The Heritage Foundation responds to critics of the Founding

By The Dartmouth Web Staff | 2/28/12 3:21pm



So what if the Con­sti­tu­tion is racist, un­fair or out­dated? So what if it isn't?

The found­ing has long re­ceived such charges with­out re­ceiv­ing due at­ten­tion to its sig­nif­i­cance for today's po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to David Az­er­rad, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Prin­ci­ples and Pol­i­tics at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion.

"The cre­ation of our coun­try has pro­found po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions for the pre­sent," Az­er­rad said in a lec­ture hosted by The Dart­mouth Re­view and PoliTalk and held in the Rock­e­feller Cen­ter on Mon­day. "It's true of all regimes, par­tic­u­larly true of regimes such as ours, which at a spe­cific mo­ment in his­tory ar­tic­u­lated clear prin­ci­ples for the es­tab­lish­ment of our coun­try.

1) The Con­sti­tu­tion is Racist

When it comes to the Con­sti­tu­tion, slav­ery is the "800 pound go­rilla in the room," said Az­er­rad.

Firstly, Az­er­rad said that con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, the prin­ci­ples of the United States can­not be writ­ten off as racist.

"Nowhere are human be­ings clas­si­fied ac­cord­ing to race," he said of the Con­sti­tu­tion. "The en­slave­ment of human be­ings is a fun­da­men­tal vi­o­la­tion of every­thing the Found­ing stands for."

He fur­ther pointed out that by the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury, the 13th amend­ment abol­ished slav­ery. "It's ab­solutely im­pos­si­ble to make the ar­gu­ment that the founders were res­olutely for slav­ery," he said. In­stead, they cre­ated a frame­work that would allow for the even­tual abo­li­tion of slav­ery through a de­mo­c­ra­tic process that em­bod­ies lib­erty and equal­ity.

Sec­ondly, Az­er­rad ad­dressed charges that the Con­sti­tu­tion is racist be­cause of the founders' pri­vate ca­pac­i­ties.

"We ought to turn to the prin­ci­ples of the found­ing, not the way in­di­vid­u­als con­ducted them­selves in their pri­vate lives," he said.




Thirdly, Az­er­rad said we must re­mem­ber that abo­li­tion was shrouded in mon­u­men­tal po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic ob­sta­cles.

"The South­ern-hold­ing states would never have rat­i­fied a con­sti­tu­tion that out­lawed slav­ery," he said.

Con­trary to what Az­er­rad de­scribed as a wide­spread view of the Three-Fifths Com­pro­mise, it did not value the "moral worth of black peo­ple" at three fifths as much as it pro­vided a com­pro­mise for the "tricky ques­tion" of con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion."

South­ern states "wanted to count blacks as one per­son," he said, in order to "in­flate their in­ter­ests in Con­gress."

Typ­i­cal views of such ob­sta­cles "fail to do jus­tice to the com­plex­ity of the issue and the very real ef­forts made to un­der­mine slav­ery," Az­er­rad said.

2) The Con­sti­tu­tion is Un­fair

Widely-taught views of the Con­sti­tu­tion — par­tic­u­larly in Howard Zinn'sA Peo­ple's His­tory— often point to the ex­clu­sion of non-prop­erty own­ing white males from the Found­ing as in­di­ca­tion of the in­her­ent un­fair­ness of the Con­sti­tu­tion, ac­cord­ing to Az­er­rad.

How­ever, the Con­sti­tu­tion does not in­clude any vot­ing re­stric­tions based on race, gen­der or sex­ual clas­si­fi­ca­tions, ac­cord­ing to Az­er­rad. In­stead, the Con­sti­tu­tion de­fers to the states to choose voter qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

In­deed, women, free blacks and the poor voted at the time of the found­ing in cer­tain states, Az­er­rad said, who added he is not a scholar of Amer­i­can his­tory.

"In 1797 in New Jer­sey, for the first time in recorded human his­tory, women voted in an elec­tion," he said. "A few years later, the state changed the law, but it's still an amaz­ing thing to note."

3) The Con­sti­tu­tion is Out­dated

Though he con­tests a view of the con­sti­tu­tion as a "liv­ing" doc­u­ment, Az­er­rad said the Con­sti­tu­tion's "en­dur­ing rel­e­vance" is its sys­tem of checks and bal­ances, its grant of lim­ited pow­ers to the three branches and its abil­ity to be amended.

"The Con­sti­tu­tion is meant to cre­ate a frame­work for a free peo­ple to con­front the po­lit­i­cal ques­tion for their times, what­ever that may be," he said. "It of­fers no pol­icy per­scrip­tions."

"Ac­tivist judges" who cre­ate rights from le­gal­ist con­struc­tions like penum­brae threaten the de­mo­c­ra­tic process of vot­ers who elect rep­re­sen­ta­tives who in turn make law, he added,

In the end, did the founders not go far enough in se­cur­ing every­one's right to vote or abol­ish­ing slav­ery?

Ac­cord­ing to Az­er­rad, prob­a­bly — though the founders’ dis­ap­point­ing our mod­ern-day stan­dards shouldn't bar fur­ther study of the his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances and po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of the Found­ing.

"At the very least, do it the cour­tesy of read­ing it hon­estly and not dis­miss­ing it for being racist, un­fair or out­dated," he con­cluded.

The Her­itage Foun­da­tion is a con­ser­v­a­tive pub­lic pol­icy think tank that for­mu­lates and pro­motes con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues such as lim­ited gov­ern­ment, in­di­vid­ual free­dom, tra­di­tional val­ues, free en­ter­prise and strong de­fense.

The Dartmouth Web Staff