Sometimes one can be wrong in spirit, yet correct in implication and analysis.
These moments are awkward--especially for those inclined towards ideological purity. In thinking through the fight over Reagan's legacy, the Tea Party GOP's revival and misunderstanding of "American exceptionalism," "the framers," and willfully juvenile understanding of the Constitution, complexity seems to have been thrown out the window in the service of binary thinking and New Right orthodoxy.
By extension, one of the recurring fights between Left and Right centers upon how the United States Constitution ought to be interpreted. Is it divinely inspired, sacred, and never to be changed from the intent of its creators in the 18th century? Or, and we have explored this here at some length, is the Constitution a living document, made by flawed men, yet the wisdom of said contract is precisely in its adaptability?
I stand hands open and transparent in my suggestion that racism and white supremacy are central to the American project. At the time of the founding, the U.S. Constitution was a herrenvolk document by design. Not surprisingly, it reinforced the class, gender, and racial interests of political elites and the dominant classes. In the present, appeals to some mythic "original intent" are more often than not a lazy mask that dances around these preeminent facts.
To deny these facts is to deny the sum evidence provided by the historical record. But simultaneously, the greatness of the Constitution is that it is more than the sum of its parts. Thankfully, progressive, radical, and forward thinking Americans understand this truth and have been able to force the country to live up to its promise--a work that is still in progress.
While thinking about those questions, I was thumbing through The Age of Jim Crow (a great collection of essays and testimonies by the way) and came upon Mississippi Governor and United States senator Theodore G. Bilbo's 1947 essay "False Interpretations of American Democracy."
Bilbo was a virulent racist and forefather of much of the race baiting that we saw in the moments before the Republican Party's open embrace of the Southern Dixiecrats, and that are present in the contemporary as the New Right, "real American," Tea Party, neo-John Bircher crowd.
Funny then, that I found myself agreeing with his analysis of the Constitution, the White Soul, and original intent. As a qualifier, Bilbo was profoundly wrong in his reading of the Black Freedom Struggle and the transcendent power of the Constitution. Moreover, he was a contemptible human being. But, nevertheless, a broken clock is indeed right twice a day.
History is once more our greatest teacher:
False Interpretations of American Democracy
The Negro leaders who are seeking social equality of the races and the abolition of every kind of racial segregation cannot justly claim that ideals of American democracy support their demands. They contend that democracy means "full equality" for all citizens, and they quote the Declaration of Independence as proof thereof. Discussing "Certain Unalienable Rights," Mary McLeod Bethune asks for "full American citizenship" for American Negroes. She says: "As long as America offers less, she will be that much less a democracy. The whole way is the American way."
There is absolutely nothing in the immortal declaration "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" to support this plea for social equality of the white and black races in the United States. Any person who uses the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution to bring about the social equality of the races in this country is placing a false and dangerous interpretation on these two documents which embody the ideals of American democracy...
It cannot be forgotten that Thomas Jefferson who wrote that "all men are created equal" also wrote the following lines concerning the Negro.
Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.
...Jefferson believed that the race question should be solved by colonization of the Negroes at some place outside the United States, and he devoted much time and energy to promoting such a scheme. There is no indication whatsoever that either he or any of the other Founding Fathers interpreted the words of the Declaration of Independence to destroy the racial barriers which from the very beginning of our history separated the white and black races in the United States. Practically all of these men were owners of Negro slaves, and the indications are that they never even thought of the Negro when they announced to the world that "all men are created equal."
...How can the Negro leaders contend that it is "un-American" and "undemocratic" to preserve the government as our forefathers made it? As was once emphatically stated by Senator Robert Toombs: "This Republic was born of the soul of a race of pioneer white freemen who settled on our continent and built an altar within its forest cathedral to Liberty and Progress. In the record of man, has the Negro ever dreamed this dream?"
...The Negro leaders themselves say that never in the history of the United States have the members of their race been accorded full and complete equality with the whites. And it is true that "On no aspect of the race problem are most white Americans, North as well as South, so adamant as they are on their opposition to intermarriage." Then, what stronger proof than the actual practice of white Americans do we need in ascertaining how the majority of our people feel toward the demands of the Negro leaders today for the social equality of the races?
We have found that white Americans have never interpreted American democracy to mean that there would be no racial barriers between the white and black citizens of this Republic, and those who now seek to read such a meaning into the Declaration of Independence are misconstruing the immortal words which were penned by Thomas Jefferson. The social equality of the white and Negro races and the abolition of racial segregation have never been in accordance with the ideals of this Nation. Any one who advances such an argument is placing a false interpretation on the meaning of American democracy, and because he is willing, either consciously or unconsciously, that the future of this Republic be destroyed, he is a traitor to his country as well as to his race.