This column is co-authored by Robert Morrison
“There’s nothing new under the sun,” said President Harry Truman, “ there’s only history we haven’t learned yet.” The history we haven’t learned yet was on display on page one of the Washington Post. Post writers Philip Rucker and David Farenthold reported on the reading of the Constitution by newly sworn-in Members of the 112th Congress.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) led the novel exercise and defended the decision not to read those portions of the Constitution that have been superseded by amendment. After all, it makes little sense to explain in detail how the president and vice president are to be chosen as the top two finishers in the Electoral College when the Twelfth Amendment changed all of that. (A good thing, too. Imagine how well George W. Bush and Al Gore would have gotten along for the first four years of the new century.)
The Rucker-Farenthold article was nowhere labeled analysis, but who expects anything but front-page editorials these days, anyway? They waded right in to a two-hundred twenty-two year old controversy when they flatly stated that the original Constitution “condoned” slavery.
Abraham Lincoln did not agree. He revered the Constitution and said that the fact that it nowhere mentioned the words slavery, slave, African, or Negro was a silent but powerful admission that the Founders were ashamed of the existence of slavery among them. They hid it away, Lincoln said, as “an afflicted man hides a wen or tumor.”
Abolitionist editor and orator Frederick Douglass also did not agree. He emphasized eloquently that not one word would have to be changed in the Constitution if only the states would follow George Washington’s example and voluntarily give up slavery.
Lincoln and Douglass were right. James Madison explained why there was no mention of slavery in the Constitution. The framers were unwilling to admit in the federal charter there could be property in men.
The idea that our Constitution “condoned” slavery and was therefore an immoral document unworthy of being viewed with reverence is a stock liberal claim. It is false.
Most of the Founders wanted to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Jefferson had denounced that “execrable traffic” in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
But South Carolina and Georgia delegates would not go along and, significantly, some in New England recognized the powerful influence of merchants whose ships included slavers.
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