framing of the Thirteenth Amendment describes the chronology of voting in the House and Senate, the major players in the debates, the major arguments for and against the proposed abolition amendment, and major external events affecting those debates, such as President Lincoln’s re-election. Similarly, the introduction to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment describes the major public arguments for and against the amendment, major events which affected ratification such as the 1866 New Orleans riot, the 1866 congressional elections, the passage of the Reconstruction Acts, and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. As far as the Fifteenth Amendment is concerned, the introduction to the framing of that amendment is essential reading for anyone confronting for the first time the bewildering debates and procedural votes that somehow ended in the successful passage of the suffrage amendment.

Prior to the publication of this collection, there were few (any?) courses on the history of the Reconstruction Amendments at American law schools. Last year, with the assistance of these materials, faculty taught such courses at both Stanford Law School and Chicago Law School (and, of course, my home institution at Richmond School of Law). 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 on the books’ webpage at University of Chicago Press (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.” Hopefully, the collection has lowered the barriers to conducting original historical research and teaching about this critical period in our constitutional history.

My second post will present a kind of overview of the two volumes, and what I think are some of the collection’s highlights. My third and final post will focus on the materials relating to the framing and adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment.

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