Lincoln Lecture Discusses the Reconstruction Period and America’s Complicated Racial History


Public Interest Faculty Visitors
Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University

On September 21, the sixth annual Abraham Lincoln Lecture on Constitutional Law was held at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, featuring Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University.

Over 400 individuals registered for Foner’s lecture, hosted by series founder Steven G. Calabresi, Clayton J. and Henry R. Barber Professor of Law. The conversation took a deep dive into the reconstruction era after the Civil War and its lasting effects on current American politics, specifically the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution. “Reconstruction remains part of our lives. Key questions facing us today are in some way reconstruction questions,” said Foner. “Who is entitled to citizenship? That’s being fought out every day on our borders.”

Foner examined Lincoln’s immediate motives for the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments—collectively known as the Civil War amendments—which extended civil and legal protections to emancipated enslaved people. Foner discussed their strengths and weaknesses as instruments for the pursuit of racial justice, and how, over time, the Supreme Court developed a highly restrictive interpretation of their purposes—the consequences of which we are still living with today. “In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he talked about the fact that the Civil War was caused by the institution of slavery, and he implicitly challenged Americans to think creatively about how to fulfill the aspirations unleashed by the destruction of slavery,” said Foner. “These three constitutional amendments, which are the enduring legacy of reconstruction, were an attempt to confront the challenge that Lincoln laid out, going beyond the legacy of slavery in this country. And that challenge continues.”

Abraham Lincoln has a unique connection to Northwestern. In 1859, Northwestern University (then Union College) closed down classes for a week in order for students to see Lincoln argue a case before the appellate court. Many academics believe Lincoln’s experiences as a lawyer informed his presidency.

Foner hopes that the reconstruction era inspires generations to come. “However flawed the reconstruction era that followed the civil war [was], I think [it] can and will serve as an inspiration for those trying to make this a more equal and a more just society.”

Foner is a one of the most prominent historians in the United States. He has authored and edited over twenty books in his academic career. His publications have concentrated on the intersections of intellectual, political and social history and the history of American race relations. His book, Reconstruction, 1863-1877: America’s Unfinished Revolution was the winner of the Bancroft Prize and Los Angeles Times book prize. It is regarded as the standard work on the era. His other publications include, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery and The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. He has helped curate two award-winning historical exhibitions, and through frequent media appearances, he has also endeavored to bring historical knowledge to a broad public outside the university setting.

The Abraham Lincoln Lecture on Constitutional Law was established in 2016 by Professor Steven G. Calabresi. This lecture series honors President Lincoln’s extraordinary work as a lawyer and as the leader who ended slavery, and recognizes his personal connection to the Law School.