The Biden administration and Democrats all over the country now promulgate the charge that “systemic racism” permeates our country and that this racism is woven into our founding documents. Earlier this week, for example, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter quoted from the Supreme Court’s ignominious Dred Scott case to make the point. Democrats have essentially taken up the mantle of Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott. They approve of Taney’s teaching regarding the meaning of the Declaration and the Constitution.
We fought a great Civil War that derived from the debate over this teaching. It resulted in the adoption of the Civil War amendments to the Constitution and other civil rights laws. Yet ignorance rules the day. In this post I want to collect just a few resources for interested readers.
By contrast with the Democrat orthodoxy trashing the United States, we note that the United States is alone in the history of the world in its foundation on the principle of equal rights. We are proud of our founding documents and our history. We dispute the contentions of Taney et al. as self-evident lies.
In the 1980’s Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall undertook the resurrection of the old Taney argument with a focus on the Constitution. Harry Jaffa took up the argument in “Original intent and the American soul.” Jaffa wrote (I have added paragraphing in the interest of readability):
In 1987 Justice Thurgood Marshall refused to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution because, he said, it was a racist document that enshrined slavery. Quoting Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), he said that the original Constitution regarded black people “as so far inferior that they had no rights that white people were bound to respect.” It is this view of the Constitution that has justified liberals, in their own minds, in rewriting the Constitution to conform to their own opinions of what it ought to be….
The original Constitution, and hence original intent jurisprudence, can only be defended if one distinguishes the principles of the Constitution from the compromises of the Constitution. The framers made concessions to slavery because they believed that the Constitution would not be ratified without them.
Had the Constitution not been ratified, slavery would have been in a far stronger position. Instead, the new Constitution created a government strong enough to deal with slavery when the crisis finally came. Moreover, the future of the Union as a guardian of the cause of human freedom throughout the world depended upon this distinction between the Constitution’s principles and its compromises.
But the Constitution itself does not make this distinction. Although it guarantees to every state of the Union a republican form of government, it does not say what the principles of this form are. These principles are spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, which the United States Code lists as the first of the Organic Laws of the United States.
Twice a year in “Remembering Mr. Lincoln” we publish the heart of Abraham Lincoln’s great speech of July 10, 1858 explicating the meaning of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s explication remains incomparable.
Lincoln expressly addressed Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott in his speech on the decision (I have broken the excerpt below into paragraphs in the interest of readability):
Chief Justice Taney, in his opinion in the Dred Scott case, admits that the language of the Declaration is broad enough to include the whole human family, but he and Judge Douglas argue that the authors of that instrument did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites.
Now this grave argument comes to just nothing at all, by the other fact, that they did not at once, or ever afterwards, actually place all white people on an equality with one or another. And this is the staple argument of both the Chief Justice and the Senator, for doing this obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration.
I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.
They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal-equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This they said, and this meant.
They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.
They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, nor for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.
They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.
The nut is cracking, but the point remains.
Lincoln explored the thinking of the Founders on slavery in his Cooper Union speech of 1860. Harold Holzer’s Lincoln at Cooper Union takes up the story of that speech. Holzer’s book was reviewed by Allen Guelzo in the Claremont Review of Books in “Lincoln’s audition.” Holzer et al. subsequently persuaded Sam Waterston to provide a reading of the speech at Cooper Union (video below, beginning at about 15:00 with the introduction of Lincoln).
Frederick Douglass’s relationship with Lincoln also bears on the subject. I can’t do justice to it here, but I refer readers to Douglass’s 1876 “Oration in memory of Abraham Lincoln.”
Tom West’s Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America is an invaluable resource. Tom takes up the question of slavery in chapter 1 at pages 1-37. By contrast with Tom, the Democrats are vindicating Dred Scott. Sick, sick, sick.
Also valuable is Richard Cox’s Four Pillars of Constitutionalism: The Organic Laws of the United States. Cox’s long introduction takes up more than half the book and is historical in nature. Following Jaffa, Cox shows that the foundational documents of the United States are the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and the Constitution.
Under Article 6, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory. Why would they do that?
My interest in the subject was triggered by reading Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided some 50 years ago. It’s the great book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates.