1865's 14TH AMENDMENT - CIRCA 2006

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

It's a perilous time for the country: a president with a "bunker mentality" usurping power and ignoring Congress, the future of individual rights at stake and battle lines clearly drawn.

It's not 2006 but 1865. The Civil War is over, but a southerner sits in the White House, and while former slaves may be free, they lack the protections of due process most of us take for granted today.

That's the focus of "Democracy Reborn," a new book by University of Oregon law professor Garrett Epps.

"Democracy Reborn" brings to life the post-Civil War political battle that gave birth to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

That amendment bars states from passing laws abridging the privileges of individual citizens and guarantees Americans equal protection under the laws of the land.

Epps - who has degrees in both creative writing and the law, and who has written novels as well as nonfiction - knows perfectly well that eyes tend to glaze over when the subject of the Constitution comes up, a kind of castor oil of the mind, good for you but hard to swallow.

So he's written a history that focuses on the crucial period from December 1865 to June 1866 as a tale of suspense. And, at the time, that's what it was.

Southern Congressmen, having lost the war, were determined to win back the peace. They sought a way to retain cheap labor and to block political power and rights sought by black Americans.

Northern politicians were determined to right the wrongs of the original Constitution, crafted in the summer of 1787, which protected slave states and counted each black, for purposes of political representation, as just three-fifths of a person.

President Andrew Johnson - most notable for being drunk when he was sworn in as Lincoln's vice president, surrounded himself with "yes-men" and had no skill for working with Congress.

Reviewers have applauded Epps' effort.

"His energetic prose transforms potentially tedious congressional debates into riveting reading," Publishers Weekly wrote. And a Washington Post review praised Epps for crisp writing about a period few people really understand.

He argues that the 14th Amendment is such a crucial part of our national heritage that its authors should be considered "second framers."

Most of us venerate the original framers of the Constitution, the men who labored to craft a document that would knit together the fragile 13 states. In the newly minted union, the states already were squabbling among themselves and were under threat from European nations seeking to block the United States' westward expansion and even split off some states.

We revere them today as the Founding Fathers, but the men of the Constitutional Convention were complex, flawed individuals, working in a hot stuffy room against a deadline, who believed future politicians would refine their work.

Epps said one delegate complained toward the end of the process, as they dotted I's and crossed T's. "He said, 'This is good enough. …