by Richard Beeman, ed., 2012
You may wonder why I’m reading this. How can you not know the D of I and the Constitution? you might ask. Sure, I took AP Government like any good high schooler and I’m bound to have studied these documents then, but that was nearly 20 years ago and I’ll be damned if I remember anything other than who my teacher was and who I used to pass notes to. As Richard Beeman notes in his introduction to this first book in the lovely Penguin Civics Classics series, “There is…[a] large body of evidence suggesting that Americans’ knowledge of their history and of the way in which their institutions have worked over the course of history is embarrassingly meager.” And, really, I’m just trying not to be one of those Americans. I had a conversation with a friend recently where I relayed an ignorant comment I’d heard in regards to The Underground Railroad. The reviewer in question erroneously believed the literal railroad, as depicted in the book, to be true and I wondered how someone could lack that basic understanding of American history. “The question is,” my friend said, “how responsible are we, as people of color, to seek out and educate the ignorant?”
“Is it our responsibility to educate? Or is it their responsibility to seek education?” I countered. “After high school, is not the onus on the individual to educate themselves?”
And that’s why I’m reading this. Filling in my gaps of ignorance. Practicing what I preach. Doing my best not to be just another one of the uneducated masses behind a computer screen. So, let’s just jump straight to what I learned, shall we?
To get the big one out of the way, let’s start with how the Constitution addresses slavery. Spoiler alert: IT DOESN’T. Article I Section 2 speaks on taxes – a huge reason for the country’s split from England – stating that the representatives and direct taxes are to 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 taxes, three fifths of all other Persons.” Here is where we get our notorious three-fifths rule – right in the country’s founding document. Yet it’s done in such a way that it does not specifically mention who these persons are. Remember that George Washington was, theoretically, anti-slavery, though he continued to purchase slaves and failed to abolish the practice during his presidency. We see further evidence of this in Article I Section 9, which states, “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” “Migration,” and “Importation,” of course, meaning the slave trade. So while the founders recognized that slavery would need to be abolished at some point, they firmly cast it as the future US’s problem, to be dealt with no sooner than 1808.
Given the results of this most recent election, I was particularly interested to learn that the electoral college was formed right in the Constitution. Article II Section 1 states that each state is to appoint “a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” Although the manner in which our president is elected has slightly changed – previously the majority winner was named president and the second majority winner named vice president – the presence of the college has not. Says Beeman in his annotation, “the vast majority of delegates feared that the American people were simply too provincial – too ignorant of the merits of possible presidential candidates across a land as vast as that of the thirteen states of which America was then comprised – to make a wise choice.” Yeah, we’ll see how that works throughout the years.
Beeman’s annotations make this edition of these historical documents a worthy purchase. The language used in the documents themselves is expectedly outdated, but Beeman explains each section in simple, modern terms, while also offering insights on how both have affected events and changed over time. He also offers some much needed commentary. For example, he says of the famous second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was in 1776 more an as-yet-unfulfilled promise than a statement of political fact.” The one area where I believe Beeman has misstepped is in his explanation of the Full Faith and Credit Act in Article IV Section 1, which states that the laws of one state must be fully recognized in another. He cites the (wonderfully outdated) example of gay marriage here, saying that if a couple got married in a state where gay marriage was legal, every other state had to recognize it, too. Except, I don’t think that was the case? I may be wrong – I’m not gay and likely did not pay as much attention to the specifics of the laws as those who were affected by it did – but I thought that was part of the problem? That if you got married in New York, Illinois didn’t have to recognize it? And that’s why the Supreme Court had to issue a ruling? Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but nonetheless I felt a little joy at knowing that example is no longer applicable.
I could go on…there’s surprisingly so much that I learned by reading this. I’m not by any means the least knowledgeable about our government’s workings, but there’s a great difference between picking things up here and there in news articles and TV shows and actually reading the source material. Now more than ever we need to having a working knowledge of why our country separated from their oppressors, how our current government was formed, and how everything the forefathers promised was, in many ways, full of hypocrisy. I wholeheartedly recommend picking up this little volume and I look forward to reading the others in the set.