While some Americans think about flags and fire works on the Fourth of July, others think about what those symbols mean. I have to admit to enjoying the fireworks, the cookouts, the pies and home made ice cream that I fondly associate with this mid-summer holiday, but I also feel that it is important to reflect on what the day actually means. In this blog and elsewhere I have often expressed my distrust of patriotism that comes in the form of jingoist flag waving and bumper stickers.
To me true patriotism should lift up values held in our founding and in revering the Constitution of the United States – the most remarkable device created to govern and to ensure that those who govern do not abuse power; the efforts to erode these checks and balances by the Bush administration notwithstanding.
I fervently believe that Madison created a remarkable document and that the government formed through the articles of the constitution is one of mankind’s most crowning achievements. It deals head on with the fact that power is a corrupting influence and power- unchecked will eventually corrupt.
However there was a tragic flaw written into this remarkable document. There it is right in Article 1, Section 2 – the enumeration clause where the Constitution outlines how members of the House of Representatives will be apportioned to the states.
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
Anyone conversant with American history is aware of this clause- a Civil War was fought because of it, three amendments to the Constitution were ratified to eliminate it and a Civil Rights movement was born to expose the racism that was embedded in it.
Writing slavery into the Constitution is this nation’s tragic flaw. It reduces the nobility of the cause of our founders and compromises much of the values that the new nation held- life, liberty and the pursuit of hapiness.
Much has been written about how not dealing with the slavery issue effected this country- ensuring that racism is hard wired into the American psyche and how it has been a burden for African American advancement through today. These effects cannot be understated nor can they be ignored. As egregious a legacy of slavery is racism, I want to address a subtler influence that this clause in the Constitution has had on the country: the ease of compromising values in the name of economic goals.
While I am not naïve enough to think that economic health is not important to a nation and that at its nasance – it can be the difference between a successful birth or a more challenging one, it seems to me that by enshrining a compomise on the precept of liberty itelf in the name of economy was a remarkably cyncial move for a group of men that are usually associated with noble ideas.
The planters in the South relied on slavery for their economy. This again is nothing new. Some from the North- John Adams from Massachusettsin particular were adamantly anti-slavery. Some of the finest statesmen from Virginia- Jefferson and Washington for example were conflicted about slavery.
By the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, slavery in the United States was a grim reality. In the census of 1790, there were slaves counted in nearly every state, with only Massachusetts and the “districts” of Vermont and Maine, being the only exceptions. In the entire country 3.8 million people were counted, 700,000 of them, or 18 percent, were slaves. In South Carolina, 43 percent of the population was slave. In Maryland 32 percent, and in North Carolina 26 percent. Virginia, with the largest slave population of almost 300,000, had 39 percent of its population made up of slaves.
In the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first constitution, there is not mention of slavery. The states were represented in Congress by state, with each state picking its own representatives, so population, which became critical in the future House of Representatives, was not relevant. Also, because fugitive slaves, and the abolition movement, were almost unheard of as late as the 1780s, there is no mention of this issue in the Articles. The closest thing to be found is the Fugitive Clause in Article 4, but even that is more geared toward convicts.
There was no great movement in America to abolish slavery in the 1780’s, then the Constitutional Convention met. To be sure, there were opponents of slavery, on a philosophical level, but the abolition movement did not appear until the 1830’s, when the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded with William Lloyd Garrison writing the organization’s nascent statement of principles. Prior to the Convention in 1787, many “Founding Fathers” expressed opinions that condemned slavery.
John Jay, great supporter of the Constitution after its creation and an author of The Federalist wrote in 1786, “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”
Oliver Ellsworth, one of the signers of the Constitution wrote, a few months after the Convention adjourned, “All good men wish the entire abolition of slavery, as soon as it can take place with safety to the public, and for the lasting good of the present wretched race of slaves.”
Patrick Henry, the great Virginian patriot, refused to attend the Convention because he “smelt a rat,” was outspoken on the issue, despite his citizenship in a slave state. In 1773, he wrote, “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery.”
