Bad History in Defence of the Constitution and the Founders
Over at Frumforum, an “employee of the US government” with the pseudonym Henry Clay (yes, that Henry Clay) has attacked new US Supreme Court appointee Elena Kagan for her citation of Thurgood Marshall‘s criticism of the US Constitution. Really, “Clay” is attacking Marshall himself here.
Unfortunately for him, Clay’s reasoning is both immoral and historically inaccurate. Most of the commenters on the site do a good job of showing that no matter how you slice it, the Constitution was a flawed document, and the Founders were imperfect human beings.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too, great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.
And he went on:
The Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither.
Yet calling on the authority of Douglass is not a valid defence of the Founders, some of whom owned slaves, or the document, which if it didn’t specifically allow for slavery, did not outlaw it either, and did label Blacks 3/5 of a person, a vile idea indefensible to our modern sensibilities, no matter its political intentions. Indeed, the very fact that the Constitution needed amendments, including one to abolish slavery, suggests its imperfection. The only major thing Clay got right was when he said: “the Founders’ compromise with slavery was the Constitution’s original sin.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there. This was especially off-base:
The Founders deserve our praise for setting in motion a natural rights republic that would liberate the slaves, promote economic liberty, and ultimately save the world from the twin tyrannies of Nazism and Communism.
Where to begin?
First, nothing in history is inevitable, unless you’re a Hegelian or a Marxist. And I don’t think Clay is either of those. Second, the Founders didn’t set anything in motion. England and France ended slavery before America did. Abolitionists, who upheld the Declaration of Independence but deplored the Constitution, put forth the anti-slavery cause, often with fiery Christian rhetoric and sometimes with violence. An entire war was fought to free the slaves, in which both sides invoked the Founders. Promoting “economic liberty”: well that’s certainly debatable, and that’s for another time.
And then there’s the whole “saving the world” from Nazism and Communism. Actually, the Americans only entered the Second World War in December of 1941, while the British and, after Operation Barbarossa, the Soviets fought off Hitler’s troops. Indeed, the Red Army, battered though it was, won WWII at Stalingrad, in the winter of 1942-1943, when it began to push the mighty German war machine back. D-Day sped up the result, but the war had already been decided. So I guess you could say that Communism saved the world from Nazism, though I wouldn’t say that. And I don’t really think America “saved the world from Communism,” despite the evils of the Soviet Union and Communist China, I don’t think they ever really threatened world domination. Also, the Soviet Union fell mostly due to internal difficulties and Mikhail Gorbachev’s brave leadership, not Ronald Reagan’s patriotic fervor.
Too many Americans foolishly worship documents, namely the Constitution, and hold up the Founders as deities. That makes for bad history, and as we hope this blog has been showing, bad history can lead to bad policy.