Last week, when the House of Representatives read the Constitution on the House floor, the body’s new GOP leadership elected to replace the actual Constitution with a censored document that erased many of America’s original sins. Yesterday, in response to widespread and bipartisan criticism of this censorship, GOP voter suppression guru Ken Blackwell doubles down:
The idea that our Constitution “condoned” slavery and was therefore an immoral document unworthy of being viewed with reverence is a stock liberal claim. It is false.
Most of the Founders wanted to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Jefferson had denounced that “execrable traffic” in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
But South Carolina and Georgia delegates would not go along and, significantly, some in New England recognized the powerful influence of merchants whose ships included slavers.
But they were able to get into the original Constitution a provision which allowed Congress to ban the Slave Trade in twenty years. How odd for all those Washington liberals who today tout compromise to attack as immoral and vile this most important of compromises. Would most of the Founders have so desperately wanted to ban the Slave Trade if they thought it a good thing? If they condoned it?
Blackwell’s claim that the framers “allowed Congress to ban the Slave Trade in twenty years” is, to say the least, a creative interpretation of the document. The provision Blackwell refers to provides that “[t]he migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” Far from empowering Congress to ban the slave trade, this provision stripped Congress of its power to do so for 20 years.
Moreover, although President Thomas Jefferson did sign a bill which banned the importation of slaves in 1808, Blackwell wrongly presents this action as if it were a constitutional repudiation of slavery. Although this law prevented slaves from being brought into the United States from abroad, existing slaves and their children remained in bondage until the Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1865. That was the moment when the Constitution finally stopped condoning slavery, not, as Blackwell suggests, when the document was originally ratified.
None of this is to say, of course, that the entire document is fundamentally flawed simply because of its initial failure to end one of America’s great moral failures. Rather, the genius of the Constitution is the fact that it has empowered America to learn from its mistakes, to enshrine our most fundamental values into amendments, and to function largely as a democracy. The GOP’s attempt to gloss over this history not only whitewashes American history, it ignores the very thing that makes the Constitution a great document.