Thursday, October 28, 2010

If You Think the First Ten are Good, Check Out the Other Seventeen

As some of you may know, I subscribe to the Economist. While I am not always able to read each issue in full, I usually at least get through the briefings section. I like it because it helps me to keep up to date on what is happening outside of the United States. I don't feel so entirely insular and unaware. In addition to keeping me informed about the happenings outside of this nation, I appreciate much of the commentary on the United States, even when I disagree - it is nice to have an outside perspective.

Well, with the elections approaching on Tuesday, I've been thinking a lot about the Tea Party movement and the tendency for some people within our nation to worship the constitution. So, I was very pleased to read a recent article on constitution worship, which can be found here.
I recommend that you read the entire article, but here is one paragraph that really encapsulates how I feel:

"When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers. "

There are many people who look upon our constitution as scripture, and it makes me cringe every time I hear it. Don't get me wrong, I love my country and the constitution is an incredible document, I think the founding fathers were visionaries and are rightly venerated. But they should not be worshiped, they were men, not demi-gods, with flaws and disagreements. The constitutional convention was an exercise in compromise. The resulting document is not tantamount to scripture, however inspired some of the founding fathers may have been scripture is the result of divine revelation, the constitution is the result of political negotiation and compromise.

Stephanie recommended that we read the constitution for our family home evening this week, which has only strengthened my resolve to speak out on this topic. Those who worship the constitution all too often speak of going back to the founding fathers, getting back to core constitutional principles, and stopping all this "progress" we've had. I like progress, and all too often those who revel in constitutional originalism fail to remember that the original constitution was a profoundly flawed document with certain provisions that directly lead to a civil war that nearly crushed this nation in its early years. They forget that those demi-gods of democracy we honor so much (Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, etc.) were joined by Charles Pinckneys and Elbridge Gerrys. They forget that after that constitutional convention, the document was felt to be flawed enough that ten amendments were passed only four years after the original document was ratified. And they forget that after those ten amendments, there have been seventeen more.

Each of the seventeen amendments is a part of the constitution. It boggles my mind to hear people proclaim the constitution as inspired while they lament its downfall in one moment only to hear them declare that we should repeal the fourteenth and seventeenth amendments. While I think the seventeenth amendment was a mistake, I am not proclaiming that the constitution is some kind of scripture that we all have fallen away from - all twenty-seven amendments are part of that document, each amendment was passed in accordance with the constitutional provisions allowing them, and as such the entire document is one whole. You cannot claim it as inspired and then denounce the provisions you don't like, it's not a consistent ideology. And it makes me crazy. So, with that introduction I want to introduce you to the constitution in its entirety, its original flaws and how, thankfully, many of them have been overcome.

The three fifths clause: "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."
The original constitution never explicitly mentioned race, but in the fourth sentence after the preamble it separated human beings into separate classes (including free persons, indentured servants, Indians, and implicitly slaves) and only acknowledged slaves as 3/5 of a person.

Slave Importation: "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person."
In order for the constitution to be ratified, the northern states had to agree that congress could not pass any laws against the importation of slaves until 1808. While the southern representatives claimed they too abhorred slavery and thought it would die out soon, they knew their home states would not accept the abolition of slavery. Slavery died out so soon that some war was fought over its expansion in the 1860s. Because this clause only operated until 1808 it is still a valid part of the constitution and has not been revoked by subsequent amendments like the other slavery clauses. In other words, reference to slavery is still part of the constitution.

The vice-presidency: "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided."
The original constitution created an office that John Adams, upon holding said office, called the most useless office ever invented by man. While precedent has been set over the years giving the Vice President more authority, constitutionally it is an almost pointless position other than to have a ready successor to the President and a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

The Fugitive Slave clause: "No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due."
So often the more conservative part of our electorate proclaims "States' rights" that it makes me laugh to think how the constitution was a document established to limit state rights, to strengthen the federal government, and how in that document even the state sovereignty that was intended to remain was infringed by the slave power. States' rights? If we get back to the original constitution you can't decide who is free or slave within the boundaries of your own state.

1st Amendment - The establishment clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion"
The first clause of the first amendment, separation of church and state. The tea party loves the constitution, we need to get back to our roots - and yet the very first thing amended was to make sure that church and state were separated. Despite Christine O'Donnell's claims, it's in the document, actually it's in the document twice. The third paragraph of the Article VI reads in part "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

9th Amendment - Unenumerated rights: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
Despite this amendment, many rights retained by the people are denied and disparaged precisely because they're not enumerated in the constitution. Of course, this is not unconstitutional, as it is people (more often than not those who have placed the constitution on a pedestal) who disparage and deny said rights, not the federal government. But again, it smacks of hypocrisy to love the constitution and deny so many of its provisions, even in the document as established by the founding fathers.