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, which, famously, declares that “all men are created equal,” wrote, “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him.” Alas, like many Southerners, Jefferson held slaves, as many as 223 at some points in his life. His family sold his slaves after his death, in an effort to relieve the debt he left his estate in.
In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington wrote, “[Y]our late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view to emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it.” Washington and his wife held over 300 slaves. He wrote in his will that he’d wished to free his slaves, but that because of intermarriage between his and Martha’s slaves, he feared the break-up of families should only his slaves be freed. He directed that his slaves be freed upon her death. His will provided for the continued care of all slaves, paid for from his estate.
The great American scientist and publisher Benjamin Franklin held several slaves during his lifetime. He willed one of them be freed upon his death, but Franklin outlived him. In 1789, he said, “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.”
Other examples of anti-slavery messages abound from the late 1700’s. They illustrate the feelings of some, but those feelings cannot be seen in the product of their works at creating a government. Despite the freedoms demanded in the Declaration and the freedoms reserved in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, slavery was not only tolerated in the Constitution, but it was codified.
The Constitution has often been called a living tribute to the art of compromise. In the slavery question, this can be seen most clearly. The Convention had representatives from every corner of the United States, including, of course, the South, where slavery was most pronounced. Slavery, in fact, was the backbone of the primary industry of the South, and it was accepted as a given that agriculture in the South without slave labor was not possible. Though slaves were not cheap by any measure, they were cheaper than hiring someone to do the same work. The cultivation of rice, cotton, and tobacco required slaves to work the fields from dawn to dusk. If the nation did not guarantee the continuation of slavery to the South, it was questioned whether they would form their own nation.
Compromise- that has become the hallmark of our government ever since the Constitution. Government is compromise. But how far does that compromise go before the compromise itself is the problem?
While the argument often made about slavery and the Constitution is that the compromise was made was the only way to get the Southern states to buy into the whole idea of a United States at its birth, it is too simplistic. Slavery was about economics and the new country could ill afford the South’s economy to secede nor to could it afford to wage an all out civil war on the heals of the Revolution with the massive war debt the young nation had from it’s own war of independence. But all of those concerns- pro-slavery and opposed to slavery- realized that without a strong Southern planter economy- it would be incredibly difficult to build a nation. I cannot imagine that it would have been impossible to build a nation if we had dealt with the slavery issue at the time of the Constitution; I would imagine it would just lengthen the time of its birth pains. It was not just about putting off inevitable Civil War to a later date, it was about the need for a viable economy to get the country going.
In his “Inferno” Dante wrote: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” I won’t relegate the founders to hell- but I will say that in order to avoid the difficult moral decision posed by slavery they took a document of uncompromising brilliance, conscience, and hope – something better than man- and brought it down to the common, the political and the morally ambiguous.
Thus moral ambiguity and the culture of compromise were woven into our nation’s fabric at its very founding. Is it al all surprising that these two problems continue to manifest themselves – often times in shockingly disturbing ways- today? Moral ambiguity and compromise dominate our political landscape and, like in the Constitution, they usually center around economics.
While the Constitution as a result of the great cherished Jeffersonian and Madisonian principles, it is great document that holds a tragic flaw that has led to a national culture of ambiguous morality compromised by economy. Adam Smith would have been happy with the elevation of economy over morality and Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli would have cheered at the calculated pragmatism.
But our integrity was compromised. We have been paying the price ever since. Mostly the African Americans have been paying for this national flaw through cultrualized racism. But in actually by letting economics compromise a basic moral value- all Americans lost something precious. The innocence of our childhood was fleeting and the cynicism of “political pragmatism” was quicly adopted.
Economy won out in 18th century politics- It still does today in the 21st century. I admire and revere the Constitution for the brillance of the government it created. But like loving a person you must admit both its flaw as well as its vitures. In order to admire the basic tenents of the Constitution, I must also admit its flaw- and its a big one.
We have had to live with the primacy of economics over morality since our founding. I just hope that this national birth defect will not ultimately be fatal.