About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "Inventing Equality: Reconstructing the Constitution in the Aftermath of the Civil War"

Greetings from the National Archives. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s virtual book talk with Michael Bellesiles, author of Inventing Equality: Reconstructing the Constitution in the Aftermath of the Civil War

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

On Wednesday, January 27, at noon, you can hear Deborah Willis discuss The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship—a kaleidoscopic, yet intimate portrait of the African American experience, from the beginning of the Civil War to 1900. The book shows how photography helped construct a national vision of blackness, war, and bondage, while unearthing the hidden histories of these Black Civil War soldiers.

And on Friday, January 29, at noon, Benjamin R. Justesen will discuss his book Forgotten Legacy: William McKinley, George Henry White, and the Struggle for Black Equality. Historians have long overlooked President William McKinley’s cooperation with prominent African American leaders, including George Henry White, the nation’s only black congressman between 1897 and 1901. Because of McKinley’s dedication to the advancement of African Americans and the safeguarding of their rights as U.S. citizens, he might be considered the first “civil rights President.”

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The Rotunda of the National Archives Building enshrines the Constitution of the United States, but the four pages exhibited there are but the beginning of this guiding document of our national government. Shortly after its ratification in 1788, the 10 amendments we know as the Bill of Rights were passed, and over the next 200 years, we’ve appended 17 more amendments. In Inventing Equality, Michael Bellesiles  looks closely at three of those amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th—passed after the Civil War to extend freedom and the rights of citizenship to formerly enslaved persons.

As the records of our nation show, ratification of these amendments was not the end of the debate. Our voluminous court records preserve cases brought before United States courts—even up to the Supreme Court—seeking equal treatment under the law. Using these records, Bellesiles brings us an examination of the evolution of the battle for true equality in America.

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Michael Bellesiles is the author of numerous books, including Revolutionary Outlaws; Arming America; 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently; and A People’s History of the U.S. Military. He has taught at every educational level in the United States, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Awarded the Bancroft Award in 2001, he is the only person to ever win both of the article-of-the-year awards from the Organization of American Historians.

As the founding director of the interdisciplinary Violence Studies Program at Emory University, Bellesiles worked with community organizations and public agencies to study and respond to the numerous effects of violence in modern life. He has also organized special educational programs to aid veterans of the Vietnam War and served as Educational Director of the Veterans’ Institute of New England.

Now let’s hear from Michael Bellesiles. Thank you for joining us today.