The Heritage Foundation responds to critics of the Founding
So what if the Constitution is racist, unfair or outdated?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.
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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.