Why Is Michael Steele Defending Slavery?
Today, President Obama nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Shortly after the announcement, the Republican National Committee issued a memo attacking Kagan for paying tribute to civil rights icon and former Justice Thurgood Marshall.
In a 1993 law review article, Kagan quoted a speech Marshall delivered in which he called the Constitution as originally written "defective." Citing the article, the RNC asked, "Does Kagan Still View Constitution 'As Originally Drafted And Conceived' As 'Defective'?"
RNC Chairman Michael Steele also released a personal statement on the nomination, questioning Kagan's "support for statements suggesting that the Constitution "as originally drafted and conceived, was 'defective.'"
However, Steele failed to acknowledge why Marshall believed the original Constitution was imperfect. According to Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, the chief "defect" of the Constitution was that it allowed slavery. Here is the relevant portion of Marshall's speech:
[T]he government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite "The Constitution," they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.
For a sense of the evolving nature of the Constitution we need look no further than the first three words of the document's preamble: 'We the People." When the Founding Fathers used this phrase in 1787, they did not have in mind the majority of America's citizens. "We the People" included, in the words of the Framers, "the whole Number of free Persons." On a matter so basic as the right to vote, for example, Negro slaves were excluded, although they were counted for representational purposes at threefifths each. Women did not gain the right to vote for over a hundred and thirty years.
These omissions were intentional. The record of the Framers' debates on the slave question is especially clear: The Southern States acceded to the demands of the New England States for giving Congress broad power to regulate commerce, in exchange for the right to continue the slave trade. The economic interests of the regions coalesced: New Englanders engaged in the "carrying trade" would profit from transporting slaves from Africa as well as goods produced in America by slave labor. The perpetuation of slavery ensured the primary source of wealth in the Southern States.
Despite this clear understanding of the role slavery would play in the new republic, use of the words "slaves" and "slavery" was carefully avoided in the original document. Political representation in the lower House of Congress was to be based on the population of "free Persons" in each State, plus threefifths of all "other Persons." Moral principles against slavery, for those who had them, were compromised, with no explanation of the conflicting principles for which the American Revolutionary War had ostensibly been fought: the selfevident truths "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Not that Marshall's view should be remotely controversial, but it's also worth noting that Republicans have made similar statements in the past. For example, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice called slavery "a great birth defect" of the Constitution. Rice's predecessor, Gen. Colin Powell has stated, "It took us a while to recognize that we could not live our Constitution truly unless we eliminated slavery."
Sadly, this isn't the first time during Steele's tenure that the RNC has condemned a Democrat for criticizing slavery. Last May, the RNC attacked President Obama for saying that slavery was the Constitution's "fundamental flaw."