My friend quipped to me that I could have made it as an African American history major because he just noticed how quickly I was able to rattle off dates, and times and all what others may consider minutae, but what I consider quite essential to understanding some of our present day issues here in the United States. I was really inspired to be a historian, when John Hope Franklin returned to his undergrad alma mater in the fall of 2005, but alas, that was my senior year of school and that ship had sailed. Furthermore, as I was currently enrolled in the only African American history I’ve ever taken to date, I was assigned to do a bibliographical essay–I simply said oh hell nah! This aint for me. I got through the class, passed with a B+ which of course I felt was worthy of an A because of my stellar 19 page paper comparing Nat Turner and Dr. Vernon Johns (predecessor to Martin Luther King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery), but she gave me that 89% and made the 90% ever so elusive.
Now that that trip down memory lane is over (whew, I really reached way back for that one), I’m not a historian by trade, but a homiletician/professor/preacher in training (yes, i differentiate homiletician and preacher), but I still do keep my ear to the ground, and something this juicy I just couldn’t pass by.
I remember my sophomore year, 1999-2000, I had Mr. Kevin Westbrook for U.S. History at my high school (he’s now been promoted to department chair at one of the city’s top public schools) and he couldn’t have been more than 28 or 29 the year he had our class. Young cat, with an afro, and a pick with a fist on it no doubt, and I remember when he passed out the text books to the mixed class room, mostly white, with the next smattering of Asians and Latinos and two blacks, I being one of them, I remember hearing the words “revisionist history” for the first time. He drew our attention to the state/city supplied text book which was entitled Triumph of America (or something that had the word Triumph as the first word) and through dialogue with the class he let it be known that this was still revisionist history at is best, and to let us be aware of how those who are victorious have a different side of the story than those who lost.
So, when Sean Hannity, the other night was intereviewing Bob Barr, I heard Sean Hannity, who I consider to be a hot mess, throw out a word with which I was totally unfamiliar with, I was intrigued–how dare Sean Hannity know more than me. Within the context of him referring to McCain appointing “originalist justices to the Supreme Court” I figured that it had to do with a particular interpretation of the Constitution.
Now, I’m sure you all know where I’m going with this.
Now had he said the Declaration of Independence, different story, we all love the
We hold these truths to be self-evident: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That’s nice, but thats the Declaration of (white soon-to-be-Americans) Independence, the one in which women and all other indigenous residents of North America were not included. But using my pop culture encyclopedia called Wikipedia (isn’t it wonderful) with which to understand this idea of originalism, something that clearly Sean Hannity and many other conservatives subscribe to.
In a nut shell, originalist thought susbscribes to the “original intent” of what was written, especially as far as the Constitution is concerned. The opposite of originalists are strict constructionists which seem to be an even more dangerous group of people out there.
Per an example from Wikipedia:
Both theories are associated with textualist and formalist schools of thought, but there are pronounced differences between them. Justice Scalia differentiates the two by pointing out that, unlike an originalist, a strict constructionist would not acknowledge that “he uses a cane” means “he walks with a cane” (because, strictly speaking, this is not what “he uses a cane” means)
And in case that wasn’t plain enough for you, here’s another one that brought the point home for me between the two:
Suppose that the Constitution contained (which it obviously does not) a provision that a person may not be “subjected to the punishments of hanging by the neck, beheading, stoning, pressing, or execution by firing squad“. A strict constructionist would interpret that clause to mean that the specific punishments mentioned above were unconstitutional, but that other forms of capital punishment were not. For a strict constructionist, the specific, strict reading of the text is the beginning and end of the inquiry.
For an Originalist, however, the text is the beginning of the inquiry, and two Originalists might reach very different results, not only from the strict constructionist, but from each other. “Originalists can reach different results in the same case” (see What Originalism is Not — Originalism is not always an answer in and of itself, infra); one originalist might look at the context in which the clause was written, and might discover that the punishments listed in the clause were the only forms of capital punishment in use at that time, and the only forms of capital punishment that had ever been used at the time of ratification. An originalist might therefore conclude that capital punishment in general—including those methods for it invented since ratification, such as the electric chair—are not constitutional. Another originalist may look at the text and see that the writers created a list. He would assume that the Congress intended this to be an exhaustive list of objectionable executions. Otherwise, they would have banned capital punishment as a whole, instead of listing specific means of punishment. He would rule that other forms of execution are constitutional.
The paragraph above does not give examples of Original intent vis a vis Original meaning. Using the former, the Judge would look for the letters and journals of the Founders on the subject of capital punishment. If he found that a majority expressed an aversion to it, the interpretation would be averse to capital punishment. Using Original meaning the Judge would look for the frequency of each contemporaneous form of capital punishment. If any form other than those listed was extremely rare, the decision could be averse to all capital punishment. If another form, not listed, was not rare, the decision would have to be in favor of capital punishment because reasonable persons in 1793 would so interpret the clause.
I hope you read the aforementioned so that I can bring the whole point home, and not let it be lost. But here it is: How in the hell can any white person allow words to pass the barrier of their lips that they are in favor of originalism or strict constructionists as far as the Constitution is concerened?
For me this is more dangerous than your average garden variety conservative. Joe Six-pack probably doesn’t even rememeber Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution. If you don’t hopefully this will jog your memory:
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.
That clause more commonly known as the 3/5ths clause as a result of the 3/5th Compromise was the framers original intent of how to deal with slavery without mentioning blacks at all in the scheme of framing the governemental workings of the newly formed country. Most will acknowledge that this was really a way to appease the southern colonies who actually wanted their slaves to count as 5/5ths of a person, in order to get more congressional seats in the House of Representatives, but the northern states opposed simply because the votes would be swayed in their favor. So the two came up with the 3/5 compromise as how to apportion representatives, and the slaves were the direct tacit implication of “all other Persons.”
Granted some good liberal revisionists would throw out all this other talk about districting and gerrymandering and the original intent of the framers (I actually had a professor in GRAD SCHOOL of all places look completely shocked that I was able to inform him about the congressional allotment as a primary reason for the 3/5ths clause–he sooooo totally insulted my intelligence even further when after class he asked “Where did you learn that?”), the point still remains that my MALE ancestors were viewed as only 3/5ths of a person and the women, of course, didn’t count.
Thankfully, this 3/5ths clause was superceded by the 14th Amendment in section one that clarifies the understanding of citizenship and then section two which clarifies who gets counted as far as apportionment of congressional seats are concerned–however, excluding Indians who were not taxed (doesn’t it say something about domestic policies from early on). Just as a note, it’s a bit interesting that after the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, it still took another three years until 1868 to get an amendment passed guaranteeing the ful citizenship of the new freed slaves.
So, I really wonder what these originalists, and Oh Gawwwwd, these strict constructionists would say when encountering the 3/5ths clause. I wonder what reductio ad absurdum (yay! I found a new phrase, be on the look out for it in many other blog posts) a Sean Hannity would say in defense of their own opinion, but try and get around not coming off as a complete racist. But then again, imagine what a Pat Buchanan would say–I just shiver at the thought.
For what is worth, these people, those who put together a country, I will admit that they did have it together. I give credit where credit is due. However, these Constitutional framers were NOT the Second Coming! I hold the Bible in the same regard, I think its foolish to impose 1793 thought on that of two century’s later. There were MANY things that the framers did not take into consideration, techonological advances aside, many progession of thoughts and the globalization of the world, I am convinced, were not a part of their worldview.
But again, are we going to trust the original intent of those who allowed for the peculiar instiution of slavery?
Keep it uppity, and keep it radical, JLL