Why Just Statues? Why Not Topple the US Constitution As Well?

| Educate!

Protesters are toppling slaveowner-statues from one end of the U.S. to the other. Given that slavery is nothing more than legalized kidnapping, the only surprise is that it’s taken them so long. No one would honor Jeffrey Epstein with a statue, so why honor generations of rapists and child molesters who came before him?

But there’s no point toppling slaveholders without toppling what slaveholders wrought, up to and including their greatest achievement of all – the U.S. Constitution. This is the document that not only governs life in the United States down to the tiniest legal detail but, thanks to America’s global hegemony, undergirds the international system as well.

Yet the Constitution is a plan of government created by slaveholders for slaveholders in order to maintain their wealth and perpetuate their grip on power. Of the 55 delegates to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, twenty-five were slaveowners, which was more than enough to give them an effective veto over the proceedings as a whole. Slaveholders were economically predominant in six of the thirteen states – Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia – which was more than sufficient to stop the constitutional process in its tracks since Article VII stipulated that nine had to approve the new constitution before it could become law.

So the rest had no choice but to go along. Not everyone in America supported slavery. To the contrary, Massachusetts and New Hampshire had already banned it by 1787 while Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island had passed gradual abolition laws that were putting it on the road to extinction. But slave owners were influential in swing states like New York and New Jersey, while they were so rich and powerful in the south – George Washington was worth better than half a billion dollars in today’s money – that New England abolitionists had no choice but to go along.

As a result, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a member of the Philadelphia convention, was able to reassure his fellow South Carolina plantation owners that the new constitution would render the south’s “peculiar institution” impregnable. “In short,” he said, “considering all circumstances, we have made the best terms for the security of this species of property it was in our power to make. We would have made better if we could; but on the whole, I do not think them bad.”

So strong was slavery’s position, in fact, that Abraham Lincoln conceded as late as 1861 that he had “no lawful right” to “interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists.” In the end, the only way abolitionists were able to get around this legal blockade was by launching an extra-constitutional civil war, a brutal four-year slog through blood and mire that ended up costing the life of one American in fifty, a level of carnage relative to population that was double that of the French Revolution of 1789-94.

This was the “covenant with death and an agreement with hell” that the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced in 1854. As Albany Law School professor Paul Finkelman noted in a 2013 article, the Constitution included half a dozen or more provisions that rendered slavery untouchable. Article I guaranteed that the African slave trade would continue for more than twenty years – until 1808, to be exact. Article IV required northern states to return slaves trying to escape to freedom, while Articles I and IV contained separate clauses empowering Congress to put down slave rebellions. Article I prohibited taxes on slave-produced exports, while, in general, the document’s division of powers conceded vast areas of domestic policy, slavery first and foremost, to the states.

Three features were particularly important. One was a senate based on equal state representation. Since Congress controlled new states entering the Union, this allowed slave states to maintain a rough parity with the North that would allow them to veto any and all bills right up to the Civil War. A second was a notorious clause in Article I allowing southern states to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional apportionment. The upshot was to give slave states as many as twenty-five extra seats in the House of Representatives, as well as up to twenty-five extra votes in the Electoral College. This is why Thomas Jefferson was able to triumph by eight electoral votes over John Adams of Massachusetts in the 1800 presidential race. It’s also why eleven of the fifteen presidents prior to Lincoln were slaveowners – because the South had stacked the deck. (Besides the two Adamses, John and John Quincy, the only exceptions were a couple of northern nonentities who were pro-slavery nonetheless – Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania.)

The third major weapon in the slaveholders’ arsenal was Article V, which governs how the Constitution can be amended and which is so slanted to minority interests that it allows just over one-third of either house of Congress or one-fourth-plus of the states to veto any constitutional alteration, no matter how minor. So steep are the barriers to reform, Finkelman points out, that slavery conceivably be with U.S. still if Union forces hadn’t abolished it at gunpoint.

