Elliott Maraniss was a talented newspaperman when, in 1952, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his communist affi liations. He lost his job and was blacklisted for five years, yet retained his faith in the United States and went on eventually to a successful career in journalism. In A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father (Simon & Schuster, $28), David Maraniss tells his dad’s story along with the stories of others who were in the Committee hearing room—members of the Committee, his dad’s lawyer, and the FBI informant who named him. Through these individual histories, Maraniss explores what it means to be an American. On one level, the book is a touching family tale about a son’s search for his father’s past, but on a larger level it’s a resonant story with enduring universal significance, a tale of courage, conviction, betrayal, political opportunism, reckoning, and ultimately American identity.
The challenge of reuniting the nation after the Civil War was as fraught as the confl ict itself. As Brenda Wineapple, award-winning author of Ecstatic Nation, shows in her detailed history, The Impeachers (Random House, $32), Congress was divided over questions including restoring the South to its ante-bellum status, punishing former Confederates, and granting the vote to freed Blacks. President Andrew Johnson, however, felt that Reconstruction was unnecessary, opposed civil rights, and, flouting Congress, invoked executive orders to swiftly pardon the rebel soldiers. In response, the House of Representatives voted to impeach him—a decision not taken lightly. Retracing this unprecedented event step-by-step, Wineapple examines questions of the separation of powers and the meaning of the nation’s core values, as well as bringing to life a host of fascinating and complex figures such as William Seward, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, and
Ulysses S. Grant.
For all the faults of the Reconstruction period, which failed in its post-Civil War attempt to put America on a racially egalitarian footing, it did produce three very significant amendments to the Constitution, the full promise of which has yet to be realized. That’s the basic argument made by Eric Foner, a Bancroft- and Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar, in his compelling and deeply researched The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (W.W. Norton, $26.95). The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th constitutionalized the principle of birthright citizenship and equality before the law, and the 15th aimed to secure Black male suffrage. But as pivotal as these measures were in incorporating the principle of equality in the Constitution, they were subsequently undermined by Supreme Court decisions and state actions. The Jim Crow system followed, and only decades later, well into the 20th century, did the U.S. make renewed strides toward realizing the concepts of racial equality, due process, and individual rights reflected in the Reconstruction amendments. Foner argues that even more potential remains in these Constitutional provisions to realize the promise of equal citizenship for all.