The Redemptive Role of Founding Principles

Among the most interesting topics discussed in Jack Balkin’s Constitutional Redemption is the relevance of the Declaration of Independence. I found his thoughts very helpful for one of my current projects, Representative Self-Government and the Declaration of Independence, on the legal relevance of the Declaration to contemporary civil rights and campaign finance issues.

Many scholars have mistakenly taken the document to be a vestige of the past, but that is not the case with Balkin. He believes that “American constitutionalism is and must be a commitment to the promises of the Declaration makes about our future as a people.” Going even further, Balkin asserts that “the Declaration is our constitution . . . because it . . . constitutes us a people.” This statement has deep implications, but needs further fleshing out, which I have sought to do in my draft.

Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence lacks an enforcement clause: There is no Necessary and Proper Clause for protecting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which the Declaration asserts to be the innate rights of all people. And as Balkin correctly points out, courts typically give no substantive value to the Declaration. Yet the document remains a statement of the national ethos. Social movements–like abolitionists, feminists, and labor organizers–have shown time and again that the statements of rights found in the Declaration’s second paragraph has a significant influence on ordinary people’s understanding of governmental obligations, objectives, and achievements.

With that in mind, I turn to two comments from yesterday’s posts. First, with Mark Graber’s characterization of Lincoln. I agree with him that Lincoln “believed that egalitarian principles had to be balanced with other principles of equal constitutional pedigree” but don’t think that regarding him as a redemptive figure need bedazzle us to his imperfections. While Lincoln certainly was not a Garrisonian abolitionist, neither was he a Stephen Douglas Democrat. He was rather a man whose views on slavery, political and civil equality, and free labor evolved until John Wilkes Booth arrested that development. Their different positions on slavery and free blacks were clear to the audiences of the Lincoln/Douglas debates. Among other things they disagreed about the (in)validity of Dred Scott and the (il)legitimacy of popular governance in the territories. In 1860, presidential campaign literature clearly contrasted Douglas’s placation of slave interests and Lincoln’s opposition to slavery in the territories. Speaking at Cooper Union in February 1860, Lincoln explicitly stated that Republicans “in common with our fathers, who framed the Government under which we live, declare our belief that slavery is wrong.” But, what rightfully troubles us today, is his persistent statements that same year proclaiming the unconstitutionality of interfering with slavery in states where it already existed. That was a commonly held framework of the Republican party, and if he had taken a more radical position it is highly unlikely that he would have won the presidential election. Furthermore, even though his perspective had not yet matured to the point of emancipation and later support for the Thirteenth Amendment, one of the campaign songs of 1860, “Lincoln and Liberty”, included the lyrics: “Our David’s good sling is unerring, The Slaveocrats’ giant he slew, The shout for the Freedom-preferring for Lincoln and Liberty too!”. Thus even then, before South Carolina had even attacked Fort Sumter, Lincoln was conceived by voters as a redemptive figure capable of returning the nation to the unfulfilled promises of the nation’s framing.

There is much to criticize in Lincoln’s position in refusing on constitutional grounds to overtly support repealing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and his support for the Corwin Amendment upon ascending to the presidency. But he also spearheaded the Emancipation Proclamation, which although limited in scope changed the central purpose of the Civil War to liberation of slaves and unification under the principles of the Declaration of Independence; a time of redemption, if you will or, in the words of Charles L. Black, “a new birth of freedom.” But Lincoln was too complex a character to describe him merely as a pragmatist, which can be said about most politicians, without adding that he was an authentic idealist as well. Lincoln was certainly a man who believed that America’s founding documents had a redemptive quality, often referring to the Declaration of Independence as a substantive guarantee of human equality.

     On a separate point, yesterday Gerard Magliocca asked the important question of how we can identify whether a framework of redemption is legitimate. He points out that the South conceived of constitutional redemption to be a return to the antebellum acceptance of racial supremacy. The question is how do we know that we have reached the finality of redemption; the end point of our effort to achieve fundamental justice. While I suppose that it is an ongoing process, with no end in sight, I believe that the founding documents offer us a response here as well.

Core standards that can play a redemptive role are stated in neutral terms: The Declaration of Independence spoke in terms of “unalienable rights” that all men–a term that feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone understood to mean “all people”–were created equal. The preamble speaks of “We the People of the United States” forming “a more perfect Union” for the sake of improving “the general Welfare.” The Ninth Amendment uses the neutral term of rights “retained by the people.” The Fourteenth Amendment’s statement about “the privileges or immunities of” all citizens, or the entitlement of all people to enjoy life, liberty and property without arbitrary state interference. There is no racialist supremacy in these words.

All of these provisions are in need of parsing, none is self-evident in meaning, but I think that none can be reasonably understood to reflect a herrenvolk democracy in a way that, say, the Confederate Constitution did. The existence of herrenvolk democracy in U.S. history–take Jacksonian America as an example–need not reflect negatively of the founding standards to which Balkin refers. As principled statements of national aspiration, to which I interpret Balkin’s redemptive constitutionalism to refer, these principles of representative democracy refer to all the people of the United States (E Pluribus Unum) not only a subset of them. The endpoint, therefore, appears through cultural refinement of our understanding of first principles, and, where necessary, the amendment of them to better protect the people’s fundamental rights.

You may also like...