Author: Alexander Tsesis


Faith and Redemption

At one notable point of Jack Balkin’s new book, Constitutional Redemption, he integrates Grecian and Judaic traditions. In the Aristotelian tradition of the Poetics, Balkin informs the reader that constitutional theory may be conceived as a tragedy with the American people the tragic heroes because it is their flaws–be they “fear, anger, prejudice, greed, or shortsightedness”–that have led to tragic results like the willingness to tolerate or participate in slavery, gender inequality, or religious intolerance. On the other hand, constitutional failure may also be thought of as a comedy of errors, where the players are ludicrous because they do not recognize their own shortsightedness or the harms of acting on demeaning stereotypes.

The way forward, as Balkin sees it, is through progress; a progress that neither idolizes the past nor dismisses it out of hand. He analogizes constitutional progress to the advancements of Jewish history. Although Jews today, he tells us, do not follow identical practices of their ancestors–for instance, they do not visit the temple in Jerusalem yearly–they have maintained a connection to their tradition through change. The Jewish identity, then is not merely a static construct, but a liquid one that retains the maxims of its forefathers even as it advances with the changes of the Diaspora, the pogroms and the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel. Erich Fromm, in You Shall Be as Gods, makes a similar point: By the time of the prophets the Biblical text had evolved from the Torah’s injunction to settle in the land of milk and honey to the realities of Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.

So too with the tragic comedy of constitutional development. While it remains intact, it’s clauses are often understood by courts, politicians, and the public in very different ways than they were at times of ratification and amendment. Jurisprudential theory that contains identifiable standards but allows for the evolution of interpretation explains why the Original Constitution, which, borrowing language from the prophet Isaiah, William Lloyd Garrison called a “covenant with death” because of its protection of slavery, had so much relevance to the civil rights movements of the contemporary United States. In large part, progress has been achieved by amending the Constitution at the realization of tragic flaws.

Epiphany through tragic error, however, is neither necessary nor preferable–it is possible to imagine the will of the people being exercised for the general welfare without first creating a tragic situation demanding change. But in reality the tragedy typically plays out before social groups emerge around a cause to demand constitutional betterment (through judicial opinions, the formal amendment process, or informal legislative devices) The prophets, in the American drama, are drawn from the people themselves–as were the Jewish prophets–to announce the existence of human rights principles, to identify alternatives to current practices, to dissent and protest unconscionable conduct, and to envision improvement.


Standards of Redemption-Not Hero Worship

Redemption of founding principles, as I read Jack Balkin’s book, Constitutional Redemption, is not nostalgic naivete for some supposed heroic period of American history. Rather it is “fidelity to original semantic meaning” of the constitutional text that Professor Balkin has in mind by “originalism.” Accordingly, the significance of even intensely progressive clauses of the Constitution, like the Equal Protect Clause, is not predicated on their significance to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment–for whom, as Balkin reminds us, women’s rights and anti-miscegenation laws were likely not within its framework–but on the combined assessment of individuals, social groups, politicians, and judges.

Professor Graber, in his post from August 2, 2011 at 19:43 is undoubtedly correct that constitutional storytelling can be manipulated to dress a narrow political point of view in the benighted raiments of antiquity. I nevertheless believe that accuracy in storytelling is important for portraying principles, trends, rulings, and contextual facts about America’s trajectory as a nation and Americans’ trajectory as a people.

Take as an example the question of Abraham Lincoln’s redemptive image, Father Abraham or Honest Abe as some called him. It is woefully true that this great figure he supported colonization into the early period of his presidency before abandoning the plan by January 1, 1863. But an immediatist abolitionist could not have been elected to the presidency in 1860. The general attitude even in the North was for ending the flow of slavery to the western territories but leaving southern states unrestrained in their slave regulations. To take one demonstrative example of the lack of popular support for abolitionism in the North: In December 1860, when Lincoln had already won the presidency, a mob tried to attack radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips after he gave a speech at the Negro Baptist church on Joy Street. Unable to get at its prey, the mob attacked black citizens and smashed house windows in the black section of the city. In such an atmosphere, neither Phillips nor William Lloyd Garrison–much less Susan B. Anthony or Charles Sumner–had a chance in the relatively liberal state of Massachusetts, where Lincoln received 62.9% of the state vote with Stephen Douglas coming a distant second with 20.3%. And if Douglas had won the presidency, there’s no guessing how much longer slavery would have been legal in the United States and how far northwest it might have spread. My point is that just as originalism’s claim to identifying the past through modern lenses is wrong so too is anachronizing contemporary standards to past events. The redemptive value of heros must be judge within the context of their own times.

One of Graber’s important points is that it’s one thing to praise a redemptive figure like Lincoln in general, and it’s easy to get support for such a view, but quite another thing when we begin to question how this moderate liberal would have addressed problems like redistribution or affirmative action: That is to say, the more detail the more nuance, and that’s generally true of history.

