Jonathan Middlebrook: Local Lessons on the Constitution with the Ukiah Valley Patriots


From JONATHAN MIDDLEBROOK
Ukiah

Last January, the Ukiah Daily Journal printed a story about the Ukiah Valley Patriots offering a class in the U.S. Constitution. They invited anyone interested in the subject to attend. I am not a UVPatriot, but I accepted their invitation, interested both in our Constitution, and in the Patriots themselves.

“Be careful!” several of my friends said, demonstrating that our vile, polarized national political discourse also roosts locally. At every opportunity I tell people who want to hear “the story,” that this is the story: the UVPatriots are neighbors. They are hospitable, interesting to talk with. They share my distaste for international corporations, disgust with Wall Street, dismay at military adventurism. We seem to disagree about spending cuts focused on “entitlements” and bi-partisan free-ride-for-the-rich tax policy.

 Possibly the UV Patriots watch too much Fox News, I used to watch too much MSNBC.

For the last class meeting I wrote this summing-up of my Patriotic experience. I hope it suggests that a good, blur-the-lines time was had by all.

I like to make wisecracks about our Founding  Youngsters, like calling Hamilton’s ad hominem stuff in The Federalist “College boy smarts.”  Privilege of age. I think our FYs averaged 51 years old in 1787, including 81 year-old Ben Franklin in the tally. 41 of 55 Philadelphia convention attendees were under age 50. Hamilton was 30, Madison was 36.

Our class arrived at the constitution by way of The Federalist, Madison’s and Hamilton’s explanatory essays, usually more dutifully referred to than read. About halfway through the course one of us said, with a mixture of accomplishment, pride, and contempt of Congress, “We’ve read more of this stuff than they have!”

I believe that was the day the Republican leader of the House declared that, if the Senate did not pas HR 1, it would become the law of the land. No Senate concurrence, no Presidential signature or veto override required.

Overall, and to my surprise, reading The Federalist deeply moved me. Turgid prose, yes. But what hope!

In the 1780s we North American, once-were colonials were still the Uniting states of America . Not a done deal, not a nation, and at a time of seemingly unlimited natural resources, with no ability to project military power to Iraqestan, and with an Enlightenment belief in the strength of reason, of checks and balances, of civic responsibility.

Joy might it then have been, to be alive as white, educated and property-owning men.

In their zeal for their more perfect union, such men did not concern themselves with women’s rights.

Still, the idea of women’s rights, or possibly only the idea of extending class privilege to some women, was kicking about. (See Abigail Adams’ now famous 1776 letter to her husband: “In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the Ladies . . . and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”)

Black, chattel slavery was not a deal-breaker for such men as Hamilton and Madison.  Though it does seem to me likely that, since they were students and admirers of English law and Magna Carta, they probably knew that slavery had effectively been abolished in England (though not in its colonies) in 1772. Lord Mansfield made a King’s Bench ruling in Somersett. The case involved a colonial Boston tax collector who went to London with his “other Person,” and lost him to English law.

“Other Person” was constitutional code for “slave.”  The Founders could not bear to use the S word in their constitution, which they designed to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” . . . “[p]rovided  that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight” could ban slavery from the new nation .

But the existence of that clause (Article 1, Section 9) does suggest that the idea of abolition was disquietingly in the stuffy air of the Philadelphia convention, like the first springtime whiff of narcissus. Of course the Founders prioritized, as we say today when we cut NIH funds and launch cruise missiles into Libya at $1,000,000 a pop. Abolition went to the back of the constitutional bus.

Madison owned 100 slaves.

I mention these matters of women’s rights and American slavery, not to tear down two national heroes, but to humanize them and their constitution.  Madison and Hamilton, like ordinary mortals, most likely put their pants on one leg at a time. There is another  way.

The Founding Youngsters were mortal men, writing a political document. That is, they knew that their constitution would need to be changed over time, and they included several ways of doing so, justified in Federalist #43: “That useful alterations will be suggested by experience could not but be foreseen .” Madison is writing about amendments. He’s also answering the very first student question in our class.

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We were just settling in our seats and opening our pencil boxes when a striking fellow rose to state (as a question) his own conclusion: “You’re not one of those believers in a ‘living  constitution’?”  Originalists, those who believe that their Founding Fathers’ writings limit all subsequent readings or uses of the constitution, seem to contradict the Founders’ own sense that time and experience would display the constitution’s “discovered faults” (#43), which will need to be repaired.

The discovery of faults may be quick, the repair process long. It took 200 years to ratify the 27th Amendment.

I shouldn’t be flippant about our nation’s fundamental law, but it’s worth observing that, while it’s written, the constitution isn’t Scripture, though we Americans do have some of that. Here’s my favorite American Scripture:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

There’s a difference between Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the U.S. constitution. Lincoln’s address is declaratory. It instructs us. Like biblical prophecy, it tells us who we ought to be as a people, what we value, or should value. It is, in short, Scripture, and quite properly it is carved in stone set “in the Seat of the Government of the United States” (Art. 1, Sec. 8).

Our constitution is not Scripture, though it has its declaratory, poetic moments. The epic sweep and rhythm of the Preamble is one such moment: “We the People of the United States . . .” and  “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Art. 6) may be another. Scripture doesn’t get any better than those two.

But most of the constitution is political writing, not Scripture,  It has unparallel syntax, jumbled lists, a general plan of government which has more-or-less worked  for 2 centuries, the seeds of civil war, the needed patch-job of the 14th Amendment (“valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution”—Art. 5).

Thanks to the 14th Amendment, probably the states, as well as the Congress, can make no laws respecting various almost uniquely American freedoms.

The constitution is political writing: Can’t interrupt the slave trade till 1808 (maybe slavery will have gone away by then), but Congress can tax slaves’ owners at $10 a head for each “Person.” (That “Person” Is a stylistic slip—it should be “such Persons,” to avoid confusing slaves with people.)

The constitution’s a workaday document, not to be cast in concrete. Workaday document. That’s why I haven’t been capitalizing “constitution,” as is conventional. I capitalize Scripture, meaning memorable language which speaks to us, about who we are and want to be.

The mostly herky-jerky quality of our constitution’s writing makes it human, improvable writing which makes rules for human activity. It is not gods’ words. It is a closed-door committee’s words, analyzed and defended in The Federalist, writings which it’s been my pleasure to study with this class of (mostly) Ukiah Valley Patriots.
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