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Posts Tagged ‘US history

“Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”*…

Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention, oil on canvas by Junius Brutus Steams (1856). source

Franklin’s caution was, of course, premonitory. David W. Blight explains why in his review of James Oakes‘ new book, The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution

Historians can and do change their minds about interpretations of events and the uses of evidence. We may be dead certain, or even mildly sure, about facts and the stories we tell about them, but our craft requires us to remain open to new persuasions, new truths. James Oakes used to believe that the United States Constitution was essentially proslavery in its foundations, and that any attempt to breathe antislavery meaning into it was strained or rhetorical and not textually supported. But no more. In his remarkable and challenging book The Crooked Path to Abolition, he makes the case that there were effectively two constitutions written in Philadelphia that summer of 1787, one proslavery and one antislavery, which would be in conflict with each other for more than the next fourscore years.

Oakes, a distinguished professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center, is not the only historian to have changed his view on this matter. In my first book, in 1989, I treated Frederick Douglass’s development of an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution as a slowly evolving perspective on his road to becoming a pragmatic political abolitionist and as a form of wish fulfillment in the absence of alternatives. I called his antislavery constitutionalism “dubious”—a search for political and moral ground on which he could stand to avoid embracing violent revolution by the 1850s. But I have come to see him as a deeply committed political thinker who argued his way, through what he called “careful study,” using legal and moral logic, to a vision of an antislavery Constitution. Guided by the natural rights tradition, Douglass found the core meaning of the American crisis. “Liberty and Slavery—opposite as Heaven and Hell,” he wrote in 1850, “are both in the Constitution.” What divided the nation was a Constitution “at war with itself.”

It has long been understood that without the compromises that were struck to bolster the interests of the slave states, there might have been no constitution achieved in 1787, and the thirteen original states might have careened off into regional coalitions at best…

he original Constitution reeked of complicity with the peculiar institution. It contained prominent proslavery features: a fugitive slave clause requiring retrieval of escaped bondspeople (although ambiguous about adjudication), the provision that the end of the foreign slave trade would be postponed until at least 1808 (both sides claimed victory in this matter), and the numerous elements that embedded federalism deeply into the document, enabling the doctrine of states’ rights to flourish. Above all, the three-fifths clause counting enslaved people in such a robust fraction for the purpose of representation in Congress and the Electoral College, which enhanced significantly the slave states’ power in the legislative branch and presidential elections, explicitly gave the United States, it seemed, a permanent proslavery future.

Proslavery advocates made the Fifth Amendment’s guaranteed protection of property ownership their “linchpin,” Oakes shows, in one crisis after another in the antebellum era, including the dangerous controversy around the admission of Missouri as a state in 1820. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 drew its power, at least slaveholding southerners believed, from original, if vague, constitutional guarantees of the return of escapees. But so did the passionate resistance to that hated provision in the North because of the Constitution’s equally explicit guarantee in the Fifth Amendment of due process to “all persons.”

Southerners would, of course, claim that the Constitution permitted their secession in 1861, following the argument of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who maintained that the United States had been from its inception a contractual arrangement balanced between slave- and free-state interests. And they confidently held that, according to the Tenth Amendment, all powers not delegated to the federal government were reserved to the states. The proslavery Constitution had previously sustained slaveholders’ faith in their power within the Union, and in “King Cotton” as economic leverage, down to the late 1850s, despite their increasing minority status.

On the other hand, Oakes identifies several parts of the Constitution as inherently antislavery. The preamble’s call for a “more perfect union” inspired abolitionists, who also pointed to section 4 of article 4 and its “guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government.” Section 2 of article 4 buttressed a growing antebellum claim of Black citizenship, rooted in the privileges and immunities clause. Antislavery constitutionalists also found support for their principles in the Fourth Amendment: the rights of Americans to be “secure in their persons…against unreasonable searches and seizures” offered language to protect fugitive slaves and promote human rights.

