One of the most enduring American peculiarities is the reverence that our historical education places upon the constitution and the men who wrote it. We capitalize the Constitution to signify its importance in our society, but hardly pause to think about how it came about beyond why the 1st and 2nd amendments are significant. We have lionized the “Founding Fathers,” elevating them to a plane above us mere mortals where they undoubtedly look down upon us in bemusement. Criticism of them, particularly from the left, is downright verboten: how dare some plebeian question their motives?
At the end of the day, however, they were only men, with all of the flaws and vices that entails. Furthermore, they were only men, a reflection of the patriarchal Anglo society that had been transplanted here. Women had no input in the drafting of the documents that organized our modern society. We may take equality between the sexes for granted today, evidence be damned, but we must remember that women’s suffrage wasn’t until 1920. (We still haven’t passed an Equal Rights Amendment, partly because of a disagreement between bourgeois and working class feminists over how to define equal rights, but mostly because of opposition from people invested in a conservative patriarchy like Phyllis Schlafly.)
Finally, the founding fathers were only white, Anglo men who hailed predominantly from the upper layers of early American society. Many-most?-of them were slaveholders. With some exceptions, their legacy hangs almost entirely on the American Revolution. Take, for instance, the eponymous John Hanson, one of the early Presidents of the Continental Congress. Born to the wealthy owners of a 1,000 acre Maryland plantation, he entered public service in 1750 and pursued a rather unremarkable, mostly self-serving career until hostilities broke out in 1774, at which point he became a champion of the patriot cause. Even so, disagreement exists among historians of his actual importance to the revolution. The state of Maryland has even debated replacing his statue with one of Harriet Tubman, whose work toward ending slavery far outweighs that of a rather boring rich white slaveholder who served a mostly ceremonial one-year term as President of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
Viewed from this angle, the American Revolution suddenly looks a lot less like a people’s revolt against the tyranny of an old empire, and a lot more like corporate attempts at tax evasion if legal battles were fought with guns instead of lawyers. Considering this, is it any surprise that free-market ideologues and self-styled “sovereign citizens” now use this as justification for their means? Curiously, however, these same ideologues gloss over the deplorable slavery that their white heroes perpetuated as Robin L. Einhorn explains in her book American Taxation, American Slavery. These “heroes” were in fact masters of Newspeak, well over a hundred years before the birth of George Orwell:
Expansions of slavery became expansions of “liberty,” constitutional limitations on democratic self-government became defenses of “equal rights,” and the power of slaveholding elites became the power of the “common man.”
Therefore, I will celebrate the Constitution at such a time as we have a Constitution worth celebrating:
A Constitution that does not conceal slavery in an amendment purportedly enacted to abolish it.
A Constitution that guarantees equal rights for all.
A Constitution that includes a truly representative voting system, not one tilted toward wealthy landholders.
Ultimately, we will never have such a Constitution until we address the fundamental inequalities of our class-based society. This is not to say that I advocate for the total abolishment of all wealth, as such utopian ideals are likely to remain highly unrealistic for the foreseeable future. However, it seems clear that as long as our society is controlled by those who possess most of the wealth, racism and other forms of discrimination will be used to perpetuate class divisions to the benefit of the wealthy.
In future pieces, I will attempt to explore the foundational changes that might conceivably bring about a more just and equitable society.