Legal scholars and historians in recent years have sought to elevate Reconstruction to the stature of a “second Founding,” according it the same careful inquiry and legitimating function as the first. Their work marks the latest iteration of a decades-long campaign to displace the far more dismissive attitude toward Reconstruction that permeated historical scholarship and legal opinions in the first half of the twentieth century. In this Article, I present the flurry of engagement with the history of the Fourteenth Amendment during the litigation of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) as a key transition point in how historians and legal scholars have approached the constitutional history of Reconstruction. I highlight in particular the efforts of the lawyers for the NAACP, who advocated a reading of the Equal Protection Clause that most scholars at the time believed conflicted with the Fourteenth Amendment’s original meaning. With the aid of a group of historians sympathetic to their cause, the NAACP lawyers prepared a brief that presented a bold (if often tendentious) revisionist history of the Fourteenth Amendment that advanced an originalist justification for striking down segregation laws. The Supreme Court did not accept the NAACP’s reading of history; in his Brown opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded the historical record was “inconclusive” on the question of school segregation. Yet the basic assumption about Reconstruction history on which the NAACP legal brief turned—that the aspirations of the most egalitarian voices of the day deserve special weight in assessing the meaning of the Reconstruction amendments—has today become a core tenet of legal and historical scholarship.
Christopher W. Schmidt,
Brown, History, and the Fourteenth Amendment,
Notre Dame L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr/vol97/iss4/4