The Fifth Amendment served both sides, but abolitionists drew increasingly on its stricture that no “person” shall be “deprived of life, liberty…without due process of law.” They avoided the word “property,” which followed “liberty” in the text, not just out of convenience but because of their long-standing legal and moral rejection of the idea of “property in man.”…

The combination of all these clauses and principles allowed some abolitionists to declare the Constitution a bulwark for human equality and not merely, as Oakes says, a “hypocritical fantasy” crushed by white supremacy and a larger history. Some modern readers who are now conditioned to see the United States only as a progenitor of racial inequality may, misguidedly, find this claim on behalf of abolitionists a bridge too far...

[There follows an illuminating recounting of the arguments between the two sides over the nexts several decades, then of Lincoln’s reading and the Civil War…]

We still have two Constitutions on many issues: the nature of federalism, voting rights, election laws, the right to bear arms, and much more. We have a majority on the Supreme Court determined to return every power possible to the states, reverting the “Union” to many decades ago when it was a collection of battling legal sovereigns with common borders. The historical template for these and other future debates may always be the profound failures and triumphs of antislavery constitutionalism’s struggle against proslavery constitutionalism in the 1850s and 1860s. The heat in our public history wars today needs the light of this kind of scholarship, however difficult it is to sustain faith in truth, persuasion, and historical consciousness itself…

Too timely: “The Two Constitutions,” @davidwblight1 in @nybooks.

An apposite piece on the several ways that American’s “read” the founder of modern economics: “America’s Adam Smith” from Branko Milanovic (@BrankoMilan).

* Benjamin Franklin, in a November, 1789 letter to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy


As we choose a side, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Solicitor-General Thurgood Marshall to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. A storied civil rights attorney and jurist (Federal Court of Appeals), Marshall served on the highest bench from 1967 until his retirement in 1991.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 13, 2023 at 1:00 am

“That’s all we’re asking for: an end to the antidemocratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts”*…




Though a substantial majority disapprove of the practice, the Supreme Court recently refused to address the issue of partisan redistricting– gerrymandering…

The Supreme Court will not end extreme partisan gerrymandering. In a 5-4 decision along ideological lines, the court ruled Thursday that partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts cannot be limited by federal courts. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion, writing that “what the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power.”

Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent was scathing. “For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities,” she wrote in her opening sentence. She argued that imposing limits on gerrymandered districts is not beyond the scope of the court: “The partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”

The ruling almost certainly would have been different if Anthony Kennedy were still on the court. Before retiring last year, Kennedy had been the swing justice on previous gerrymandering cases. He had said that partisan gerrymandering was within the purview of the court but that the justices should hold off on ruling any particular gerrymander unconstitutional until a manageable standard for measuring gerrymandering emerged. Since he took that position in 2004, reformers had been attempting to find such a standard. Legal scholars and statisticians developed various measurements to try to win over the court, but without Kennedy, those efforts turned out to be futile…

FiveThirtyEight considers the possible impacts of the Court’s abnegation and explores other paths to a remedy: “Partisan Gerrymandering Isn’t The Supreme Court’s Problem Anymore.”

See also: “Electoral map bias may worsen as U.S. gerrymandering battle shifts to states” and “The Courts Won’t End Gerrymandering. Eric Holder Has a Plan to Fix It Without Them.”

* President Ronald Reagan (in 1988, illustrating on the one hand that this is an issue of long standing [see here for earlier history]; and on the other, that shoes have a way of moving from one foot to the other…)


As we recall that the American Revolution was, in part, about the lack of fair representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

Use it or lose it.

220px-United_States_Declaration_of_Independence source



As we endeavor to stretch our dollars…

… we can thank Shine for help in using them as a direct source of entertainment and enlightenment:

“Fifteen Things You Never Noticed on a Dollar”

As we decide to pay our Masonic dues after all, we might recall that it was on this date in 1690 that the Colony of Massachusetts issued the first paper money in (that is, native to) North America.

Earliest surviving example, from later in 1690
source: University of Notre Dame

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 3, 2010 at 2:02 am

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