Michael Gerson is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He’s now a columnist for the Washington Post. He’s taken on the TEA Party movement in several recent columns.
Mike Gerson was entirely right to commend the TEA Party for giving a quick axe to a local activist who wrote a parody of slaves asking “ Massa ” Lincoln not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a wholly offensive and witless piece that only fueled the left’s false claims that the TEA Party is racist. If only the left would give such a quick heave-ho to such thoroughly offensive characters as Bill (Mocker) Maher.
But Mike Gerson stumbled badly when he writes that black Americans have good reason to fear the TEA Party’s jubilant populism because, after all, “the Constitutional Convention was a conspiracy against their rights.”
What histories, what biographies, what commentaries on the Great Convention at Philadelphia must Mike Gerson be reading? To make such a statement is to concede the major, flawed premise of the left. If you think the Founders were so fundamentally wrong about a great moral question, you are unlikely to have much respect for the great charter of liberty they gave us.
If you think the Founders were engaged in a conspiracy against anyone’s rights, you are much more likely to view the Constitution as a document—like Justice Scalia’s famous magic slate—that you can write all over, then pull up your plastic page and start writing again. In short, if you think the Constitution the Founders wrote was morally flawed, you will be forced to accede to Justice Breyer’s notion of a “living constitution,” one that evolves with time so you can find in it new “rights”—like abortion, like counterfeit marriage, like nationalized health care.
No less a commanding figure of nineteenth century political theory than Frederick Douglass disagreed with Mike Gerson’s negative assessment of the Founders’ handiwork.
…the Constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, but, on the contrary, was in its letter and spirit and anti-slavery instrument…
Douglass candidly admitted he did not always think this way. Originally, he agreed with the white abolitionists, as Gerson apparently does today, that the Founders’ Constitution was a pro-slavery document.
But Douglass carefully studied the Founders’ work.
By such a course of thought and reading, I was conducted to the conclusion that the Constitution of the United States—inaugurated ‘to form a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty’—could not have been designed at the same time to maintain and perpetuate a system of rapine and murder like slavery, especially as not one word ban be found in the Constitution to authorize such a belief. Then again, if the declared purposes of an instrument are to govern the meaning of all its parts and details, as they clearly should, the Constitution of our country is a warrant for the abolition of slavery in every State of the Union.
Douglass took a more advanced view of the Constitution even than President Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln agreed with Douglass that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of its principles, not in terms of the limited but necessary compromises the Founders were forced to make with the “peculiar institution” of slavery as it existed among them.
Even the Three-Fifths Compromise has been notoriously misconstrued in our own time. Al Gore has wildly claimed that the Founders thought black people “three-fifths of a person.” No such thing. It was a straight-out compromise between slaveholders and the anti-slavery majority of the delegates.
The Three-Fifths Compromise meant that whenever a state abolished slavery on its own—as seven of the original thirteen were hastening to do when the Constitution was drafted and ratified—it would get a “bonus” in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Upon emancipation, it would be allowed to count fully all its citizens for purposes of representation.
Abraham Lincoln said it best. The Founders never mentioned the words slave or Negro, or even identified the horrible Slave Trade as coming from Africa because they wanted to “hide it away, as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a tumor.” Lincoln ’s careful study of the Founders’ work convinced him that they were ashamed of the institution and longed for its “eventual extinction.” They didn’t just long for its end, they took positive steps to arrest its spread.
The Constitutional Convention was no conspiracy against any Americans’ rights. It was truly a Miracle at Philadelphia . And the TEA Party movement, by bringing us back to our constitutional roots, is doing a great and good service to all Americans.
Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are Senior Fellows at Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. They have advocated replacing the statue of Roger B. Taney in front of the Maryland State House with one of Frederick Douglass.