But what’s important in terms of today’s protesters is that while slavery may be gone, its legacy is not. Thanks to equal state representation, the Senate is even more lopsided than it was in the mid-nineteenth century and hardly less racist since blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately concentrated in the ten largest states that are outvoted four to one by the minority of Americans who live in the other forty. Article V still allows one-fourth-plus of the states  –  i.e. thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population – to veto any constitutional reform. Since most of the small states tend to be lily-white bastions like Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Vermont, it’s not difficult to guess whose interests wind up being served.

Then there’s the three-fifths clause. To be sure, the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified three years after the Civil War, supposedly rendered it moot by declaring that congressional representation “shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state.” But the after-effects linger on. If it wasn’t for the three-fifths clause, we wouldn’t have the Electoral College since its entire purpose was to augment the power of the slave states over the presidency. But if it wasn’t for the Electoral College, we wouldn’t have Donald Trump, who won in 2016 by 306 electoral votes to 232 despite trailing by better than two percent in the popular vote.

So contrary to an endlessly reactionary Democratic Party, it wasn’t Russia that put Trump, but a superannuated constitution that people like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer revere.

Finally, there’s the police. As Finkelman points out, southern states pushed for a constitutional arrangement that granted them maximum local autonomy. They wanted a monopoly on local power so they could deal with both runaway slaves and poor white farmers for whom slavery was economically devastating. But the upshot centuries later are myriads of local police departments – nearly 18,000 in all – answerable to no one other than local politicians who are every bit as benighted as they are. They have a license to kill as a consequence because that’s the way slaveholders wanted at the time, an arrangement that no one’s been able to do a thing about since because America’s untouchable eighteenth-century constitution means that it’s all but set in stone.

So go ahead – topple all those status of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other child-snatchers. But don’t forget to topple the plan of government they created. Slavery may be gone, but its ghost is with us still, which is why it’s time to exorcise it once and for all.

  • The Constitution has already been toppled. What has to be “toppled” or “turned to ashes” or blown up is the White House, Congress (all of it and all representatives working as senators and representatives), the Pentagon and most of Langley, VA. If anything is going to be disposed of, these are the only meaningful targets, as long as the residents and workers in these buildings, including NSA in Langley, are included.

  • Nylene13

    The Constitution of the United States does not need to be destroyed.

    It has the power to create Amendments written right into it.

    What needs to end is Capitalism.

  • subcomandante Felix

    Sadly, for most progressives and many others on the left, the Constitution is a sacred text akin to the Bible, the word of God all mighty. The so-called founding founders, were terrified by the populist, democratic sentiments released by the American Revolution and created a social contract to maintain their power, wealth and privilege. Founding fathers who were rich, land, slave and women owning white men.

    One of the biggest myths surrounding the Constitution is that it is a human rights document. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Constitution is property rights legal framework where very limited political rights (Bill of Rights) were added as an afterthought. Added largely to limit the depredations of factions of the rich on one another. Charles A. Beard, perhaps the preeminent historian of the 20th Century, detailed in his landmark book, “An Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution” that the founding fathers were primarily concerned with protecting their economic and financial interests – especially chattel slavery – not “we the people.”

  • Victor Madeson

    In fact, the word slavery does not appear in the Constitution until after the Civil War (in 13th Amendment). Madison demanded that the wording be in terms of “persons” because there was an honest hope that it could be eliminated in the future, much like the European equivalent (serfdom) was to be eliminated in Europe starting a few years later. Paine’s two volumes on “Rights of Man” describes how it could be done.

  • kevinzeese

    Ten years before the American Revolution, British courts had ruled that there was no legal basis for slavery and they began the process of abolition. Some historians believe it was the fear that Britain was ending slavery that brought many plantation owners and those who profited from the sale of slavery-made goods into the Revolution.

    Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the authors of the Constitution were slave owners or people who profited from slavery. In many ways the Constitution embedded slavery. It is why the US has such a strong property rights Constitution.

    In addition, the two parties in the United States, up until the Civil War kept abolition out of the Congress. It was a taboo subject not allowed to be discussed.

    Westward expansion and the issue of whether new states and territories would be slave or free became the political battleground.

  • That is a rather myopic perspective as the United States Constitution is the institutionalization and codification of property rights which is the fundamental principle behind the rise of capitalism, the private ownership of resources. Access to resources is a necessity for all life. The institutionalized restriction of that access in a naive manner is a violation of the natural laws of life that require certain access in order for life to sustain itself.

