My father once told me that the difference between the two parties is simple: the Democrats are stupid whereas the Republicans are just plain dumb. That bit of wisdom has held up well, though not always in the same proportion at the same time.
Today the Republicans did something smart and promptly turned it into something really dumb. Reading the Constitution was the smart thing. The founding document possesses enormous authority and reverence toward it is altogether proper.
The dumb thing was to read an “amended version”. The text they read, I gather, removed all the language that has been superseded by amendments. There is a lot of language in the Constitution that isn’t in the Constitution anymore, in a legal sense. For example, the original text states that senators are chosen by the state legislatures, but that was changed by the Seventeenth Amendment to election by the people of each state. I gather that the original language of the text was changed to reflect later amendments. I can’t seem to find a complete audio version to check.
This was politically dumb because you surely undermines your case for fidelity to the original document by producing a new, edited document that no ratifying body ever saw. It was dumb also because it invited folks like Dahlia Lithwick at Slate to accuse the Republicans of “whitewashing the Constitution” by leaving out the passages about slavery. It was dumb because it looks dumb.
It was also dumb because the very passages that we are now justly ashamed of reveal both the corruption of the American idea by slavery and also the genuine greatness of what that peculiar institution corrupted. Here is one of the passages, I gather, that was not read in full.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
In reading the document aloud, they skipped over that last clause. One can understand why. Those “other persons” were slaves. The presence of slavery in a Republic based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence exposes the founders as hypocrites.
But you can’t be a hypocrite without acknowledging, if only by pretense, that you know what is right and what is wrong. The language above is laboriously constructed for the precise purpose of omitting the words slavery and slaves. The founders recognized that those words would stain the document, and so they are absent from the several provisions that recognize the institution.
Moreover, the Three Fifths Compromise expresses a logical division already present in the Republic. If those “other persons” aren’t really people, with rights and dignity, then it makes no sense to count them for purposes of representation in the House. If they are really people, then they ought not only to be counted; they ought to be freed and given the vote.
If we hadn’t really believed what we wrote in the Declaration, the Civil War would not have been possible. If we hadn’t practiced slavery, in blatant contradiction to what we wrote, the war would never have been necessary. Skipping over the Three Fifths Clause throws the baby out with the very foul bathwater.
It’s a bad sign that the Republicans had no one around to point this out. I’m available, if they are reading. This was not an auspicious start.