Imperfect America. There’s no doubt that that appellation can mean different things to different people. I use it in a very specific manner. As the quote from Voltaire might suggest, while I recognize the United States is far from perfect, it is in many ways, perhaps even most, very, very good.
Racism: America’s Original Sin
Racism is a fertile topic of conversation in political circles today and is much in the news as some are suggesting that criticism of President Obama is nothing more than thinly veiled racism. To take some license with Samuel Johnson’s phrase, Racism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Just as Johnson was not impugning Patriotism in the original, but rather false Patriotism, here too there is no suggestion that racism does not exist or should not be called so when it’s seen. Rather, it is to suggest that most of what is currently characterized as Racism is in reality nothing of the sort. Despite what some seem to suggest, the fact that a man of color sits in the White House does not automatically make all criticism of his words and deeds racism.
The subject arises as a convenient segue to an issue that is often a brought up by those who see America through the prism of race, the Constitution. Specifically the issue is Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. [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.] This section is commonly known as “Three Fifths Clause” or “Three Fifths Compromise”. Essentially what this clause did was apportion taxes and representation for the slave owning states in a manner that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person. It was a compromise because the Northerners wanted slaves to count as 4/5 of a person – meaning the state would have more representation but pay more taxes – while the southerners wanted slaves to count as ½ or ¼ of a person, thereby giving them less political power but reducing their tax burden.
It is not uncommon at all today for some people to point to this clause in the founding document of the country to demonstrate that the United States is an inherently racist country because it allowed slavery. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While 222 years later we can recognize that slavery was an abomination, the truth is that in 1787 it was a reality for much of the world, including Africa, the Middle East, South America as well as Europe and Asia. Slavery had gone on for thousands of years and the basis for such could have been anything from a lost battle to an unpaid debt to the color of one’s skin to a parent’s willingness to sell their child into bondage. The truth is, the institution of slavery by itself is not a sign of racism. Amongst the 13 “states” slavery held sway in five; Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. While it was the case that only a minority of the citizens in those states actually owned slaves, the institution had been an ingrained part of their society and culture for decades and in some cases more than a century.
Before we delve into the nature of the Constitution, we must accurately define what racism actually means:
Racist: One who believes that one race is genetically superior to another. Often the holder of this opinion believes themselves to be amongst the superior race. There are other terms that are often used interchangeably with racism, but that is often an incorrect equivalency.
Prejudice: One who pre judges another person based upon one or more criteria, some of which are inherent such as national origin, race, sex, etc. or others which are not, such as dress, manner of speech or a preponderance of tattoos.
Biased: One whose preference or inclination about a group precludes impartial judgment.
Bigotry: One with a strong intolerance or prejudice about members of a group of people, often based upon race, religion, sexual orientation.
The point of the above is that if one seeks to use a word to describe something, it helps to use the language properly.
Some of the founding fathers were most certainly racists in the literal sense of the word. (Indeed, seventy years later even Lincoln would have qualified as today's racist, having uttered the following in a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858: “I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”)
In 1787 however it was not uncommon, anywhere in the world, for people to believe that persons of different races or colors were genetically inferior to them. Regardless of their individual feelings of the genetic equality of blacks and whites, many of the founding fathers abhorred the institution of slavery. As such, it was the goal of many of them to eradicate the practice from their new nation.
Unfortunately however, they did not live in a vacuum and could not dictate terms with impunity. The eventual result of their living in the real world was the Three Fifths Compromise. While many wanted to eradicate the practice of slavery, they recognized that they simply could not do so immediately and still hope to maintain the Union.
The Three Fifths Compromise existed for one reason only: Without it there would be no Constitution and no United States with all 13 states. The delegates from South Carolina and Georgia stated unequivocally that they would not be a party to a contract that outlawed slavery. The other slave states were sympathetic to their views. While it is possible to try and sit in judgment in 2009 as to what the framers should have done, the reality is that they worked hard into the summer of 1787 to get the Constitution written and for the next 2 years to get it ratified. With 222 years of history to look back on it might almost seem predestined, but the truth is that none of it was and these patriots were literally creating a nation out of thin air. Not only did they have to worry about internal issues from taxation to slavery to the balance of states rights, they simultaneously had to worry about a international creditors, a hostile Britain, and an untamed wilderness to its west. They were worried about surviving and understood that there was strength to be had in numbers.
Had not the Three Fifths Compromise been in place, there was a very real possibility that there would have not been a United States. There would likely have been a country representing the free states of the north and another the slaveholding states of the south, or very possibly anywhere from two to five different countries where slavery was legal.
As it was, the Constitution that emerged was an imperfect document, but one that had within it the potential for change.
For those who want to sit in judgment of the founding fathers 222 years after the creation of our nation, perhaps the question should not be why they signed onto a “racist” document, but rather what would have the outcome been had they decided to go with a “pure” Constitution that did indeed outlaw slavery and was ratified only by those northern states that had already outlawed the practice. Would the slaves in the five southern states have been better off in a country or countries where there were no abolitionists to try and temper the growth of the institution? Would the slaves have been better off if they were in a country that did not ban the import of slaves after 20 years which would have resulted in their becoming expendable due of the ease of replacement? Would the slaves been better off with a free country to their north that utilized its nascent industrialization to expand to the west more quickly than the South and possibly surround it, leading the British to come in on their side (South) if war broke out? The British were loathe to support the South during the Civil War because of slavery, but might they have considered doing so in a war between two countries if they felt threatened by a more dominant Northern rival that might have emerged without the southern states? Indeed, if there were not 13 states that ratified the Constitution there may not have been a Civil War and thus no Emancipation Proclamation and perhaps slavery would have gone on for decades or a century more in the South.
The question in 2009 is not whether or not some of the founding fathers were racists in the literal sense of the word. Rather, the question is did the founding fathers aspire to build a country where men could live free and did they leave us with the documents, tools and institutions to expand that freedom as our society and culture advanced. I would argue that they did just that. The Constitution is not perfect, nor have been the men (and later women) whose job it has been to interpret its words and apply them to the always evolving, often opaque, and yes, sometimes unfair world around them. There is not now, nor has there ever been a Perfect Union. Nonetheless, our founding fathers left us what has proven to be the single most powerful document in the history of man, the United States Constitution. That document, imperfect though it may be, laid the foundation for the emergence of the greatest country in the history of the world. To sit in judgment 222 years later and presume to know what they should have done, to assassinate their character and that of the nation they built tells us far more about the person throwing the stones than the Founders, the Constitution, or the United States itself.