To be honest, I do not know for sure how Lincoln would have acted to the issue of affirmative action, although I am sure it would not have been in accordance with contemporary standards. What is certain is that he provided for the security of contraband during the Civil War and at the end of his life spoke about granting black veteran soldiers the right to vote. That was wholly inadequate to deal with all the facets of slavery and racism, but we should judge Lincoln according to his own day and age. The great orator and one time slave, Frederick Douglass, also rejected affirmative action in 1865, when he told the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery society to “Do nothing with us [blacks], for us, or by us as a particular class.” Douglass renounced that position after he saw the Souther recalcitrance with Reconstruction, its Black Codes, and Ku Kluxers. And we might imagine that had Lincoln lived to witness these injustices he too would have realized, just as did Douglass, that without the continued support of federal agencies like the Freedmen’s Bureau, blacks stood no chance at achieving real equality, neither in the South nor the North. It was, after all, Lincoln who signed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act into law.

As for redistribution, it is true that Lincoln did not support such an entitlement. That failure to advance justice on that score, however, should be attributed to Congress rather than Lincoln. Almost no one in the Republican or Democratic parties supported Representatives Thaddeus Stevens’s or George Julian’s land distribution plans. In retrospect, the country committed a grave wrong by preferring reunion to reparations, but Lincoln did not stand alone in such a tendency. Judged according to his own time, I believe Lincoln made positive advances in the direction of racial justice. That does not make him a messianic hero but a flawed one who made very positive strides to redeem the equality message of the Declaration of Independence.

The possibility of constitutional redemption is not anchored in Lincoln–nor other civil rights movers like Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson–but in the principles and standards to which Balkin draws attention. The existence of neutral clauses in America’s founding documents, to which I drew attention earlier, provides the necessary opening for disempowered groups to demand the country to come to terms with its injustices, not on the basis of an abstract philosophy but a written creed. This is why I disagree with Rogers Smith’s ascriptive understanding of American history. While Smith is correct that “successful American political actors have not been pure liberals, democratic republicans, or ascriptive Americanists, but have instead combined politically potent elements of all three views.” I believe that he is mistaken that “American liberal democracy is not the ‘core’ meaning” of United States national purpose.

My reasoning is similar Balkin’s because I think he is correct that among other aspirational provisions to the Constitution, the Preamble “sets a purpose that has never been fully achieved but is our duty to achieve.” Aspirationalism, in Balkin’s sense, is seeing “the possibilities and the resources in the Constitution and in the constitutional tradition” and recognizing “that developing and realizing these possibilities and resources in history is perhaps the Constitution’s most basic command.” But, unlike Balkin, I think that the existence and normative value of these aspirations comes not merely from a social group’s ability to put them “on the table” of politics or into positive law, but the existence of innate human rights (e.g. the right to privacy, travel, and dignity) that the government lacks the power to infringe upon absent a compelling state reason.

The Reconstructed Constitution and the Declaration of Independence contain ideals for equality that a truly ascriptive system, like Nazi Germany, simply does not. There is nothing comparable to the overtly racist Nuremberg Laws in America’s founding documents. What we have, rather, is a country with far too many failures–in matters of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and immigration, to name just those that come to mind–but those failures were violations of the standards, which Balkin sees as essential for redemption, not manifestations of them. The differentiation between reality and ideals allowed workers’ parties, abolitionists, feminists, and disabilities rights groups to have faith in the founding documents even as they condemned the nation for failing to live up to them.

On another point Graber raises in his post about Lincoln’s appointees to the Supreme Court, I want to commend him for bringing Chief Justice Salmon Chase’s service to mind. I think it important to also speak about Justice Noah Swayne as a visionary hero of the original principles.

Lincoln nominated him to the Court in 1862. Swayne did in fact care deeply about the plight of blacks in America. He espoused abolitionism even before the Civil War, at one time he and his wife freed slaves they received by marriage. As an attorney, Swayne had even represented fugitive slaves. His political views were closely tied to anti-slavery sentiments. He had joined the Republican party in response to the 1850 controversy about the Fugitive Slave Law.

It was Swayne who wrote the earliest federal opinion on the Thirteenth Amendment as a designated district court justice. In United States v. Rhodes, he found Congress’s decision to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was in accordance with “the spirit in which the [Thirteenth] amendment is to be interpreted.” Without the Act’s provision granting blacks the same right to testify as any white citizen “simple abolition, would have been a phantom of delusion.” Even more powerfully, his often overlooked dissent to the Slaughterhouse Cases, spoke of the ratification of the Reconstruction Amendment’s as “a new departure, and mark an important epoch in the constitutional history of the country” which were in accord with (or we may say redeemed) “the fundamental principles of the social compact.” After his retirement, Swayne commended Justice Harlan for his dissent in the Civil Rights Cases. “In my judgement,” Swayne wrote “it is one of the great, indeed one of the greatest, opinions of the Court does you infinite honor, is all that could be desired, and will make a profound and lasting impression upon the Country” With this ideology, I think we can fairly say that Swayne was a redemptive hero of Reconstruction.


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.


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.