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Extreme worship of the Constitution is a feature of U.S. life. It’s been that way for a long time. Even so, the zeal with which it has been deployed throughout the current impeachment process is a wonder to behold.
The Founders, collectively and individually, are invoked on a minute-by-minute basis. Reverence for a category of humans called “constitutional lawyers” is at an all time high. Historians playing the part of priests of Constitutional faith who ignore huge chunks of what actually happened over the last 400 bloodstained years get a lot of attention too.
The net effect is to raise expectations to absurd levels. How so? Because for all its sanctification, the Constitution isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be in the first place.
Of its many failures, one is especially relevant to the fantasy with which we are currently in thrall. In one of the most effective cover-ups ever, it is rarely acknowledged that the Constitution did not prevent the 1861-1865 Civil War.
As a point of reference, Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Non-violently. Britain did not and still does not even have a written constitution.
Given that the U.S. Constitution baked-in the race-based slavery and theft of land that made conflict inevitable in the first place, a serious case can be made that it caused the Civil War. Yet over the years I have heard many people credit the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments with ending slavery. This has the convenient effect of retroactively validating the Constitution as the instrument of change, not the brutal war itself.
“That’s not fair,” establishment historians might argue. The fact that Constitutional Amendments were used to institutionalize the outcome of the war is proof that the Constitution “works.” Which might make some sense if we didn’t know what came next. But we do know. Well, some of us do anyway. What came next was the short life of reconstruction and its violent end.
Which brings us to the fantasy that the Constitution assures peaceful transitions of power.
No, it doesn’t. Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Garfield, Mrs. McKinley and Mrs. Kennedy learned this the hard way. For comparison, it’s worth noting that no Prime Minster has ever been assassinated in Canada. In Britain only one, back in 1812.
Widows and other relatives of Medgar Evers, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, students at South Carolina State, Kent State, Jackson State and all of the others killed in the struggles of the 1960’s and 1970’s are also entitled to doubt the sanctimonious claims that the Constitution assures peaceful transitions of power. Not to mention the descendants of those who died in the Civil War. Or who were killed as part of the violent campaign to defeat reconstruction. Or who were lynched since then.
The citizenry is divided now about the same thing we have been at odds over since the very beginning. One side wants power to be in the hands of wealthy white men, be their government headquartered in London, Philadelphia, Washington DC or Richmond VA. The other seeks room in the power structure for women, people of color and those who are not rich.
That underlying conflict will go on whether the profoundly antidemocratic Senate acquits or convicts Donald Trump. Or pulls some other maneuver out of a hat.
Whichever the outcome, what’s to stop the heavily armed militias located all over the country from becoming the KKK of the 21st Century? Not as much as you have been led to believe.
Frank Joyce is a lifelong activist and writer. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement. He is currently working on a book about unlearning white supremacy.
His earlier Fifth Estate article: 1492, 1513, 1619, 2019—It’s all connected: On the Origins of the So-called United States of America, available here, also addresses myths about the founding documents.