Demagoguing the Constitution

When people preface their remarks with words that essentially demean and denigrate the ones they are fixing to disparage, it’s usually a pretty good indicator that they lack an all-encompassing view of the subject matter themselves.  It further indicates that the writer is about to make us aware of how superior he or she is to the one who has incurred his or her ire.  Such is the case with conservative columnist Walter Williams’s recent attack on the what he sees as part of a “leftist agenda”.

To undermine the comments of someone and assume their take on things is from some less intelligent and informed mindset is to presume that there are absolutes that are easily perceived and capable of being clearly defined.  This is seldom the case and most surely is in Mr. Williams attack of Time Magazine’s piece by Richard Stengel, “One Document, Under Siege”.

Without going item by item on Mr. Williams assertions about what the Constitution does and doesn’t say as he attacks Stengel’s piece, I would like to point out his overall shortcomings on a single aspect of this revered document that Mr. Williams addressed in his previous column here.

My column last week addressed the compromise whereby each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. Had slaves been counted as whole people, slaveholding states would have had much greater political power.

This is pretty much a fact based on what I have read concerning the issue.  What Mr. Williams seems to be getting his dander up about is that Stengel and others appear to be using this status given to slaves by some of the founding fathers as a derisive commentary aimed at their moral character, at least as we understand slavery today.  This may have been assumed in Mr. Williams “absolutist” take on such comments but it is far from an objective perspective.

What Richard Stengel and others are referring to when they point out that our constitution was written by less than perfect people, who were none-the-less “plain, honest men”, saw things then as their world allowed without much condemnation.  Many of those who proposed the 3/5’s allotment for slaves were themselves slave holders but were opposed to the institution of slavery.  Yet all of them held heart-felt views then about blacks that would undoubtedly be viewed as extreme racism today, even by the likes of Walter Williams.  None of these white aristocrats felt that blacks were capable of becoming the white man’s equal.

In his excellent book – Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution – about the 1787 Consitutional Convention and the delegates who assembled there, Richard Beeman points out a factor that Walter Williams either overlooks or expediently dismisses:

“The three-fifths compromise was, fundamentally, about states individual interests, not the morality of slavery.  Those few Northerners like Gouverneur Morris, Rufus King, or Elbridge Gerry who voiced unhappiness with the idea of counting the slave population in apportioning representation did so either out of a fear that Northern interests were being sacrificed to those of the South or, as James Wilson phrased it, the ‘disgust’ that their white constituents may have felt about being considered even in the same category as slaves.  […]  many Northern delegates were merely uncomfortable with the idea of being associated in any way with slaves.  That uneasiness was generated at least as much by a deeply seated racism as by any humanitarian concern about the plight of enslaved Africans.” (p. 214)

This is not to discredit these men whose intelligence and insights were formidable and rose above many of their contemporaries.  It is merely to point out, as Richard Stengel does quite capably, that had these men the power to see the future as it is today, they would be astonished at how far we’ve come and how puny their notions were in comparison.  This concept will apply to our best and brightest today by those who look back at us 230 years later and wonder why we held women in such low esteem and treated homosexuals as inferior, much like Madison, Washington and Jefferson did with the black people during their time.

Stengel’s argument, that William’s has lost sight of, is to remind us all that the Constitution was written at a time when the things we need to address today were not even around to consider back in 1787.  It was also written by a select group of white males who were for the most part well-educated and wealthy land owners.  Not exactly a representative sample of the general population then or now nor one by which all factors could be evenly weighed.

But Mr. Williams, in his absolute certainty about “liberal leftist comments” and their agenda to destroy his sense of American values, has refused to consider this perspective.  He misses Stengel’s argument that this great document which opened the door for personal freedoms around the world, was much more a compromise document than he seems willing to acknowledge and was meant to correct the major deficiencies of the earlier Articles of Confederation.

In it is the room to expand the rights of it’s citizens and check the abuses by self-centered interests of the states and powerful individuals, a condition that drove all the Constitutional Convention delegates, especially Mr. Williams’ favorite – James Madison – to form a more perfect union by creating a central government with broader powers than the states had allowed following their victory over the British army.

The fact that they compromised and allotted a 3/5 human status to slaves then does not make these men monsters, considering the social and political environment of their day.  But noting that they felt superior to blacks does indicate that had we continued to hold such wrong and dated views today, we may not have become that “shining light on the hill” conservatives are eager to promote.  This attitude changed as a result of the social dynamics we faced as a nation.  A document that doesn’t recognize that need to change is not worthy of the esteem Mr. Williams feels it deserves.

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5 responses to “Demagoguing the Constitution

  1. We are not a perfect people, of course. One of the greatest strengths of the US is that we attempt to change to reach the ideals set forth in the constitution. So far, our system has allowed great progress in civil rights, and hopefully, progress will continue. That progress takes time, messiness, and struggle.

  2. The problem we have now is that states are trying to usurp the Constitution……they are basically doing what the Constitution says they cannot…..such as voting rights by making it harder for people to vote or even to register………it smacks of segregation days gone by…….

  3. You’re right. From a modern perspective, a lot of us can’t understand that kind of compromise. Especially since it is applied to a human being. Back then, it reflected the times. Which is why for the life of me, I can’t understand why people don’t see the Constitution as a living document that can and should be changed.

  4. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all jump in a time machine and see what the future holds before we make decisions.form opinions or enact laws about individuals or groups? I know the founding fathers had flaws and those flaws by today’s standards are seen as major flaws, but it is amazing to me that they created a document that is always be re-interpreted or amended to fit the lessons we learn as time marches on.

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