10th Amendment - "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people"
A favorite of those who proclaim the sanctity of states' rights. While I will repeat ad infinitum that states' rights have been used to commit many of the greatest atrocities in our nation's history, and are the reason why we had a civil war and a need for a civil rights movement, I just wanted to point out the last part of this amendment "or to the people."


Okay, now we get to the other seventeen. I'm going to just go over a general review of them first and then get into particulars when it comes to what is important to me, and is often forgotten by those who would exhalt our constitution as it was founded and not as it is. Because we have the ability to change and alter our constitution slavery is now illegal, all people (without respect to color, race, creed, or gender) are entitled to the franchise, our government can levy taxes needed to function (especially important for the military), no single person can have dynastic rule over our country (although I'm glad we had Roosevelt so long), we know who will lead the country even in the event of catastrophe, U.S. Citizens in Washington, D.C. can vote for their president despite not having representation in Congress, no poll taxes are allowed, 18 year olds can vote, and congress can't give itself a pay raise. I may not agree with every change in the constitution, I don't think it's a perfect document. But it is a far superior document today than it was in 1787.

The 14th Amendment -
Citizenship clause - "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
The constitution establishes rights of citizenship, but never defines the term until the 14th Amendment. This is important and yet the tea party (or some members thereof) want to strike this. It is hypocrisy to adulate a document and then to try to change it. Furthermore, all those who claim that President Obama has no right to be President because they don't believe he was born here will lose their argument if there is no more definition of a citizen.
Privileges and immunities clause - "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States"
For the first time, the federal constitution extended its protections to prevent States from violating the federal constitution. Many people don't realize (outrage at certain commentators being fired, or having boycotts threatened against their advertisers) that the rights in the constitution only prevent government intervention. And prior to the 14th Amendment they were only protected against the federal government, now they're protected against state governments as well.
Due process clause - "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"
More protections against government intervention. Strange that the people who do not fear government are the same ones who most laud the 14th amendment and its protections against government intervention in our lives. Don't mess with my 14th Amendment!
Equal protection clause - "nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws"
The most important amendment to the constitution (either this or the 1st) was passed more than seventy years after the founding fathers ratified the document. And those who claim to want to get back to the constitution consistently denigrate this amendment. It changed our country so much for the better, and even after it was changed the states, claiming their rights, did everything they could not to follow it. That's why we needed the 15th and 24th amendments as well. But the 14th amendment does have some serious flaws.

Second Section of the 14th Amendment - "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State."
All people were finally recognized as whole people by our constitution, but unfortunately for the first time gender is explicitly recognized in our constitution. The right to vote shall not be denied to any male - because of this codification women's suffrage was set back and it would be more than fifty years before the 19th amendment would finally fix that.

I for one am glad that there is no more slavery in our nation, that there are no more Jim Crow laws. I am glad that my wife can vote, that I know I am a U.S. Citizen and what that term means, and that the rights established in the Bill of Rights can't be infringed by the Federal OR State Government. I'm an independent - I would have been a Republican in 1860 and a Democrat today if I had to join a party because I agree with progress. For the most part, the progressives in this country have made it a better place, not a worse one. They have helped us move forward rather than backward - the good old days weren't so great. Teaparty, nobody stole your country from you, they voted according to the established methods defined by the Constitution you so venerate to elect representatives who represent what they desired. If on Tuesday your candidates are elected to office, it will be by the same method.

Vote Tuesday, vote informed, and know why you're doing it. If you don't know who's on the ballot in your area, find out. is an excellent resource to find out about who will be on your ballot. And please, just because you know Person X and dislike what they've done, don't automatically vote for Person Y. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't. This is exemplified in Nevada. I don't care how bad you want Reid out of office, Sharron Angle is worse, thankfully Nevada has the option to vote for None of the Above. I happen to like Harry Reid, but even if I didn't, I would still be sick to my stomach that Mitt Romney (somebody I respect but who keeps disappointing me) endorsed Sharron Angle. See more of her below.

And just because I fear the tea party, here's some of the why:

Man arrested for going to Public Event for Republican Minority Whip Eric Cantor

Woman Tackled and Stomped On after Debate in Kentucky by Rand Paul (R) Supporters

Reporter Arrested at Joe Miller (R) Alaska event

A Whole Lot of Sharron Angle

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I'm a Mormon.


John said...

Good article.

The Sanguine Pen said...

"The other seventeen"....

You said: "all people (without respect to color, race, creed, or gender) are entitled to the franchise..."

Actually, no. Denizens of the nation's capital are not, ostensibly because the are not "people of the several [American] states".

Surely DC denizens are not people of the Asian steppes, the African savannah, the Argentinian Pampas, the Australian outback or the Arctic tundra. It does not say RESIDENTS of the several states. And so, we allow expatriate Americans abroad and those serving in the military to vote absentee in spite of the fact that they do not reside in a state at the time of an election. Why not DC denizens?