    Natural ecosystems systemically regulate resource access dynamically in a manner that we have come to recognize as the process by which life evolves. When human culture and institutions become too far removed from the natural dynamics of living ecosystems in the manners in which they motivate certain human behaviors, we see the acceleration of the types of living ecosystem imbalances we are witnessing all around us. When those imbalances become to extreme, we begin to endanger the viability of human life within the Earth ecosystem. Life will likely persevere in one form or another but in may not be anything that even closely resembles what we know as human life today.

    It is these very clear and immutable demands of life itself that should be driving all efforts at legal, institutional and cultural reform. The more abstract notions of human rights vis-a-vis property rights are derived from a deeper understanding of this natural dynamic of living ecosystems and the complex dynamics of the relationships of all living beings to one another. There is nothing particularly sacred about the American constitution especially when it motivates human behaviors that drive us towards dystopian futures for a global humanity within a living ecosystem that is no longer as amenable to human life as the one that brought humanity into being.

  • chetdude

    Alas, my friend, read the article again — as little as 4.4% of the USAmerican population can BLOCK ANY CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT.

    And thanks to the core of that “Constitution”, as little as 18% of the USAmerican electorate can control the Senate.

    Remember the ERA?

  • chetdude

    Or one can consider bypassing them. “All politics is local.”

  • Nylene13

    England was against slavery- in England.

    But they had no problem with English Sea Captains bringing Africans in chains to America. Lots of money for England….

    What ever the motivation for Revolution among the individual slave owners was, Thomas Jefferson held up the Ratification of the U.S Constitution for 2 years trying to end slavery. At a time we really needed it ratified. The King of England was watching.

    When Jefferson finally saw he could not win, he bitterly said-
    “This is no way to start a new Country-

    200 years from now we will still regret this decision”.

    Thomas Jefferson did not want to be President. After the Revolution was won, a delegation was sent to ask Jefferson to be King.

    He not only refused, he suggested George Washington be our first President. The he did it again.

    Finally he became our 3rd President. But all his life, he fought slavery.

    In fact, Jefferson outlawed the importing of slaves from Africa in his county -before England did. I think they got the idea from Jefferson.

    He did his best.

    I wonder what future generations will say about us?
    How could people who said they were against Nuclear war, still pay taxes?
    How could people who said they were against Pollution, still ride subways and drive cars?

    Easy to judge, when you are looking at the past.

  • Nylene13

    Please see my comment to Kevin -above.

    And a personal note-How can Haole’s justify owning land in Hawaii-when they know it is stolen land and Hawaiians are the poorest people in Hawaii?

  • Nylene13

    Amendments were written into the Constitution for this very reason.

    We can change the Constitution.

    Jefferson was saying We the People can change the Government.

    That idea makes the Constitution sacred.

    I would not be so quick to throw it away.

    I can’t imagine what would make Trump and Co. Happier.

  • Nylene13

    Paine, who life was saved by President Thomas Jefferson bringing Paine to America.

    Just making the point.

  • Robb Rogers

    I think chet’s point is that tinkering with the constitution is insufficient.

    Imperialism and racism and capitalism are structural systems.
    They must be eliminated systematically by restructuring our foundation in law –structurally/constitutionally.

    Mostly, the constitution for any national government must be a human rights document, not an ownership rights one.

  • Nylene13

    We judge these truths to be self-evident, that All men are created equal, with the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…

  • chetdude

    Alas, getting an Amendment that can be blocked by 4.4% of the American Population that would eliminate the fact that Amendments can be blocked by 4.4% of the population might be difficult. 🙂

  • chetdude

    Which of course really meant: “We judge these truths to be self-evident, that All White Male Property Owners are created equal, with the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”

  • Nylene13

    Which really meant, “I Thomas Jefferson, am doing everything I can to end slavery, including putting these words into our Founding Documents….”
    And the other Founding Fathers said-better just let Tom have his say and go along with this, or he is going to hold up the ratification of the U.S. Constitution AGAIN….