The Constitution of the United States was signed on September 17, 1787.
As America celebrates Constitution Day, one expert reflects on the tragic reality that many of the nation’s students are being taught myths that claim the Constitution is a racist, sexist document that belongs to the horse-and-buggy era.
In an interview with Breitbart News, noted Heritage Foundation constitutional expert David Azerrad tackles some prominent myths about the Constitution – falsehoods that are being propagated in America’s classrooms and on its college campuses.
The director of the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics, Azerrad observes, “Many of the myths have just permeated the culture to a point where people just take it as a matter of fact.”
Myth: The Constitution is Racist and Sexist
“People seem to believe the original Constitution said that only white men who are 21 years and above and who own property could vote,” Azerrad states, adding that many school textbooks routinely assert the Constitution is racist and pro-slavery.
“The problem is when you look at the text of the Constitution – or of the Declaration of Independence for that matter – there are no references to skin color or gender anywhere in terms of who gets to vote,” he explains, continuing:
Nowhere in the Constitution are human beings classified according to race, religion, or sex. And what you find, when you look at the historical records, is that women voted at the time of the Founding for a period of about 10 years in the state of New Jersey. I believe that’s a first in recorded human history.
Furthermore, free blacks were voting in the majority of states at the time the Constitution was ratified. In my research I could only find three states that specifically denied suffrage to blacks. Of course, this is not to say all was fine and dandy – and no one is saying that – but I do find it odd that rather than emphasize a first in recorded human history – namely women voting alongside men and then some blacks and whites voting together in an election – we emphasize instead that the Founders’ standards of justice fell short of ours today in the 21st century.
Azerrad points to another myth that claims to be evidence the Constitution is a racist document – “the infamous ‘three-fifths’ clause,” about which, he says, “more nonsense has been written than any other clause in the Constitution.”
The standard view is that the Constitution says that black people are worth three-fifths of the white person. Once again, however, there are no “blacks” and “whites” in the Constitution, no references to skin color.
What it says is that for the purposes of apportioning representatives in the House and taxes – because at the time taxes were apportioned by state – the way to determine the allotment of each one is to tally up the population of each state, and then you add up three-fifths of all other persons. “Other persons” is a euphemism to refer to slaves – though note they are referred to as “persons,” which tacitly denies they are merely “property.”
Azerrad dispels the myth with the facts about the phrase’s true purpose in the Constitution:
The three-fifths number was just an attempt to solve the complicated question of how do you apportion representatives. And that number was a compromise. The South wanted it to be larger because southerners wanted their slaves to count for the purposes of representation – this would give them more members in Congress. And it was the Northern states that were saying, “No, that’s not fair – you can’t enslave people and then demand representation on the basis of that.”
Spreading these myths about the Constitution ultimately has harmed the “civic health” of Americans as a nation, Azerrad asserts, explaining:
Not only is it just incorrect to say that the Constitution views blacks as only worth three-fifths of what whites are worth, but I think this myth has important implications for civic health, and the message we’re teaching our fellow African-American citizens. Are we telling them that they basically don’t belong in America because America at its root is a racist country? Or, are we saying what Frederick Douglass said, and what Martin Luther King said, that the promise of America is equality for all, and the practice of America has fallen short.
Azerrad says the founding documents are inclusive with regard to race, religion, sex, and ethnicity, and that it is tragic many Americans believe that the country has had to be “transformed in order to make a place for other people.”
Myth: The Constitution Protects “States’ Rights”
While many of the myths about the Constitution are spread by the left, the notion that the Constitution protects “states’ rights” is one that has more likely been propagated by the right, Azerrad says.
“Federalism is one of the core structural mechanisms that is enshrined in the Constitution,” he asserts. “And by saying there are no ‘states’ rights’ in the Constitution, I don’t mean the national government has plenary power and can do whatever it wants, and can co-opt the states into doing its work.”
“However, the text of the Constitution never says the states have rights,” Azerrad continues. “The states have ‘powers.’ And that’s important because it’s a reminder that those who have ‘rights’ are ‘the people.’ Federalism – like all the other mechanisms in the Constitution – is ultimately in the service of the rights of the people.”
Azerrad notes there is a tendency on the right to think that federalism is in the service of states.
“But, if your starting point is what it should be – namely the well-being of the American people and their rights – you don’t care any more for the states than you do for the national government,” he explains. “You want them to do their job. And we didn’t establish a Constitution in order to protect the rights of states. We established a Constitution to protect the rights of citizens.”
He adds that conservatives and libertarians who care about federalism and the Tenth Amendment, and want to rein in the excesses of the federal government, actually “do themselves a disservice by invoking a term that carries with it so much baggage,” referring to the association of the phrase “states’ rights” with “segregation.”
“So, ‘states’ rights’ is not only an incorrect term, but it’s also not helpful to the goal of federalism,” he concludes.
Myth: The Constitution Is Outdated
“The charge that the Constitution is outdated has been around since the Progressive Era, dating back to more than a century ago,” Azerrad says. “That it was designed for the horse-and-buggy era, when doctors still treated people with leeches. But if you understand what the Constitution is, you realize this myth doesn’t ring true.”
The Constitution doesn’t stipulate how the country is to be governed, which policies are to be enacted, what you do about the Internet or illegal immigrants, or how you respond to the crisis in Libya. The Constitution is a very short document. It simply articulates the political framework through which you address political questions.
The premise is that we’re a free people, and we govern ourselves via our elected representatives. And we need to lay down the rules of the game to establish a) which level of government deals with which questions, and b) that the bulk of these questions are to be decided at the state and local levels because those are the levels of government that are closest to the people.
Azerrad says he often explains that “federalism is a synonym for diversity.”
“It means that Vermont can govern itself the way Vermonters want to, and Texans can govern their state their way as well,” he says. “The Constitution does indicate that there are limits as to what you can do, but it leaves the people free to deliberate via their elected representatives at the appropriate level of government on whatever the questions confronted at that time.”
He adds that the framework of the Constitution is therefore not tied to the material conditions on the ground at any given point in time.
“So long as politics and human nature don’t change, then the framework of government in the Constitution is not outdated because it is anchored in a particular view of human nature, and in an understanding that we have two levels of government,” Azerrad notes.