Democracy Reborn The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America

Garrett Epps

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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The last battle of the Civil War was not fought at Appomattox, but in the Pacific Railroad Committee Room of the U.S. Capitol, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, in the hotels and gambling dens of Washington, D.C., and on the streets of Memphis and New Orleans. It was a struggle for the future of the new American Republic that was rising from the ashes of Civil War. Scholars call "Amendment XIV" the "second Constitution." Over time, the Fourteenth Amendment—which provided African Americans with full citizenship and prohibited any state from denying any citizen due process and equal protection under the law—changed almost every detail of our public life. In 1865, though the South's armies had been defeated, its politicians were prepared—with President Andrew Johnson's support—to reenter Congress and run the nation as they had before Fort Sumter. In opposition, congressional leaders had only a few weeks to seat a new Congress and begin the process of constitutional reform. Led by Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, and Robert Dale Owen, their high-stakes political game took place against a backdrop of mob violence, threats of a coup d'etat, and an angry southern president who considered the reformers traitors. Garrett Epps tells the story of this struggle against a panoramic portrait of America on the verge of a new era. Included in that portrait are Walt Whitman, feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and others (famous and known) who took part in the battle that reshaped our democracy.


Praise for Democracy Reborn

“Epps . . . draws on much recent historical scholarship in arguing that the Civil War and Reconstruction forged a ‘second Constitution’ for the U.S. . . . He reveals how a handful of 1860s Republicans responded to the challenge of Union victory and black emancipation by defining American citizenship for the first time, protecting the Bill of Rights in the states by federal mandate and authorizing Congress to enforce civil, if not full political, rights.  As Epps writes, ‘We live in the house they redesigned,’ a large, contested, constitutional tent governed by the artful ambiguity of the equal protection clause . . . Epps book can help a broad readership realize that whenever Americans declare their rights, they owe much of their expanded freedom to the end of slavery and the ‘second founders’ of the republic.”—David W. Blight, Yale University, The Chicago Tribune

"Garrett Epps has nearly covered the waterfront as a writer: novelist, historian, op-ed commentator, humorist . . . His latest book, Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America, shows off his abilities as a strategic historian—one who makes the chess moves of the past come alive and seem sharply relevant to the present and future . . . Democracy Reborn reveals the ego and bluster inevitable in congressional doings. More importantly, its close view gives readers the tools with which to understand the legacy of blood, sweat and political maneuvering behind the civil rights in place today."—Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, The Oregonian

"'Americans know that they have rights,' Garrett Epps contends in his engaging book Democracy Reborn. 'But too few understand that the source of our rights is not Philadelphia 1787 but Washington 1866.' Epps, a law professor and novelist, draws on much recent historical scholarship in arguing that the Civil War and Reconstruction forged a 'second Constitution' for the U.S. . . . Epps' book can help a broad readership realize that whenever Americans declare their rights, they owe much of their expanded freedom to the end of slavery and the 'second founders' of the republic."—David W. Blight, Chicago Tribune

"The 14th Amendment was 'by far the most sweeping and complex change ever made in the original Constitution,' argues Garrett Epps in this valuable history of the amendment's adoption. Over time, he writes, it has 'changed almost every detail of our national life.' A University of Oregon law professor and former Washington Post reporter who has published two novels, Epps brings crisp writing to a story whose political complexities and obscure cast of characters pose tall hurdles for any popular history."—David Garrow, The Washington Post

"Democracy Reborn is a narrative history with an emphasis on the individuals who democratized the American Constitution. The book tells of Radical Republicans’ attempts to establish equality before the law, President Andrew Johnson’s decision to placate the South, Democratic resistance, and moderate Republicans’ comprises to achieve modest civil and political change. Garrett Epps has a novelist’s eye for elegantly written vignettes about leading politicians, orators, and lobbyists of Reconstruction. Democracy Reborn understands the Fourteenth Amendment to be the source of individual right. After a brief synopsis of the Revolutionary Period, at the very beginning of the book, Epps discusses many of the many of the major developments between Appomattox in 1865 and the ratification of the fourteenth Amendment. He carefully scrutinizes the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the men who tried to make the aspirations of constitutional and radical abolitionists a reality. The book ends with a capstone of core personalities—including Thaddeus Stevens, Frederick Douglass, and Charles Summer—and how their lives ended before they had accomplished their ambition for a democratic America. While key portions of congressional debates are retold, they are described within the context of its central leaders . . . The work follows a generally solid chronological order . . . Epps has written an entertaining and informative single volume history of the Fourteenth Amendment. The work should teach well at the undergraduate level and provide the general reader a helpful introduction into the period.”—Alexander Tsesis, Loyola University of Chicago, School of Law, Law and History Review

"The Civil War amendments redeemed the Constitution from the slavery concessions that had betrayed its preamble and perpetuated human bondage both North and South. Garrett Epps' new book is indispensable reading for Americans to know how our constitutional history has affected us all. A combination of the finest scholarship with unsurpassed insight."—William Van Alstyne, Perkins Professor of Law emeritus, Duke University; Lee Professor of Constitutional Law, College of William and Mary

"Garret Epps is one of our best legal historians, and he has produced a fascinating book on the creation and impact of the 14th Amendment. The people who wrote our Constitution were America's original Founders, but the amazing group that produced the 14th Amendment were like our second wave of Founders, helping our nation be reborn into the democracy it is today."—Walter Isaacson, author, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

"Garrett Epps has woven together the tragic strands of America's effort to deal with the issue of race in the Constitution.  Law, politics and statecraft clash in a great drama."—Anthony Lewis, author of Gideon's Trumpet

"Garrett Epps is one of the most fluid and accessible writers in the legal academy.  Not surprisingly, he has written a marvelous overview of immediate post-Civil War politics that gave us the Fourteenth Amendment and, as importantly, a new understanding of the American experiment."—Sanford Levinson, University of Texas Law School, author of Our Undemocratic Constitution: How the Constitution Goes Wrong (and How We the People Can Correct It)

"[A] passionate account of Reconstruction politics . . . [Epps's] energetic prose transforms potentially tedious congressional debates into riveting reading."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Philadelphia 1787: Red Sky at Morning
From his vantage point in Paris, Thomas Jefferson had hailed the makeup of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in characteristic hyperbole. "It really is an assembly of demi-gods," he wrote to John Adams.
            Perhaps. But by August 1787, the demigods were feeling tired and distinctly mortal. Since May 25, they had spent day after day in the small assembly room of the Pennsylvania statehouse, dressed in wool and broadcloth finery amid the humid swelter
Read the full excerpt


  • Garrett Epps

  • Garrett Epps is the author of The Shad Treatment and The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington. He is the Orlando John and Marian H. Hollis Professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.