Constitution Day 2019
Posted by Ryan J. Suto on September 17, 2019 in Blog
The Constitution will only play a meaningful role in our future if we properly contextualize its past
Earlier this year, DeKalb County, Georgia, sought to tear down a Confederate monument in a public square in the county seat of Decatur. The monument is an obelisk which was erected in 1908 as part of the Lost Cause movement to re-cast the Confederacy as a noble force in U.S. history. Blocked from taking the monument down by the state legislature, the county commissioners chose to contextualize it instead. Earlier this month, the county added a plaque to the monument which declares that it "bolstered white supremacy and faulty history" and was erected to "intimidate African Americans and limit their full participation in the social and political life of their communities."
Over the past year, scholars and writers have made similar declarations about the U.S. Constitution, that it was born of an “immoral and repugnant choice that has scarred the nation permanently,” and that it failed to “recognize the full personhood of African Americans.” After all, the document does contain provisions such as the Three-Fifths Compromise and Article 1, Section 9, which prevented Congress from ending the "Importation of such Persons" (the international slave trade) before 1808. The legacy of slavery leaves the document tainted, so the argument goes. In a similar vein, the 1619 Project from the New York Times was released this year—a recognition of 400 years since the first African slaves were brought to America in an effort to “to reframe the country’s history” to discuss the beginning of slavery on our shores as our “true founding”. Despite the project’s affirmation of American democracy, critics such as Erick Erickson have rejected the whole project, writing, "If the nation is founded on slavery and slavery is woven into the very fabric of our society, then our society is illegitimate."
The context of the Constitution in 2019 includes not only slavery, but also the current administration. The constant rhetorical and legal attacks on minority and immigrant communities, launched by Trump and his allies, has also forced a true reckoning about what it means to be American, and what the Constitution itself stands for. In his rhetoric, this summer president told four minority Congresswomen to go back to their countries, and just last night on stage at a political rally he asked an attendee, “Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?” In policy, the Trump administration is looking to expand deportation powers, is considering ending refugee resettlement altogether, has turned away almost all asylum seekers, oversees an illusory Muslim Ban waiver system, and runs concentration camps along our southern border. Trump’s pursuit of such purposely cruel policies target and limit certain American communities and are popular among those who have an overarching fear that minorities will soon become the majority in the United States. And across the political spectrum, including conservative lawyers, conservative former judges,Constitutional experts, and the federal judiciary itself, many agree that Trump habitually ignores the Constitution in pursuit of his exclusionary vision of the country.
Since last Constitution Day, AAI has fought against this vision of America every day—a fight which has manifested in separate policy struggles from working against those horrific immigration policies to ensuring everyone is counted in the upcoming census, from combating voter restrictions to understanding hate crime. During that same time, the country has seen a growing skepticism in the institutions, authority, and tradition upon which veneration of the Constitution lies. Whether the rural working class, Millennials, or Members of Congress, Americans from widely divergent demographics and life experiences have come to exhibit a “blanket distrust of institutions of authority.” And through this distrust, many have come to the conclusion that the United States was built upon the exploitation of natives and African Americans, which was enabled by the Constitution and grew through injustice within and beyond our borders, bequeathing a country just as capable of evil as any other. In a way, Trump’s naked attempts to bring the country back to an imagined monochromatic past has done more to shatter the myth of the United States as a divinely-guided polity, a shining city upon a hill, than any call for historical introspection could ever hope to do.
But even with a growing number of Americans viewing our founding, and our Constitution, more critically, we cannot sanitize our history in a bid to remove any stains from our national ethos. Similar to the Confederate monument in DeKalb County, our only option is to accurately contextualize our legal foundations. As former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once observed, only 2% of the U.S. population could prevent a change to the U.S. Constitution. He quipped, "it ought to be hard, but not that hard." America cannot tear down this monument, so instead we are forced to face white supremacy and the Constitution's role in furthering and insulating that ideology. That the Constitution was written by wealthy white men who held humans in bondage, did not recognize women as equals, could not be bothered by the input of the poor, and participated in attempting to wipe out Native Americans, should not be celebrated, but needs to be included in the popular conception of the United States. We cannot learn from a history that we have chosen to ignore. Further, coming to terms with this past is required if we are to maintain confidence in our Constitutional system; if a growing number of Americans cannot see the Constitution, and the government it empowers, as legitimately including themselves in ‘We the People’, the document and the union it has created cannot long endure.
With this past year of Constitutional life behind us, America can step outside the imagined shadows of generations past, take historical realities head-on, and embrace the eternal struggle of nation building. We can admit that the foundational concepts of separation of powers, federalism, and a bill of rights in the U.S. Constitution are structures which have aged remarkably well, and have helped spread effective institutional democracy across the globe, without ignoring the Constitutional structures which were added to further oppression and the atrocities the United States has committed at home and abroad. So this year we should acknowledge that 1619 was an American founding. As was the first violent contact between Europeans and Native Americans. As was 1776, and 1787, and 1791. But so was 1868 a founding, which saw the end of legal chattel slavery and a revolution in the relationship between the federal government, the states, and the people. And the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Era. Each founding propagated a country vastly different than had existed before. Since we cannot remove our past, and the moral shadow it casts on our public square, this is how we should contextualize it. Our national plaque must speak of every past struggle, and the inherent American duty to make the next one easier. With an understanding of our past and how it lives in all of us, we can work toward the next American founding together.