Constitutional Redemption

Jack M. Balkin’s profound book, Constitutional Redemption, develops an aspirational interpretation of the Constitution. The presentation is not nostalgic; rather, Balkin provides a hopeful picture of an evolving form of constitutional interpretation. His methodology requires the reexamination of existing social morality and political forms but not an abandonment of the Constitution’s commitments to standards and principles of justice.

Balkin’s narrative of redemption speaks of unfulfilled promises made at the nation’s founding. These promises, he argues, should guide reform. Improvement, amendment, and advancement are not merely results of blind flux, but concerted efforts to achieve the “promise[s] of the past.” He neither seeks nor engages in constitutional idolatry, but a belief that the ideals of liberty and equality imbedded into the document can mold public opinion against injustices that violate them.

Such a grand vision is based on faith that the Constitution’s flexible framework will be instrumental to the achievement of social justice. Balkin’s perspective is positioned with the leanings of scholars like Mark Tushnet, , Sanford Levinson, William Eskridge, and Larry Kramer, who regard social and political movements to be important actors for “shifting the boundaries” of what are considered to be reasonable and plausible alternatives to existing inequalities. According to Balkin’s perspective, the effect of civil rights groups on our understanding of the Constitution is reflected in cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Reed v. Reed, and Lawrence v. Texas. These decisions, indeed, bear witness to the ability of litigation groups–like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Women’s Rights Project, and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund–to integrate visionary popular activism into a constitutional framework compelling enough to alter Supreme Court decisionmaking.

I believe that in Balkin’s redemptive vision of constitutional interpretation lies, arguably, the central paradox of American history. The nation was built on the principled foundations of the Declaration of Independence, which recognizes universal inalienable rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but from its inception the United States failed to fully carry those ideals into law. The Declaration too, I argue in a forthcoming book, offers the sort of visionary (or in Balkin’s language redemptive) possibilities that drove Abraham Lincoln’s vision of federal government and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s advocacy of reform.

While the founding document spoke in terms of liberal equality, not quite twelve years after the Declaration was signed (on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth sate to adopt the Constitution) the Constitution’s notorious protections of slavery became binding. That is, the Constitution was not merely a step forward in the establishment of binding institutions pregnant with redemptive possibilities but also a document that compromised some of the ideals of the Revolution. Even the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments did not lead to immediate redemptions of those original ideals. But I believe that Balkin is correct, that the Constitution just as its legal forerunner, the Declaration of Independence, contains the necessary kernels of wisdom that allow for the national and human evolution of understanding about the significance of due process, equal protection, and the pursuit of happiness.

Balkin correctly points out that the many failures to live up to the nation’s ideals do not diminish the value of anti-classist promises the nation made to improve of people’s welfare. His redemptive model helps explain why abolitionists could condemn the nation for its gross failures while clinging to its ideals. The original documents were useful for those who condemned the nation’s existing practices and for those who sought a jubilaic plan for its reform.

A letter published in abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star, mocked the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” The author insisted that the document should be rewritten to say, “All men are created equal; but many are made by their Creator, of baser material, and inferior origin, and are doomed now and forever to the sufferance of certain wrongs–amongst which is Slavery!” To blacks, the writer went on to say, the Fourth of July was “but a mockery and an insult.” To the advocates of slavery, he surmised, “liberty and equality” meant no more than the noises of firecrackers, raised flags, and other raucous festivities. J.D. “The Ever-glorious Fourth”, North Star (Rochester, NY), July 13, 1849.

But there was more to be said about America; it was not merely a composite of its failures but also a set of affective and effective norms. Despite the nation’s failures, the Declaration of Independence committed the country to liberal equality. In this context, an ex-slave’s daughter described her father’s awakening when he heard the Declaration read aloud. From that moment, she wrote, “he resolved that he would be free, and to this early determination, the cause of human freedom is indebted for one of its most effective advocates.” Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter 15-16 (1856). Her father, William Wells Brown, successfully escaped in 1834, later to become a prolific novelist and abolitionist lecturer.

The author of Douglass’s paper reflects the failure to live up to the substance of freedom. But Brown’s experience speaks to the possibility of unfulfilled aspiration to inspire and guide individuals, and perhaps even the nation, to liberal equality. This ability to animate hope even in the course of culturally accepted injustice demonstrates the Constitution’s redemptive quality, providing visionary revitalization of existing institutions and leading to social beneficial revision.

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