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February 12, 2007

To Secure the Blessings of Liberty

Consider Mark Graber (2006), Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil. At the start of his book, Mark Graber sets out seven propositions:

  1. The original Constitution of 1787 intended that "contested constitutional questions... be settled by the bisectional coalitions."
  2. The framers thus set John C. Calhoun's principle of "concurrent majorities" in the Constitutional bedrock: the framers regarded it as substantively unconstitutional for legislation affecting slavery to be passed by a section-specific majority.
  3. The Republicans of the 1850s, who stuck to the letter of the Constitution, refused to admit that they were undermining its spirit, which was the "original constitutional commitment to bisectionalism."
  4. In Dred Scott, Roger B. Taney replaced failing the political protections of slavery provided by sectional balance in numbers of states and populations per section with legally-enforceable protections acceptable to the "Jacksonians" (who were the people who counted).
  5. In violating the letter of the Constitution, Taney was being faithful to the spirit of the Constitution, and so was preserving it via his little Constitutional Moment.
  6. In criticizing Taney for violating the letter of the Constitution, Lincoln was being unfaithful to the spirit of the Constitution, and so was destroying it.
  7. Dred Scott was rightly decided.

For example, see pp. 4-5, 12-13:

Confident that population was moving southwestward, the persons responsible for the Constitution assumed that representation by population, the electoral college, and the three-fifths clause would ensure Southern control.... [T]he antebellum regime disintegrated when an unexpected northwestward population explosion undermined these power-sharing arrangements....


The framers expected that contested constitutional questions would be settled by the bisectional coalitions they anticipated would be elected.... The framers never considered [that]... the letter of the constitutional rules [might subvert]... the bisectional contitutional purposes underlying those rules.... [The] real debgate [in the 1850s] was whether the original constitutional commitment to bisectionalism should be modified or abandoned.... In Dred Scott the Supreme Court fostered sectional moderation by replacing the original Constitution's failing political protections for slavery with legally enforceable protections acceptable to Jacksonians.... Republicans[']... refusal to acknowledge the constitutional commitment to bisectionalism... [was] a de facto renunciation of the original constitutional understanding that slavery would never be left to the mercy of Northern majorities.... Taney was more faithful to the original Constitution [than Lincoln] when [Taney] championed policies that could be supported by Jacksonians throughout the nation...

But there is an alternative, a more conventional story: that at the original Constitutional Moment slaveholders were betting that their power would increase over time (hence the Constitution was worth ratifying even though it did not include unneeded long-run explicit protections of slavery) and those who wanted to preserve the possibility of future abolition were betting that slaveholders' power would diminish over time (hence the Constitution was worth ratifying as long as it did include dangerous long-run explicit protections of slavery). According to this more conventional story, the abolitionists won their bet and the slaveholders lost theirs. According to this more conventional story, there was nothing in the Constitution that said that slaveholders got a "do over" if they lost their bet. In this story, Roger B. Taney's little Constitutional Moment in Dred Scott was illegitimate: an effective amendment of the Constitution that did not have the overwhelming support that whatever your theory may be of "Constitutional Moments" requires.

This more conventional story seems much stronger to me than Graber's story. At least, I didn't find anything in Graber's book that seemed inconsistent with it. And on p. 101 ff, Graber appears to sound a lot like this alternative, more conventional story--the story not of a bedrock constitutional principle of concurrent majorities but of different expectations about what the future was likely to hold:

The framers thought it "wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men."... Slavery was [thus] protected by political arrangements.... [F]ramers... assumed that population increases would be greatest in the South and Southwest... [and] guarantee to the slave states the control of the House of Representatives and the executive branch necessary to secure slaveholding interests.... [T]he framers self-consciously rejected more explicit textual restraints on federal power over slavery... opposed Roger Sherman's proposal... that "no state shall without its consent be affected in its internal police."... [I]n the bill of RIghts, no slave state's representative demanded a ban on federal laws interfering with slavery....

The confidence with which the most fervent supporters of human bondage believed population was flowing southward explains their willingness to accept a mere twenty-year moratorium on federal laws banning the international slave trade.... Federalists in some Northern states and in Virginia declared that this clause [allowing the Congress to prohibit slave imports in 1808 and thereafter] doomed slavery, which required continuous importation.... Deep South representatives expected their political strength in 1808 would render unnecessary the legal protection for slavery demanded in 1787....

Certainly John C. Calhoun did not believe that the 1787 Constitution enacted his principle of "concurrent majorities." He thought that the principle of concurrent majorities was wise. He believed that it was probably necessary if the United States were to survive. He believed that the framers had made a mistake by not incorporating it--perhaps through a two-person presidency. But he was very clear in his Discourse that he did not believe that it was a bedrock principle of the pre-Civil War Constitution: he believed that the Constitution ought to be amended to enact it.

Mark Graber, in his assertion that Calhoun's concurrent majority principle--"bisectional coalitions" he calls it--was bedrock in the pre-Civil War Constitution has managed to get himself to the right of John C. Calhoun. Whenever any modern academic gets himself to the right of John C. Calhoun, it is time to check your wallet and count the spoons. Nice try.

What was really going on? Those who set up our original Constitution had lots of hopes. To create a fit instrument of government for the advance of human liberty was one. To avoid sectional strife was a second. There were a lot of others. Lots of unexpected things happened between 1787 and 1860 that caused Constitutional history to flow in unforeseen channels. Let me list four:

  1. Many more people than expected voted with their feet for the institutions of the free-soil North than of the slave-soil South.
  2. The coming of the cotton gin and the British industrial revolution greatly raised the value of American slaves and thus greatly increased the attachment of slaveholders to their Peculiar Institution: Thomas Jefferson wanted to emancipate his slaves; Jefferson Davis did not.
  3. The existence of a written Constitution and the structure of the Supreme Court, coupled with the difficulties of formal amendment, created a situation in which by far the easiest way to amend the Constitution is to choose five justices who then have a Constitutional Moment.
  4. Even after the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808, the slave population of the United States continued to increase as births to slave women outnumbered deaths, manumissions, and runaways--something few if any expected beforehand, as history teaches that slave populations do not maintain themselves.

Each of these caused American constitutional history to flow in different channels than the framers of 1787 had expected, and presumably called for some adjustment to bring the Constitution back to its intended order and purposes. So what are the principles to guide that adjustment? Which of these hopes were the bedrock principles that determine the Constitution's intended order and purposes? There is only one paragraph that tells us:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I read this paragraph and see "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" as having pride of place. Abe Lincoln thought so too. Mark Graber and Roger B. Taney have a different view. I'm happy where I am.


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